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2.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate and on his work to raise awareness of this progressive and disabling condition. I commend him also for his work to enable improvements in research and care into Parkinson's disease.

I pay tribute to the Parkinson's Disease Society, which does an immense amount of work across the board to support those suffering from the disease, as well as their families. The House will have become aware of the society's work though the debate on stem cell research, which, according to scientists, has immense potential to provide benefits or cures for Parkinson's disease in particular.

The tireless lobbying of the society brought home to many Members of this House and the other place the real human stories behind the scientific and medical research that we discussed not long ago. The matter was decided on a free vote, but I am glad that the research will go ahead with proper regulations and restrictions, given its

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potential to relieve suffering from a disabling disease. I pay tribute to Mary Baker, who has done a huge amount of work for the society and is due to retire later this year.

Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurological disorder affecting voluntary movements such as walking, talking and writing. The risk of developing it increases with age. It is a tragic fact that more than 120,000 people suffer from Parkinson's disease in the United Kingdom today, and it is common in all parts of the world.

Parkinson's is thought to result from loss of the chemical messenger, dopamine. It is treated mainly with drug therapy, using levadopa. Because no two people experience Parkinson's in exactly the same way, treatment is tailored to meet the needs of individual patients. Drugs are not, however, the only way to treat Parkinson's; management of the condition can also involve nursing, physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. It is vital that those suffering from the disease should receive the right support, diagnosis and treatment.

My hon. Friend referred to the number of neurologists. He is right that the Government are committed to expanding the number of doctors and specialists across the board. I shall certainly take back to my Department the points that he raised about consultant and neurologist numbers. The specialist work force advisory group has been reviewing the numbers of consultants in neurosurgery annually and taking account of the views of the Royal College of Surgeons, postgraduate medical deans, NHS management and internal policy colleagues. Their view is that sufficient higher specialist training places exist for enough candidates to come through.

The first specialist Parkinson's disease nurse was appointed to the NHS in 1989. The nurses' aim has been to work from hospitals and in the community, utilising existing resources and the expertise of health care teams to improve the quality of life for sufferers and their families. The nurses not only co-ordinate the care of people with Parkinson's, but provide a reliable source of information and support to families as well as to those suffering. The Parkinson's Disease Society is keen to standardise the education of nurse specialists. Bursaries are available for nurses who wish to further their skills working with people with Parkinson's disease.

The Department of Health is interested in the development of neurological nursing, of which Parkinson's disease nurses are a successful example. We are keen to develop the concept of the specialist nurses and to break down traditional professional barriers that have existed for a long time. There is huge scope to use specialist nurses to provide better care. I was very interested in my hon. Friend's points.

On 5 February, my Department will host a neurological nursing symposium to take stock of developments in nursing roles and care models that support people. I hope that the subject will be discussed in detail on that occasion, because neurological nurses and the Parkinson's Disease Society will be represented.

The main Government agency for research into the causes of, and treatments for, disease is the Medical Research Council, which receives its funding through the Department of Trade and Industry. It is a long-standing

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and important principle of successive Governments not to prescribe the detail of how individual research councils should distribute resources between competing priorities. That is best decided by researchers and research users. However, the Medical Research Council takes all those factors into account when it makes decisions on research projects, such as those into Parkinson's Disease.

In 1999-2000, the MRC provided more than £3 million for research into movement disorders, including Parkinson's disease. A major research project into the disease is also under way. The MRC has provided Professor Richard Gray with £940,000 to fund a study into the effectiveness of new and old drugs for Parkinson's disease. The Government want improving and successful research into Parkinson's disease, and I hope that progress in stem cell research will provide new opportunities to advance that work and achieve a breakthrough in treatment and support for those with Parkinson's disease.

My hon. Friend mentioned the role played by carers and the importance of caring support for those with Parkinson's disease. There are some 5.7 million carers in Great Britain. The national carers strategy was drawn up to improve carers' access to breaks, respite care, information and support. The carers' special grant, which my hon. Friend mentioned, has already begun to change the way in which local councils think about support for carers. It was launched in 1999 and will run for an extra two years until 2004.

The grant is designed to help local authorities to make a strategic shift towards developing the kind of breaks and respite care and the range and diversity of services required to give carers the flexibility and accessibility that they need. As my hon. Friend said, no individual's experience of the disease is the same as another's, and no treatment regime can be the same. Equally, no pattern of carers' needs can be the same. Services therefore need to be sufficiently diverse and supportive. The Government will continue to support work for carers. We will increase the money put aside to support carers in England, and we expect funding to rise from £50 million this year to £100 million by 2003-04.

My hon. Friend asked about responding to the royal commission, and about nursing care and personal care. We are keen to use the growing resources at our disposal to invest in new health and social care services for older people. The funding will amount to an extra £1.4 billion by 2003-04.

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New intermediate care services, including personal care, will be free at the point of use, and will help many older people to live independently at home for longer. However, the Government's view was that providing universal free personal care, as recommended by the royal commission, would not have improved front-line services. Nor would it have benefited the least well-off, as seven out of 10 people in residential care already have some or all their personal costs paid.

With the resources available to us, we believe that the choices that we have made are correct, and will mean that fewer older people have to go into long-term residential care. The proposals on free nursing care will benefit up to 35,000 people, and save them about £5,000 a year on their care. That will support not only those with Parkinson's disease and their families, but everyone else in need of long-term residential care.

Finally, my hon. Friend talked about improving standards of treatment, referral protocols and early diagnosis. He will be aware that the Government are keen to see new national standards rolling out in every area, and to tackle the postcode lottery and improve standards of care across the board, not only for Parkinson's disease, but for other conditions. He will also be aware that rolling out those national standards and assessments for every condition and every area will take us some time. We are certainly well aware of the importance of neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease. We are considering the subject in great detail and are keen to extend work on national standards and improve treatment and care across the board.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the Government are sympathetic to the needs of patients with Parkinson's disease. A lot of work has already been done, but there is much left to do on research, treatment and care. We believe that over time, our extra investment in the NHS will make a considerable difference to patients suffering from Parkinson's disease, their families and others.

I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend's work in raising awareness of the condition, and in campaigning for improvements in treatment and care. I hope that he will agree that working together, and with the Parkinson's Disease Society, we can continue to bring about improvements for those who suffer from that disease.

Question put and agreed to.

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