HL Deb 22 June 1993 vol 547 cc228-31

2.47 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the increasing cost of the National Health Service due to expensive new treatments and equipment they will limit its universal availability and introduce some insurance system to meet the costs of high-tech healthcare.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, no.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that not very helpful reply. Does she accept that there is a continuing problem? Although my suggestions may be completely unacceptable, what are the Government going to do about it? She will realise, as does the whole House, that the finances for the NHS are inadequate.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the NHS has never had so much money. We increase the amount of money available to it year on year. The Government are clear: we stick by our manifesto commitment that need and not ability to pay is, and will remain, the basis upon which care is offered to all by the NHS.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us will thoroughly endorse her excellent negative Answer to this foolish Question?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's support.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on rejecting the policy of the Liberal Democrat Party. Does she agree that universal availability has been one of the fundamental concepts of our NHS which is admired throughout the world? We should at all times be prepared to see that those in this country who suffer from pain, whether they are rich, poor, have money or none, will have the best that our medical services can provide. We shall have no truck with the policy of the Liberal Democrat Party.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, on this occasion I am happy to agree with the noble Lord.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, perhaps I may point out that this is not Liberal Democrat Party policy. However, it is a real question and the Minister knows it. We cannot spend money on all the new developments in medicine and on expensive transplants while at the same time doing all the necessary but duller jobs. I do not agree with the last part of the Question, but does the Minister agree that it is valid and requires an answer?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I recognise what the noble Baroness is saying. It is up to health authorities and GP fund-holders, who are purchasers of the services, to set their priorities in the light of local needs. We are encouraging those in the National Health Service to face up to the issue and to set their priorities rightly and properly in accordance with what they know their population needs.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that an alternative answer to the noble Viscount's Question would be to put more resources into complementary medicine in terms of research and development since this is increasingly showing itself to be both low-tech and effective?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the noble Earl may be aware that the department is planning to fund a project to be carried out by the medical research unit in Sheffield. It will look at the impact of complementary therapies in particular on prescribing patterns, the cost of drugs and hospital referral practices, because we recognise that this is another arm of healthcare which needs to be explored.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, had asked the Question in the form, "Would Her Majesty's Government consider whether it would be better that all of us should be fairly well, or that some of us should be extremely well and others of us should be dead?", her Answer might have been different and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter might have thought it a less foolish Question?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I find that a difficult question to answer at the moment and I shall study Hansard with great care.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, does the Minister really believe that the National Health Service is providing the service that it ought? Does she appreciate the time that it takes even to see a consultant when one is ill and cannot work? I am worried by the fact that she does not accept that something should be done.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am of the firm conviction that the National Health Service is the best in the world. I recognise that the stresses and strains on it are great, but it is a high priority for this Government, as our election manifesto pledges illustrate.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the policy suggestion from the Liberal Democrat Benches is fundamentally flawed, as is the underlying argument; namely, that all hi-tech medicine is more expensive? Is it not right that many hi-tech medicines and facilities in the NHS save money; for instance, ultrasound, modern surgery methods, keyhole surgery and laser surgery?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, my noble friend is right. Another example of the way in which modern pharmacology has been able to reduce costs is in the powerful anti-ulcer drugs, which avoid the need for major stomach surgery and the complications of such surgery. My noble friend is right but, nevertheless, we also place emphasis on new technology. In 1979 only three heart transplants were performed in this country, but in 1991 there were 280. That is an enormous investment in new technology.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords. will the Minister advise me how many million pounds have been set aside for payment to directors of hospital trusts?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I do not have that figure with me but I shall let the noble Lord know in due course.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of her supporters on this side has gone to the National Health Service in his local area because it is better than the private service which is on offer, that he is completely and utterly satisfied with what has happened and that he is reasonably healthy? Perhaps the fact that he is reasonably healthy is not to the pleasure of my noble friend on the Front Bench. Is my noble friend also aware that since 1979 we have considerably increased the number of doctors, nurses and health service workers, and can she say when it will end?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I reinforce my belief that the National Health Service is the best in the world. It is right that people who want private medicine should have the choice to use it. However, the majority of people in this country have confidence in the National Health Service and use it.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept that Members on these Benches endorse entirely her first monosyllabic Answer?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord.