HC Deb 13 March 2001 vol 364 cc803-5
3. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

What progress is being made in improving services which will cut the incidence of cancer and improve cancer survival rates. [151950]

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

National health service cancer services are receiving more investment and greater priority than ever before. Waiting times are falling, the number of cancer specialists is rising and I can tell the House today that the NHS has the fastest-improving cancer services in Europe.

Dr. Starkey

I thank my right hon. Friend for the investment that he has so far made in cancer services in Milton Keynes. My constituents welcome the priority that has been given to improving cancer services, but if he had a further half a million pounds to invest in Milton Keynes, would he rather spend it on further improving cancer services or subsidising private health insurance?

Mr. Milburn

For a moment or two, I thought that that question would cost me money, so I approach the answer with trepidation. It is right that we invest in our cancer services. Cancer kills well over 100,000 people a year and we know that many of the deaths could have been prevented had earlier action been taken. Although the focus will inevitably and rightly be on improvements in treatment services to get waiting times down, to ensure that more operations are carried out and to provide more scanners and more equipment, the biggest gains in improving cancer care will come from improved prevention.

That is why the action that my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health and others are taking to improve smoking cessation services, reduce cigarette consumption and ban tobacco advertising is so critical to the future of cancer care in our country. There is a choice: either spend an extra half a billion pounds a year on modernising cancer services, as we are doing, or spend half a billion pounds a year on subsidising those with private health insurance, as the Conservative party proposes.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the Secretary of State consider for a moment prostate cancer? The excellent service that I have received from the national health service at Charing Cross hospital only goes to prove what can be done if such services are carried through properly. How much extension work is being done to provide radiotherapy at more hospitals to deal with the problem of prostate cancer?

Mr. Milburn

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; his comments about improvements in prostate cancer services will provide reassurance to many men. Inevitably, when people read newspaper reports about the state of cancer services, they do not always get the most accurate picture. As he knows fine well, by and large NHS cancer care is of a very high standard. We need to expand the range of services available and, most importantly of all, we need to ensure that those services are timely and of the highest possible standard.

That is why more investment is being made, particularly with the new generation of scanners—magnetic resonance imaging scanners, linear accelerators and computerised tomography scanners. Some investment comes through lottery money and some through mainstream NHS money. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that additional investment is going into research into prostate cancer because treatments are not as good as they should be. However, I hope that, in time, we shall discover new ways to treat a deadly disease that kills far too many men in our country.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

When a patient with suspected cancer visits a GP, often the GP's first question is, "Do you smoke?" That is an important question, but patients are seldom asked where they work or used to work, and in what conditions. The ex-vinatex workers group in my constituency feels that GPs and consultants should ask those questions, so that the position can be checked and action can be taken to ensure that workplaces are safe environments. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Milburn

My hon. Friend makes an important point, although there is a direct correlation between smoking and cancer—and, indeed, between smoking and heart disease. If we succeed in doing what we want to do—improving heart-disease and cancer services, especially on the prevention side, and cutting tobacco consumption—we shall save an awful lot of lives in our country. Finding out where people have worked provides an important clue to the cause of problems, and we are certainly prepared to think about that.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that a key part of the Government's strategy is the pledge in the NHS cancer plan that there will be nearly 1,000 extra non-surgical cancer consultants by 2006. Does he deny that that figure is acknowledged in his own Department to be unachievable, that Ministers at the highest level—including the Prime Minister—were advised at the time that it was unachievable, and that it was included in the cancer plan only on the Prime Minister's specific insistence?

Mr. Milburn

I would be amazed if that were the case, but if the hon. Gentleman hands me his briefing I shall gladly look into it for him.

The figures that we have announced in both the NHS plan and the cancer plan are based on modelling done in the Department. They show that over the next five years we will increase the number of cancer specialists by 25 per cent. We are having to do that precisely because of the failure to invest in cancer services in the past—a shameful failure, in my view.

When the Government came to power, we found that not a single penny piece had been earmarked for improvements in cancer services. That cash is now being earmarked: there will be hundreds of millions of pounds of extra investment in cancer services next year, rising to £570 million in just two or three years' time.

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