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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart): The total projected income of Chorley and South Ribble NHS Trust for 2000-01 is £62 million. The trust is currently forecasting that at the end of the financial year it will be in a balanced position. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the regional office's recent approval for an additional 30-bed medical ward at Chorley and South Ribble district community hospital, which amounts to a £1.6 million capital investment.
Mr. Hoyle: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. We welcome the new medical ward at Chorley, which is more success for the hospital. We could have even more success at Chorley hospital if we could end postcode medicine. Is my hon. Friend aware of the silly anomaly concerning the two health authorities of south and north Lancashire? If someone comes from north Lancashire and is to go to Chorley hospital, there may be an eight-week waiting list. If someone comes from south Lancashire, there is a 33-week waiting list. If we were to merge the health authorities, there would be more money for Chorley hospital. We would also end a bureaucratic anomaly within the hospital.
Ms Stuart: I am aware that in the short term the regional office is promising to support south Lancashire. The long-term solution is a strategic review of the health authority configuration. I know that Members are actively engaged in that. The health authority will have to approve the arrangements. We are proceeding to consultation, and probably towards the end of next year we might be able to reach a conclusion on the best way forward.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): A number of my constituents use Chorley hospital and its neighbour, Royal Preston hospital. I have written to the Minister several times about the case of Mr. Salthouse, who has had three heart attacks. If he is not in hospital, he spends most of his time on a sofa with an oxygen mask. He is receiving
I am awaiting a response from Lord Hunt. I have been told by his office today that it has lost my correspondence, although it is ready to send a reply. Through you, Mr. Speaker, may I ask the Secretary of State to ascertain what is going on, to read the response before it is sent to me and to send a positive response to Mr. Salthouse, who is eagerly awaiting a form of procedure that will alleviate the condition in which he is living?
Ms Stuart: I shall certainly examine the individual case which the hon. Gentleman has raised. I say to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that with this Government the way forward is to expand the facilities of the NHS through tax revenue. There should not be an expansion of the private medical health care sector, where treatment would depend on the ability to pay for it.
Over the past six months, my Department's records indicate receipt of approximately 2,000 written representations and four petitions from Members, patient groups and the public expressing concern about arrangements for prescribing and funding of beta interferon.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the Minister for that answer. He is fond of statistics, but that does no good for the many people in my constituency who plead with me to help them get beta interferon, which they need to try to alleviate their suffering. The Minister has not told the House that the NHS is prescribing beta interferon to less than 3 per cent. of multiple sclerosis sufferers. That is the lowest percentage prescribed by any European Union country. What recommendation has the Minister given to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to ensure that MS sufferers are not deprived of drugs that their counterparts in the EU are receiving?
The question is a serious one. The answer is that we established the National Institute for Clinical Excellence because, with a number of drugs and procedures, there were problems of postcode prescribing and different patterns of treatment, which, in the case of beta interferon, directly reflected the policy, still in place, established by the previous Government. NICE is considering beta interferon. It has not yet produced its advice. The matter is, I believe, at the appeal stage within NICE. As I and other Ministers have said throughout the procedure, we will not comment publicly on NICE's deliberations until it has completed them.
Is my hon. Friend aware that seven organisations, including the MS Society, the Association of British Neurologists and the Royal College of Nursing have appealed against NICE's assessment of beta interferon? Is he aware that no Member on either side of the House who has seen the benefits that that drug can bring to some of our constituents with MS has any doubt about its cost-effectiveness? Therefore, I urge him to consider carefully the decision that he and the Secretary of State must take on the final recommendations that NICE will publish shortly.
Mr. Denham: I acknowledge the considerable efforts that my hon. Friend has made on this topic. I know that he has close links with the MS Society and others. Of course we will consider properly and carefully the recommendations from NICE when we receive them, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, an appeals procedure is under way. Many organisations will have contributed to that appeals process. It is essential for the integrity of NICE that that is allowed to take its course without Ministers' commenting or speculating on what the final outcome might be.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I know that the Minister is aware of the concern on both sides of the House about the beta interferon issue, but does he agree that any decision by NICE to deny beta interferon to patients for whom it is demonstrably clinically effective would bluntly undermine the guarantee that was given by the Secretary of State, who said:
Mr. Denham: On that point--it is important--I have always worked on the assumption that such submissions would be placed in the public domain, so I am happy to give a positive response. For reassurance, however,
Although I, too, hope that NICE will soon report on beta interferon, and that anyone with MS who beta interferon will help will get the drug on the national health service, I believe that beta interferon is not necessarily suitable for all MS sufferers. I wonder whether the Minister shares my concern that a number of MS sufferers are pinning their hopes on getting beta interferon when in their case it may not be the most suitable drug. I am wondering what the Government are doing to ensure that there is an educative process to inform MS sufferers that other regimes may be more suitable, so that they are not always waiting around for a wonder drug which, for them, may not be a wonder drug.
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of beta interferon have not suggested that it works in all cases and circumstances. Beta interferon has never been suggested as a cure for that very distressing condition, so there is a wider set of issues surrounding the appropriate care and support for MS sufferers. Discussions have been taking place between the Department, the MS Society and NICE on the possible preparation of clinical guidelines on wider MS treatment and support.