HC Deb 09 January 2001 vol 360 cc865-7
6. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

What action he is taking to improve access to primary health care. [142901]

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

The NHS plan sets ambitious targets to improve waiting times in primary care and expand the range of services available locally to patients. In June last year, we made £54.5 million available to kick-start a four-year programme to improve access to family doctors, nurses and other professionals and to extend the range of treatments and services that could be provided in the community.

Mr. Goggins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way to improve access to primary health care is to make better use of existing skills and resources? I draw his attention to a new initiative by the South Manchester primary care trust, which is about to introduce a new primary care triage service in which practice nurses give telephone advice to patients who ring up to request a same-day appointment with their GP. The service will not remove their right to see their GP, but it will mean that they receive professional advice immediately.

Mr. Milburn

I am aware of some of the South Manchester PCT's work following my visit, which my hon. Friend will recall. The PCT has been involved in the walk-in centre at Manchester airport and some sure start initiatives. It is doing good work, which goes to show, first, that, provided investment is made, an expansion in primary care services can be achieved—we can do a lot more in the community and in primary care than we have done hitherto. Secondly, the investment agenda has to run alongside fundamental reforms of the way in which primary care services and health care services as a whole are delivered. In some parts of the country, the first fruits of investment in modernisation are coming through to benefit patients. I very much hope that that is the case in my hon. Friend's constituency and in Manchester as a whole.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Does the Secretary of State accept—I have written to him on the subject— that the availability of complementary and alternative medicine through primary care groups has been reduced since the switch from GP fundholding? Now that the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on complementary medicine has been published and an early-day motion broadly supporting it has been signed by 160 Members of Parliament, should not the Government respond urgently to the report? Can he give a date for that response? What will he do to achieve greater availability of complementary and alternative medicine through primary care groups?

Mr. Milburn

The hon. Gentleman wins the award for consistency at Health questions and for being unrelenting on that issue. I hope that we have responded to at least some of his concerns. As he is no doubt aware, last year, for the first time, we issued detailed guidance to all primary care groups in all parts of the country on the potential uses to which complementary therapies may be put. The report is important and we will respond to it in due course, but the position remains as it always has been: it is for the individual GP to decide what form of treatment—whether a mainstream treatment or a complementary treatment—is best suited to the needs of the individual patient.

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the failure of the complaints system in respect of primary health care services. Will he join me in welcoming the appointment of the new chair and chief executive of the new National Clinical Assessment Authority? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that will provide much better protection for patients and support for doctors? Does he also agree that, if such an authority had been in place earlier, Harold Shipman would have been far less likely to be able to murder so many people over such a long period, particularly in Hyde and in Todmorden in my constituency?

Mr. Milburn

I am aware of my hon. Friend's concerns about matters relating to Todmorden in her constituency and the sterling work that she has been doing to offer whatever help and support she can to some of the families who were affected. It is important that we get the case of Harold Shipman in perspective. Harold Shipman was a cold, calculating, evil killer. He abused his position of trust in an indescribable way, and it beggars belief that he got away with it for so long.

We must now do three things. First, we must offer whatever help, information and support we can to the very many families affected by his actions. Secondly, we must get on with the public inquiry, so that we all learn the lessons of what went wrong. Thirdly, we must take appropriate action to strengthen the bond of trust that exists between our country's excellent family doctor service and patients.

It is important that all hon. Members understand that Harold Shipman was a one-off. We have an excellent family doctor service. Harold Shipman has done enough damage. I am determined—I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House share that determination—to ensure that he does not inflict further lasting damage on the special relationship between family doctors and their patients.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in future, pressure on primary care services will be increased if children who need serious surgery do not get it in a timely fashion? Will he take a personal interest in the case of a 14-year-old constituent of mine, Joshua Bruer, who, with 67 other children, is awaiting spinal surgery at the Royal Manchester children's hospital in Pendlebury? Surgery has been delayed as a result of the collapse of the floor of one of the operating theatres, which was built only two and a half years ago. I have corresponded on the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lord Hunt. The waiting time is now 14 months for such surgery. Children who need spinal surgery need it quickly, otherwise the injury that they have suffered will be compounded as they grow taller and they will have further problems in later life. Will the right hon. Gentleman take a direct personal interest in the problems of spinal surgery for children in Manchester?

Mr. Milburn

Yes, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look into the case.