HC Deb 08 June 1999 vol 332 cc448-50
3. Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

What plans he has to increase public confidence in cervical screening for women. [84998]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

It is vital that women have confidence in the cervical cancer screening system to identify early signs of abnormalities or to provide reassurance that none are present. The only way to increase such confidence is to provide services that justify it. That is why I announced in December 1997 stringent new quality assurance arrangements to apply to all cancer screening services. This involves setting high standards, outside monitoring of those standards and external accreditation of the laboratories involved.

Laura Moffatt

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the new targets and innovative methods for getting women to accept that screening is the best way to ensure that they maintain their good health. Is he aware that some commentators seek to undermine screening and suggest that it is somehow an invasive and nasty procedure that the medical profession do to women? Does he agree that screening is a partnership between women and health workers and that better methods of increasing take-up of screening will increase the numbers of women who survive—some 1,300 a year currently—and who would not do so without screening?

Mr. Dobson

Certainly I accept the points that my hon. Friend makes. The new arrangements will raise standards, although no screening system can be 100 per cent. accurate. Our present system saves the lives of more than 1,300 women every year, and mortality rates from cervical cancer have fallen year on year. We are drawing up plans for a national publicity campaign to increase public understanding and confidence in the NHS cervical screening programme.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I was interested in the Secretary of State's response to the last question, but many women still die every year from cervical cancer despite the undoubted success of the national screening programme. What interest is his Department showing in the potential of a new technology to assist in the treatment of the disease? A company called Digene has a new product that could screen with an almost 100 per cent. success record according to the trials that have taken place so far. Will the right hon. Gentleman set up a pilot scheme to discover whether the product is as effective as it appears and, therefore, potentially save the lives of the many women who still die from that entirely treatable disease?

Mr. Dobson

My interest in cervical cancer screening did not commence when I became Secretary of State for Health. When I was the shadow health Minister more than a decade ago, I put together the first comprehensive report on screening call and recall schemes, which the then Government could not be bothered to do.

Since then, the system has been put in place. I have been pressing the various organisations involved and talking to the Cancer Research Campaign about new ways in which to carry out screening. It has always seemed to me that a change discernible to the human eye through a microscope must be the result of a chemical change. I understand that that approach is being pursued, although the necessary tests are being carried out largely in the United States.

I hope that that approach is successful. If so, it will improve the accuracy of screening, but it will not make it 100 per cent. accurate.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am sure that the Secretary of State wants this country to have the best cancer screening processes and to succeed in bringing down our cancer death rate, which is far worse than in many parts of Europe. Does he agree that that will require the best processes, technology and education system, and that we have all the necessary staff—nurses, doctors, consultants, and other professionals?

When will the Government announce that their policy for the health service will mirror their general election policy for the education service? Such an announcement would mean that, over this Parliament, the amount of our national wealth, as a proportion of national income, that is spent on our national health would increase. When will we begin to spend on our health service the same amount as most of our European neighbours spend on theirs?

Mr. Dobson

Rather than joining in the vague theorising that Liberal Democrat Members go in for because they will never be within a sniff of being in power, I shall address the point that the hon. Gentleman raises in relation to the amount that is paid to people working in the cervical cancer screening system. We have offered pay increases of between 6 and 26 per cent. to those who train cytoscreeners. To qualified cytoscreeners, we have offered an increase of 11 per cent. That reflects the difficulty of recruitment, the poor levels of pay that they have received in recent years, and the importance of their work, which is very demanding and which, up to now, has been badly paid.