§ 5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
How many people were waiting 13 weeks or more to see a consultant on (a) 31 March 2002 and (b) 31 March 1997. 
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)
On 31 March 1997, there were 247,488 patients waiting 13 weeks or more for a first out-patient appointment. The figures for 31 March 2002 will be published shortly.
§ Mr. Bellingham
I am grateful to the Minister for that somewhat inadequate reply. Can he give me the figures for my local hospital, the Queen Elizabeth hospital in King's Lynn? Will he join me in congratulating all the staff at that hospital on the superb work that they do in serving the local community? They do an excellent job. However, is he aware that there are serious shortages of radiographers and radiologists, which means that people wait far too long for CAT and MRI scans? Serious nursing shortages are also building up, so what guarantees can he give my constituents that the extra money promised for the health service will solve local problems?
§ Mr. Hutton
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to keep the investment coming through to the national health service, but he and his hon. Friends have some explaining to do. They come here and talk about the need for extra investment but, when they are given the opportunity to vote for those resources to go the NHS, they vote against the increase. He should go away and rehearse his lines.
I accept that, overall, patients wait too long for out-patient appointments. That is as true in the hon. Gentleman's hospital as it is in hospitals in my constituency. I am glad to say that after many years of both in-patient and out-patient figures rising, they are now coming down sharply. He will have to wait until later this month for the latest figures, however, and I hope that he will be encouraged by them. It is important that the investment keeps coming through. That is the way to tackle the capacity problems that are a result of 30 years of underinvestment in the NHS. We have a plan for doing that; he is opposed to it.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that there has been a marked improvement in waiting times to see consultants in my region of Yorkshire and Humber? However, as one talks to hospital administrators, it is emerging that one of the side effects of the Coleman recommendations on training and on the continuous training of surgeons is the significant and growing number of surgeons who are suspended. Will my right hon. Friend look into that to see whether it is a national problem, because there is real concern in the Yorkshire region about it?
§ Mr. Hutton
I am not familiar with the problem that my hon. Friend raises. I will certainly look into it, however, and I am sure that he, like me, welcomes the progress on reducing waiting times in Yorkshire.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)
The reason I voted against the tax on jobs was that I did not believe that the 12 money would get through to pay for the nurses, doctors and extra beds that we clearly need at the Royal Berkshire hospital in my area or, for that matter, anywhere else in the country with a similar problem. If the Minister wishes to change my mind, will he promise us that the number of nurses, doctors and extra beds that the Royal Berkshire says it needs will be met immediately from the new money, so that we can clear the waiting list? Does he agree that the waiting list is far too long and that people are waiting too long in pain? Is he not really saying that he has no intention of appointing those nurses and doctors in the foreseeable future?
§ Mr. Hutton
I can only assume that the right hon. Gentleman is being ironic. He asks me to commit investment next year, but he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have just voted against such increases. He has no credibility in making that point in that way. I strongly believe that, in addition to the investment, we need to reform the way in which we organise and deliver health care, and that will be part of our approach. I honestly believe that the right hon. Gentleman needs to go away and think about his position more carefully than he has done since the Budget was published.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that more progress would be made in cutting waiting times if we ensured that consultants who are trained by the NHS and paid full-time by the NHS actually worked full-time for the service? What progress is being made on reforming consultants' contracts to ensure that that happens?
§ Mr. Hutton
I agree that it is right to follow the principle that those who make the greatest commitment to the NHS should get the greatest reward. We published our proposals, as my hon. Friend will be aware, to reform key elements of consultants' contracts in February of last year. Those negotiations are under way. We are making good progress in general and I hope that they will he concluded in the near future.
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
Do the figures that the Minister gave include the hidden waiting lists? Will he confirm the figure in the "Not the waiting list" report in The Sunday Times last weekend—that at least 250,000 people who are waiting for tests to determine the type of surgery or other treatment that they need are excluded from the Government's published figures? Does he think it legitimate for senior NHS executives to warn hospitals against "overstatement of waiting lists" and to order chief executives to keep certain people who are waiting for diagnostic tests off those lists? Given the National Audit Office exposé of hospitals fiddling waiting times last year and now this, why should anyone believe any figures produced by the right hon. Gentleman's Department?
§ Mr. Hutton
The figures are reliable. The hon. Gentleman is doing a disservice to the NHS by claiming anything else. The figures that he relies on to make his point about access to diagnostic testing and so on are collected in the same way as his party collected figures when it left office in 1997. There has been no change whatsoever in the collection of that data. 13 The hon. Gentleman and I may agree on one thing, however: it is important that we increase access to important diagnostic treatments and, in particular, to therapeutic treatments. That is why the NHS cancer plan includes, for the first time, an important commitment to reduce the waiting time for treatment, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to support that.