HL Deb 20 April 2004 vol 660 cc145-8

2.37 p.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they are planning to mark Parkinson's Awareness Week; and what plans they have over the next year to help those suffering from Parkinson's disease and their families, friends and carers who support them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, we welcome Parkinson's Awareness Week. The Government strongly support the Parkinson's Disease Society for the work it is doing in helping patients, particularly in the development of Parkinson's disease nursing posts.

We are developing a national service framework for long-term conditions that will focus on improving services for people with neurological conditions, including Parkinson's disease. The Government are investing an additional £40 million in stem cell research in 2004–06, which offers enormous potential, introducing new treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Will the Government fund the 50 additional specialist nurses in Parkinson's disease to ensure that the 25,000 sufferers currently deprived of such services are so provided? Secondly, will the Government assess and provide the services required for carers, one in four of whom are over the age of 75 and often experience difficult health problems?

Lord Warner

My Lords, there are currently 183 specialist Parkinson's disease nurses in the UK and I pay tribute to the work that the Parkinson's Disease Society has done in helping to produce that number. We take seriously the need to expand the number, but I cannot give a categoric assurance to my noble friend today.

The Government have provided a strong increase in the carer's grant. We are now providing more than 2 million breaks a year for more than 143,000 carers as a result of that grant. My honourable friend Stephen Ladyman will be producing a new carers' performance indicator, which will show how local services are doing.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is not one specialist consultant or nurse in the whole of North Yorkshire for people suffering from Parkinson's disease? Is he also aware that the monitoring and provision of specialised drugs is very important for the condition?

Lord Warner

My Lords, on the latter point. I agree that the monitoring of specialised drugs for this condition is critical. Due to the individual circumstances of each sufferer, it is important that we get the drug regimes right.

I will look into the issue of North Yorkshire and write to the noble Baroness. However, I would reassure her that the number of consultants in neurology who look after patients with this condition has increased by almost 50 per cent since this Government came to office.

Lord Addington

My Lords, although I am pleased to hear about the increase in the number of neurologists, do the Government accept that by international terms it is low? When can we expect to achieve an increase in the number of neurologists who will be able to make an early diagnosis, thus giving the correct drug therapy a chance to slow down the rate of the disease? Has a study been carried out on the cost-effectiveness of that action, which would result in a reduction in the amount of care required and possibly keep people in work longer?

Lord Warner

My Lords, there are now more than 400 consultant neurologists, as compared with 47 per cent fewer in 1997. Although we could do with more, we are on a strong upward trend.

As I said in my Answer, we are producing a national service framework, which will produce a stronger set of proposals around the best way of developing services for people with this condition.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, do the Government support the Bill which has just been debated in the House of Commons and will soon be coming here?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I have to take custody of that question and write to my noble friend.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I welcome the new developments in the care of patients with Parkinson's disease and the increase in the consultant establishment. However, does the Minister agree that the massive developments in treatment which have been introduced into the care of people with this disease during the past few years might have been made much more difficult had it not been possible to examine in detail brain samples many years ago in order to discover the missing chemicals responsible for the symptoms of the condition? That examination might have been made much more difficult if the Human Tissue Bill in its present form had been implemented by Parliament?

Does the Minister also agree that, happily, many new forms of treatment are being introduced as a result of massive research in molecular genetics and in the chemical changes that occur in the brain of someone with Parkinson's disease?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to emphasise the importance of research in this area, and that is why I mentioned it in my Answer. The Government are investing an extra £40 million in stem cell research over a two-year period. I believe that ours is the first country in the world to set up a national stem cell bank, which will help researchers in this area.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what proportion of the stem cell research will be carried out on adult stem cell material and how much on foetal material?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the allocation of that money is in the hands of organisations such as the Medical Research Council. I shall look into the detail and write to the noble Lord.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, is the Minister able to inform the House whether discussions have taken place with the Council of Heads of Medical Schools about the education of medical undergraduates across the UK in neurology, given the importance of accurate diagnosis and the need to differentiate Parkinson's disease from the Parkinsonian symptoms that occur as drug side-effects associated with other diseases?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the noble Baroness has asked me a rather technical question. I shall look into it with my usual assiduousness and reply to her.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, does the Minister feel able to answer the second part of the question asked by my noble friend Lord Walton of Detchant regarding the possible dangers to future research contained in the present Human Tissue Bill?

Lord Warner

My Lords, that was an oversight on my part. I, together with my honourable friend Rosie Winterton, met a large number of interests representing medical research to discuss the Human Tissue Bill. We are considering very carefully their representations and the points that they made, and I am cautiously optimistic about our ability to respond to those concerns.

Earl Howe

My Lords, can the Minister say what progress has been made in informing and advising NHS trusts of the desirability of enabling Parkinson's sufferers to self-medicate while they are in hospital?

Lord Warner

My Lords, a whole area of patient choice relates to our ability to give people more control over their medication, consistent with their condition. We do not have a specific answer to that question, but I shall find out whether more advice has been given on the issue and write to the noble Earl.