§ 9. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)
What progress is being made in reducing the waiting times for cataract operations. 
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)
The Government have launched action on cataracts—a major programme to ensure that all local NHS eye services can match the best in providing a modern and convenient service. It will enable us to build on the substantial progress that we have already made, which has seen the number of cataract operations rise from 157,000 in 1996–97 to more than 200,000 last year. 151 We have also allocated £20 million over two years to modernise and to cut waiting times for cataract surgery. That cash will enable about 50 local centres to streamline cataract treatment, so that patients can make fewer visits to the optician, General Practitioner, and hospital.
§ Mr. Kidney
I am delighted that the Government are planning for the best quality NHS cataract surgery nationally. That is also a feature of the strategic review of South Staffordshire health authority, which last year paid for 1,762 NHS cataract operations. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is right to reassure patients of improving free NHS cataract surgery, not threaten them—as the Conservative party would—with having to take out medical insurance to pay for operations privately?
§ Mr. Hutton
I strongly agree. It is clearly the Government's ambition to improve the quality of NHS services for people who need cataract operations—unlike the Conservative party's, whose intention is to privatise that aspect of the NHS, and whose policy is not popular with the country. I am sure that ours is popular with my hon. Friend's constituents, who have benefited from free operations on the NHS.
§ Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)
A constituent recently wrote to me about his wife, who went blind in both eyes while waiting for a cataract operation, owing to the much longer waiting lists under the present Government. Does the Minister think it preferable to any other alternative that under the Labour Government, old people who are going blind are forced to go private and spend their savings, never having thought that they would need private health insurance? Does the Minister think that is the best system for this country's health care?
§ Mr. Hutton
The hon. Gentleman ought to check his facts. If he will write to me with the details of the particular case he mentioned, I will look into it. This Government reintroduced free eye tests for pensioners—something that the last Conservative Government withdrew. If he is complaining that his constituents have to go private, he might like to take up his concerns with his own Front Benchers. The Conservative party wants to make sure in future that patients who need such operations go private rather than use the NHS.
§ Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)
Does the Minister accept that the problem with all waiting lists—including those for cataract operations—is that the Government's waiting list initiative is distorting clinical priorities? Dr. Peter Wilde, consultant cardiologist at the Bristol Royal infirmary, said this morning that heart patients are dying unnecessarily because they were waiting too long for surgery. Tragically, that is not due to a lack of resources.
Ministers are forcing health authorities to perform minor procedures to shorten waiting lists faster—even if that means sicker patients, such as those of Dr. Wilde, having to wait longer. Is that not an unfair, unethical and immoral way to run a health service? Patient care gets worse so that Minister's press releases can get better.
§ Mr. Hutton
I do not accept any of the hon. Gentleman's points. If he studies the December waiting list figures, he will see conclusive proof that the opposite is the case. We have always made it clear that clinical 152 need alone should determine patient access to the NHS. If he is complaining about the Government's record on cataract operations, he ought to reconcile that with the concerns expressed by his hon. Friends about Conservative policy—which is to take the procedure out of the NHS and force people to go private. That is a completely unacceptable state of affairs.
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
I am clear about the need for the initiative to improve the rate at which cataract operations take place, as there are 22,000 pensioners in my constituency and I hear of sad cases of some disabled pensioners having to wait month after month after month. Deteriorating vision must make their lives much more miserable, not least because of the risk of falling. Can the Minister give us any idea of how long a wait he would think reasonable once the Government have achieved their objectives—and how quickly will we reach that day?
§ Mr. Hutton
The average waiting time for cataract operations is falling. Currently, it is about seven months. Everyone in the House, including my hon. Friend, would want us to make further progress in reducing the waiting times—that is precisely what the initiatives that I have outlined to the House will do—but he, like me, would agree that the best way to ensure equitable access to health care for older people, particularly those who need cataract operations, is to ensure that a first-class national health service is available to meet their needs. That is what the Government are committed to doing, but sadly it is not the policy of the Opposition.