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Mrs. Roe: The patients should also be considered in these matters, and their priorities must come first. I must

29 Jun 2000 : Column 1100

tell the hon. Gentleman that my constituents are becoming a little sceptical about the word "modernisation", which the Government seem to use about every policy initiative. From my experience of the past three years, I believe that "modernisation" is being used instead of "destruction", and there is a destructive element to many policies that are being introduced without any new system to replace the old and to improve the service. Modernisation must equal making it better, and not destroying a system just for the sake of gimmick and political correctness.

Let us consider two Government targets; one is in community health and the other is in acute services. Unfortunately, mental health has always been a true Cinderella service, long starved of adequate funding. The Government propose the elimination of suicide by patients who have recently been within the mental health system by 2005. That tragic loss of life is entirely unnecessary now. Surely the Government can imagine the loneliness and despair of those who ultimately take their own lives. They can imagine the emptiness felt by those left behind, and the guilt and failure felt by the clinical staff who failed to provide patients with the support that they needed when they were desperate.

More than 3,500 people commit suicide every year, and a third have had recent contact with NHS mental health services. Little more than a fifth are women. Over the last 20 years, male suicides have risen by nearly 15 per cent. The average age of the victim has fallen. More men are killing themselves and more of those are young. The most common ages for suicide are adolescence and old age--the times when problems of loneliness, financial pressures, break-up of a relationship or loss of a partner, bullying and abuse of alcohol are rife. Mental illness is of high incidence and it is a key risk. A patient suffering from severe depression probably has a one in seven lifetime risk of killing him or herself.

This tragedy is not a problem for next month or next year; it is a huge priority now. Although I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has decided to do something about the problem, I do not think that the Government can luxuriate in the provision of five years to grasp the tragic problem that affects those who were recently mental health patients. It needs to be sorted out now, and those people at risk of suicide and not identified by the health system need to be recognised and incorporated in it now.

Let us consider the Government's position on obstetric complications. Again, they have awarded themselves five years to reduce the incidence of complications in the specialty by 25 per cent. That seems unbelievably casual, particularly given the two high-profile cases concerning senior obstetricians in the last few weeks. There are more than 700,000 live births in the United Kingdom every year--700,000 opportunities for disaster or mismanagement. Yet what is the Government's approach? They have given themselves five years to make a modest reduction in the problem.

There will be more than 50 million obstetric consultations in hospital, surgery and clinic during the next five years in primary and secondary care. Such a relaxed and casual attitude is unacceptable. How many babies will have to die or be damaged before the Government realise the true urgency of the problem? To be pouring money into a health system with the objective of producing a headline about taking a few people off the waiting lists when there is real work to be done urgently

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to save life and reduce morbidity is, frankly, immoral. In any case, the Government priority of cutting waiting lists is a sham, and everyone knows it. They have simply rearranged the distribution of the patients waiting in that queue.

The number of patients at the front of the queue for their operation has declined a bit, but at the other end of the queue, patients in pain and discomfort with, for example, back, shoulder and hip problems are waiting longer and longer for their first visit to the specialist. In the past seven days, it has been reported that not only do those patients have to wait up to 18 months for surgery, but that they have to wait a year or more as well just to be seen by a consultant for the first time. That wait is nearly two years in Medway, well over a year at the Royal London, a year at the Royal Sussex and over six months at Guy's. Demand continues to rise and pressure in the system continues to increase.

I do not have time today to speak about the shambles that the Government have the effrontery to call an IT strategy. We listened intently as the strategy was announced in 1998. There was to be much progress in electronic records, data transfer and communication. The Government were to commit £5 billion and the programme was to have a seven-year roll-out. Yet it is now becoming clear that the IT strategy has collapsed and the likelihood of exciting electronic developments is receding into the distant future. A key priority is in ruins, and I look forward to a ministerial statement on that as a matter of urgency.

Those are the real priorities that the Secretary of State should address. He must not conceal unattractive features simply by applying more make-up. They must be addressed as the key priorities in the NHS. Sham must be replaced with substance so that the real losers in the NHS--the real sufferers from Labour's policies--have the opportunity to get the care that they need at the time that they need it.

3.52 pm

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this stage in the debate. As some hon. Members know, my father suffered a heart attack late on Tuesday, and although he is making progress, I may be called away in the next few hours, so I hope that the House will forgive me if I am unable to stay until the end of the debate.

I begin by paying tribute to all those dedicated people in the NHS who have been involved in my father's care in the past few days. His GP, the ambulance crew and nursing and medical staff at Queen Mary's hospital, Sidcup are a testament to the NHS working at its best to deliver for patients. Unlike Conservative Members, led by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), I want to praise our NHS, not to run it down.

Today is my birthday. [Hon. Members: "Happy birthday."] I am 53--almost exactly a year older than the NHS, so I have grown up and grown older shielded and supported by the availability of and access to public health care. I am proud and fortunate to have been born under the pioneering post-war Labour Government, whose greatest achievement was to realise the dream of so many British people who were denied health provision because they could not afford it. This Labour Government are passionately committed to retaining and supporting the

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NHS, which was set up in the teeth of Tory opposition. We are the party that the British people trust to preserve and improve the people's health service.

Health is the big issue in my constituency. The neglect and divisiveness of the policies of previous Conservative Governments was a large factor in the decision of the electorate of Ilford, North to turn out the Tories three years ago. Labour's priority for the NHS in the past three years, and for the years ahead, is for a first-class, properly funded service. In March, the Budget gave the NHS its biggest ever cash boost. After the Budget, the chairman of the British Medical Association, Dr. Ian Bogle, said:

As a result of the funds made available in the Budget, my health authority, Redbridge and Waltham Forest, secured an extra £6 million. Although it is severely disadvantaged by the current funding formula for health authorities--a matter about which I and my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) continue to make representations to Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Minister well knows--the authority was pleased to receive that much needed extra cash to provide services for local people.

My health authority has also gained in the past three years from £800,000 and £1.1 million allocated respectively to King George and Whipps Cross hospitals to modernise their accident and emergency departments as part of a £15 million investment in London. It scooped further funding from the successful single regeneration budget bid, called the "Health ladder to social inclusion", creating or safeguarding 115 jobs and getting 300 people training or qualifications, 10 new business start-ups, 60 voluntary or community groups supported and 300 capacity-building initiatives to be carried out.

In addition, Redbridge and Waltham Forest health authority has benefited from the Government commitment to prioritising cancer treatment as part of their war against the killer diseases. Last May, I was pleased to join Baroness Hayman, then a Health Minister, when she opened the new breast screening and ultrasound department at Whipps Cross hospital, which also won part of the £93 million new opportunities fund award in September 1999 for replacement X-ray equipment for breast screening. In January, my health authority shared £91,000 of a £1.5 million boost to London health authorities, which funded a cancer referral co-ordinator and administrative support and systems management.

My own involvement in working for improvements in cancer treatment started with co-operation with Age Concern on age discrimination issues, pressing the Government to extend breast cancer screening to women over 65--the group most at risk. I am glad that, in March, the Government announced their commitment to extend that programme if the current pilot studies show that it would be beneficial. More recently, I have worked closely with the UK Breast Cancer Coalition, speaking at seminars and advising on its "advocacy in action" programme, in which volunteers from across the country share campaigning experiences and hear from experts.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) for her involvement and work in the breast cancer campaigns, although I do not agree with anything that she said in her speech. I also pay tribute to several hon. Members who are active in those campaigns.

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I actively support other cancer campaigns, including the work of the Orchid Cancer Appeal, set up by Colin Osborne--a survivor of testicular cancer who lives a few streets away from me in my constituency. I am a member of the all-party group on male cancers, which is ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths).

Another local initiative is the HEAL cancer charity, which covers Hertfordshire, Essex and north and east London, including nine hospitals in the region. It was founded in 1993 by oncologist Dr. Neville Davidson, a Chigwell resident. HEAL is now focusing on raising funds for the Helen Rollason cancer care centre at the North Middlesex hospital. As some hon. Members will remember, Helen was the TV presenter and first woman to anchor "Grandstand", who tragically lost her fight against bowel cancer last August.

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