HL Deb 09 March 2005 vol 670 cc729-32

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the recent study which concluded that cancer patients are suffering increased treatment delays, and that 70 per cent of patients have to wait more than the recommended four weeks for radiotherapy.

Lord Warner

My Lords, for breast cancer, more than 97 per cent of women receive treatment within one month from diagnosis to first treatment and two months from urgent referral to first treatment. From the end of 2005, there will be a maximum two-month wait from urgent referral to treatment and a maximum one-month wait from diagnosis to first treatment for all cancers. As a result of improved performance, referrals for radiotherapy have increased rapidly in recent years. We are increasing the numbers of therapy radiographers in post and in training, making better use of existing staff, and making unprecedented investment in new radiotherapy equipment. For example, more than 200 new linear accelerators will have been procured by the end of 2005, an increase in provision by more than 50 per cent under this Government.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, he will be aware that the reports of both the Reform group and the National Audit Office state that there are problems with people getting their radiotherapy. The figures show that, in 2003, 72 per cent of cases were outside the maximum acceptable delay, whereas in 1998 that figure was 32 per cent. Rather than an improvement, that is the opposite. The Minister cited breast cancer, but let us be fair in terms of the sexes. Those suffering prostate cancer feel the most disadvantaged of all cancer patients. They feel that their treatments are improving less and more slowly than any others.

Lord Warner

My Lords, let us have a few detached facts. I think that the noble Baroness referred to the report by the Royal College of Radiologists. It also said: As a result of the National Cancer Plan, substantial new investment in radiotherapy equipment has helped to improve the poor technology base for radiotherapy, which was previously a major problem". I shall turn that from BMJ-ese into the language of the Sun. It means that the opposition did not invest in the NHS for cancer and that this Government have. The work done on cancer now shows that we have the fastest-falling death rates in the world for lung cancer in men and breast cancer in women. Premature deaths from all cancers are down 12.2 per cent since 1996, which represents 33,000 lives saved.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, what are we doing about the shortage of PET scanners?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the Government have introduced a major programme of investment in diagnostic equipment, which is continuing. We have delivered, through central programmes, 86 new MRI scanners, 180 CT scanners and more than 730 items of breast-screening equipment. The Secretary of State recently announced that NHS patients would get speedier access to high-quality diagnostic tests in future, thanks to a £1 billion procurement programme.

Lord Laming

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is difficult to reconcile his optimistic answers with the findings of the report, Cancer care in the NHS, by the Reform group? It suggests that patients are not getting good value for money, that the Cancer Plan is not delivering well, and that equipment is lying unused. If that is so, is there a plan in operation that will remedy those failings?

Lord Warner

My Lords, we have to remember that the increased waiting times for radiotherapy are a direct knock-on effect of the progress made in other areas. That is the professional view given to me. Due to the ageing population and better screening, the number of people diagnosed with cancer early enough to benefit from treatment continues to increase. We have one of the best international records in recent years in preventing premature deaths from cancer.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, given that cancer patients are among those subject to operations being cancelled at short notice, and given the Government's highly publicised reaction to the cancellations of Mrs Dixon's operations, will the Minister undertake to write to all Members of Parliament asking them how many constituency cases like that of Mrs Dixon they have, and to publish the results?

Lord Warner

My Lords, we do not pursue a policy of using human shields to deflect public attention from our absence of any credible policies on healthcare.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, in the Minister's response to the noble Baroness, he referred to times from diagnosis. What is the Government's response to the increased waiting time from the point of referral to the point of diagnosis?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I have already answered the question on that issue and explained where we are changing policy during 2005.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the national shortage of crucial staff, particularly radiographers, has contributed significantly to the disappointing progress of the Cancer Plan? Does he not therefore also agree that a more imaginative use not only of the staff, but of the expensive equipment—working longer hours and weekends, and making the maximum use of equipment and staff—would be a way forward?

Lord Warner

My Lords, therapy radiographer numbers have increased by 18 per cent between 1997 and 2003, which is significant. University training places for therapy radiographers have doubled—an increase of 108 per cent since 1997. Those increases mean that we are now starting to see more staff coming into service. In order to receive the money to purchase the new linear accelerators that I mentioned, trusts have to demonstrate that they have the staff to operate them.

Just for good measure, the number of clinical oncologists has risen from 287 to 358 since 1997—a huge increase. The workforce in this area is expanding, although the Benches opposite find that difficult to accept.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, may I invite my noble friend to have a pint with my ex-RAF friend, Bernard Donovan, who was suffering from chest pains? Eight days after going to see his GP, he had a major heart bypass operation at Morriston Hospital in Swansea and is now recovering well.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be pleased that my noble friend's friend is receiving the good treatment that we have come to expect from the NHS under this Government. But I cannot engage in the party opposite's policy of using individual cases to disguise its own absence of policy.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the noble Lord remember the case of "Jennifer's ear"? Furthermore, does he recollect what the late Iain Macleod said of the late Harold Wilson—that, like a sundial, he only counts the sunny hours?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am often congratulated on my unbridled optimism in this world.

Baroness Wall of New Barnet

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that within statistics there are also individual experiences? I wish to share one with my noble friend and seek his view about the sad news in my family that my brother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer on 10 February and yesterday received radiotherapy treatment for the first time. That is a good news story and I hope that the treatment will be successful from his point of view.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am sure we all hope that my noble friend's brother-in-law recovers as speedily as possible.