HC Deb 01 February 2000 vol 343 cc894-6
6. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

If he will make a statement on treatment waiting times. [106243]

7. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

If he will make a statement on the role of clinical need within his waiting list initiative. [106244]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

As waiting lists fall, waiting times are falling, too. The in-patient waiting list is now 87,000 below the level we inherited. We have made it clear throughout that patients should always be treated according to their clinical priority. Emergencies are always treated immediately and patients who need urgent treatment are given priority.

Mr. Paterson

If so, why was cold surgery cancelled for weeks on end this winter in Shropshire?

Mr. Milburn

The NHS did this winter what it does in normal winters.

Mr. Paterson

indicated dissent.

Mr. Milburn

I would be astonished if the hon. Gentleman could produce a dossier of evidence that showed that in previous winters, when his party was in power, the NHS in Shropshire did not do what it always does, which is to prioritise emergency cases. I would eat my hat even though I am not wearing one.

Mr. Winterton

As I was the Chairman of the Health Committee when it produced the report that the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) mentioned in his question, I hope that the Secretary of State will take my question seriously. Does he accept that grave concern is felt that, in seeking to reduce the in-patient waiting list, clinical priority is—sadly—being ignored in many cases? He gave a forthright response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), but will he assure me and the House that clinical priority will take precedence in all situations, even if that means that, for a time, the in-patient waiting list increases?

Mr. Milburn

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman's views on health. He will know that from the outset we made it clear—by issuing guidance to trusts and to other parts of the NHS—that in tackling the waiting list problems that we inherited, priority should be given to conditions associated with the most severe clinical need. That must be right.

On the issue of rising waiting lists, the NHS has done this winter what it should always do—it has prioritised emergencies. There are always more pressures on the NHS from emergency admissions in the winter months. The hon. Gentleman knows that and I know that, and I know too that when the waiting list figures for December are published they will probably reflect the fact that the NHS did give priority to emergency cases. I hope that he and his party will welcome the figures when they are published.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is not the reality that, with an increasing elderly population and the ability of the NHS to do ever more complex surgery, the demands on health service provision will continue to rise rapidly? The simple fact is that this Government are doing much better at meeting the public's demands than their predecessor did over 18 years.

Mr. Milburn

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's views. He is right to say that demands on the NHS, from changes in the demography and the advent of new treatments and technologies, place additional stresses and pressures on the system. The debate in this country is about what form of health care can best deal with those pressures. The Conservatives' answer is that the future for our health care system should rely on more people being made to go private: we say that that is not the answer because it will not work and it is not fair. We say that the best means to secure health improvement for the majority of our citizens is through a modernised and expanded NHS.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford)

Given that Opposition Front-Bench Members repeatedly describe our spending plans as reckless, can my right hon. Friend give me an idea of how many Tory Members have asked him to reduce expenditure on health?

Mr. Milburn

None. [Laughter.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Dr. Brand.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

The Secretary of State will know that many patients languish in a sort of statistical purgatory while investigations are carried out and decisions to begin treatment are made. Is the right hon. Gentleman collecting information on the number of people who, having been seen by a consultant, are still waiting for a decision about treatment? Does not he consider it unacceptable that the number of patients who seem to be parked in a queue awaiting a decision is not measured at present?

Mr. Milburn

The hon. Gentleman will know, from his political and clinical experience, that the Government are taking steps to tackle that problem. We are investing in one-stop diagnosis and testing, precisely to avoid the difficulty that he describes. In the modern age, at the beginning of a new century, it seems to me that it is not beyond the wit of the national health service to provide faster and more convenient care for patients, so that people going into hospital are not passed from pillar to post. We are striving to ensure that diagnosis, results and, where possible, treatment are dealt with in one day. It will take time to reach that objective, not least because we have to reorganise how services are delivered. We also need to expand the number of staff available to deliver the new services.