HC Deb 28 March 2000 vol 347 cc203-5
2. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

What assessment he has made of the improvements brought about by health action zones. [115149]

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

Our own monitoring of health action zones and independent evaluations both show that the extra resources that we have committed to them are helping them to modernise health services and tackle health inequalities. Today, I am making further funds available for health authorities in health action zone areas, and for authorities in all parts of the country.

A total of £600 million is being allocated today from the extra resources that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced for the NHS in his Budget. The new resources will put local health services on a sound financial footing. They will help in preparing better for winter, in tackling waiting lists and waiting times, and in putting NICE recommendations into action.

I am directing health authorities to pass all the money directly to primary care groups, which in turn will pass it on to NHS trusts and hospitals, so that patients feel the benefit in better, faster front-line services. There will also be a bonus fund of £60 million to reward good performance in achieving local targets.

I am writing today to all hon. Members, including those in health action zone areas, with details of these extra funds.

Mr. Clapham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I especially welcome the new resources that he is to make available to health action zones. The health action zone in South Yorkshire that covers the coalfield areas is running a number of progressive projects that are improving health and reducing health inequalities.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the money going straight to primary care groups, but will he ensure that there is a close working relationship between the PCGs and the health action zones so that, in tandem, they can tackle the priorities identified in the health improvement plan?

Mr. Milburn

I am aware of the work of the health action zone in my hon. Friend's constituency—indeed, I think that I launched it a couple of years ago. I am glad that it is making progress, and that my hon. Friend is closely involved with it.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we want the health action zones, the primary care groups, the NHS trusts, the health authorities and the local authorities to work very closely in tandem. We want there to be one care system in future, rather than the competing care systems that may have existed in the past.

I can further assure my hon. Friend that I have a very clear message for the health service. The Government have provided the extra resources that were being demanded for the national health service. The challenge now, for health services in my hon. Friend's area and elsewhere, is to use that money to good effect, to get it to the front line, and to start to make a difference that patients can see.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I was most interested in that reply from the Secretary of State, but I should be even more interested to hear his response to the findings contained in the report entitled "The Widening Gap". It found that the areas selected for health action zones are vague, and that they are not based on greatest health needs. What is the right hon. Gentleman's response to that?

Mr. Milburn

If the hon. Lady had bothered to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—who I think would be very happy to extend an invitation and where I am sure that she would be extremely welcome—she would understand about health inequalities and the sort of problems that my hon. Friend's constituents face. The Government are determined to achieve two things. First, we aim to improve the health of the population overall, which of course is the right thing to do. Secondly, we aim to improve the health of the worst off at a faster rate—precisely in order to narrow the health inequalities that are a scar on our nation.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). He is very welcome to visit the health action zone in Plymouth, as is the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), who seemed so sceptical about its ability to deliver.

Last Friday, we launched a parents forum in Plymouth. My right hon. Friend earlier mentioned partnership values: does he agree that it is very important to involve parents in the future health of their children?

Mr. Milburn

I welcome the initiative with which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy)—and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson)—are closely involved. I have to keep on the side of the Whips, Madam Speaker, because otherwise I will get into dreadful trouble.

There is an important lesson for the health service in general here. In the future, we want to see much better engagement, not just with parents but with patients. After all, that is what the national health service exists to do—to provide services for patients. In the health action zones, and in other parts of the country, now that the NHS has the resources that it was calling for—the significant increases in funding at historic levels on a sustained basis—we want to see a real engagement, not just nationally but locally, with patients organisations, so that patients receive the services they deserve.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I am sure that the Secretary of State will accept that all the country is a health action zone of one type or another, and that much work has been done to create the health improvement programmes that are the basis of health delivery in a given locality. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the criteria set for the money flowing down into localities, and the bonus payments, will be local criteria, accepted by the Secretary of State as part of his health improvement programme, but that the determination of the flow of money will be made locally rather than at Richmond house?

Mr. Milburn

I should explain to the hon. Gentleman that today I am making available two sources of extra funding for the national health service from the money that the Chancellor announced last Tuesday. First, there is £600 million extra for the NHS to deal with the very real service pressures that the hon. Gentleman, and others, have been banging on about for some time. That money was called for by the NHS Confederation the weekend before the Budget statement. It is to deal with the issues of winter, waiting, and getting back into financial balance. On top of that, a further £60 million is available, but that is dependent on good performance. Frankly, once we provide these extra significant levels of resources—twice the level of real-terms growth that we have seen in the NHS over the past 25 to 30 years—there should no longer be any excuse for poor performance. Patients in every part of the country want excellence, not excuses, and the new fund is designed to incentivise good performance.