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Mr. Ivan Henderson: One of my constituents, Mrs. Baxter, who is involved with a support group, has written to me about a similar case. She was a teacher. She has not been able to teach for the past 11 years, but she really tries to work because she loves her job. Her case offers a prime example. Some weeks, she can work for one hour, or possibly two, but she then has no further energy to cope with more work. Such people want to work, but are unable to because of this disease.

Mr. O'Brien: I am sure that the cases mentioned by my hon. Friend and me can be mirrored a hundred times in each of our constituencies. We all know of people who do not want to remain on benefit; they want to return to work, but find it impossible because of their physical and mental condition.

I realise that other Members want to take part in the debate. I wanted only to make those points on behalf of my constituents. We need to record such serious matters in the House and my right hon. Friend the Minister should take them seriously. I put it to her that the time has now come for us to give serious consideration to identifying and accepting ME. More research must be carried out so that we can prevent the disease, but, in the meantime, ME sufferers should not be denied recognition of their illness, or the benefits to which they are entitled. We talk about reducing social exclusion; this is one way in which we could start to do so. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister to go back to her colleagues and consider the serious issues that have been presented to the House today, and to ensure that the people whom we represent receive the fairness and justice to which they are entitled.

11.54 am

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on initiating the debate and on affording us the opportunity

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to discuss this important subject. I also congratulate him and his colleagues on the all-party group on the tremendously good work that they are doing.

I have a slight feeling of deja vu, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth will be aware, I was the founder chairman of the all-party group on ME. I started it when I was a newly elected Member of Parliament in 1987. I want to share with the House the experiences that were brought to my attention. Myalgic encephalomyelitis is not an easy word to say, but at that time I had never heard of myalgic encephalomyelitis at all. I heard some insulting expressions, such as "yuppie flu", but was not too sure what that meant; it seemed to be a rude description that people used for something that they knew nothing about.

In late 1987, there was a message on the answering machine in my constituency office from a constituent who was obviously distressed. I realised that that lady was ill and needed my help, but the tape on the machine ran out during her call and she did not leave her name or her telephone number. I could only hope that she would call back. Ten days later, I received a letter from her; that was when I was introduced to myalgic encephalomyelitis. It is a horror.

I do not want to go over the ground that has been gone over so excellently this morning, but will make some points based on my experience. My constituent was involved with the charity organisation, the ME action campaign--that is how I got to know Clare Francis, who was herself a sufferer from the disease. My hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) will remember that Brynmor John--formerly the Member of Parliament for Pontypridd--suffered from ME. He helped me to prepare one of the two private Member's Bills on ME, which I presented during the early part of my parliamentary career. That is where my feeling of deja vu comes in, because that took place 11 years ago. My ten-minute Bill asked for research into diagnostic tests, because the disease could not be diagnosed and still cannot be diagnosed. It proposed that there should be an epidemiological study--epidemiological is another difficult word which I learned to pronounce.

I shall never forget that, while I was preparing some press releases before the presentation of my Bill--on 23 February 1988--the BBC in Northern Ireland asked me to do a live telephone interview for their morning programme. I was telephoned at my flat, and I explained the purpose of my Bill. The press releases went out and I presented my Bill to the House. A few days later, I received a phone call at the House from a woman in Northern Ireland who had heard my radio interview. She had been in the process of committing suicide because although she knew that she was ill, no one would listen her. She was trying to commit suicide when she heard an interview with a Member of Parliament--someone she had never heard of--who was talking about myalgic encephalomyelitis and what we were trying to do about it. She told me that hearing that interview had given her some hope and had stopped her from committing suicide on that morning.

A tragic aspect that we have not discussed is the high incidence of suicide among ME sufferers. The woman did not leave her name or telephone number, but that experience has stayed with me because, although I was

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delighted that she rescued herself that time, little has been done to help ME sufferers since 1988 and I do not know what has happened to her since.

An estimated 150,000 people suffer from ME, and I suspect that the true incidence is significantly greater. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) was right to mention stress in relation to ME, but the impact of stress more commonly arises from misdiagnosis or from people denying that someone is ill--saying there is nothing wrong. Clare Francis was told, "There is something wrong with your sex life--give yourself a shake, woman, there's nothing wrong with you." Such remarks come from snobbery or ignorance on the part of the medical profession. As has been said, doctors do not like to say that they do not know and, sooner than say that, they will say that there is nothing wrong or that something they do know about is wrong.

Most of the GPs working in the national health service are excellent providers of health care, but there are a few who, if they cannot tell a patient to stop smoking, stop drinking or go on a diet, will send that person to a psychiatrist. That is part of the problem: if doctors cannot understand the illness, they say that it is psychosomatic, with the result that 16 per cent. of the NHS budget is spent on psychosomatic illnesses. That is a fantastic sum of money, and I have to ask how much of that expenditure arises from misdiagnosis or from people being referred to psychiatrists or psychologists because doctors do not understand or do not want to understand their condition.

Having said that, I do not want to be unfair to the medical profession, for, thanks to certain doctors, an increasing number of GPs now recognise ME as an illness. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for ME sufferers, but only we in Parliament can bring that light closer. I ask the Minister to tell her advisers, some of whom will be sympathetic and others less so, to press on and to commission proper research and epidemiological studies so as to help ME sufferers. She should invite Treasury Ministers' support by directing their attention to ME and the financial costs relating to misdiagnosis, because they might be able to save money. Let us get proper diagnostic tests and research to help the many sufferers from ME.

Because we lack hard information, there are many opinions as to what causes ME and what its nature is. My lay experience suggests that ME is an environmental illness, and that stress is not a cause but a result of the illness. Those of us who have met people who suffer badly from ME and are disabled by it will know that they often have multiple allergies, but that aspect has not yet been properly explored. I always ask ME sufferers who write to me or come to my surgeries whether they have had any allergy tests; invariably, the answer is no. Some of the doctors who understand the illness direct patients to get allergy tests, but the link should be explored in greater depth.

Some years ago, I heard the immune system and the impact of stress on it described as the pail under the dripping tap. People who are healthy and fit can cope with a little stress in their life, but the impact of stress on someone who is ill can take that person over the edge--the pail overflows. ME sufferers' pails are brimming with their illness and related experiences, but often the thing

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that pushes them over the top is for them to go to a doctor and ask for help, only to be told that there is nothing wrong with them.

We show deference to our doctors--when we send for a doctor in the middle of the night because we are ill, the first thing that we do when he arrives is apologise for being ill and for disturbing him. When a doctor says that there is nothing wrong, but the person concerned knows that there is something wrong, it can cause great problems. If the doctor tells a family that the illness suffered by their son, daughter, wife or husband is all in his or her own mind, however much the family loves that person, they will trust the doctor--the professional--in the belief that he must know what he is talking about. However, the truth is that, all too often, the doctor does not know, and such misdiagnoses cause stresses within the family that add to the burden on the patient of the stress caused by ME.

I ask the Minister to keep an open mind and to listen to what we have said today. This Government, more than any other, have to offer the helping hand to ME sufferers. Let us have proper research, let us go out and look fora proper diagnostic test, let us commission that epidemiological study, and let us give the tens of thousands of sufferers of ME the help that they need.


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