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5. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If he will make a statement on hospital waiting times in the south-west. 
The Minister for Public Health (Yvette Cooper): At the end of January 2001, the number of south-west residents waiting for in-patient treatment in the region was 98,579--a drop of 10,422, or 9.6 per cent., on the position that we inherited in June 1997. As waiting lists have come down, the number of long waits is also falling.
Mr. Heath: I asked about waiting times. Does the Minister accept that the money given to acute hospital trusts under the Budget will often be soaked up by the financial deficits that the trusts have accumulated over recent years? Constituents of mine who need routine operations, such as hip operations, do not want to pay for private treatment, which is what the Conservative party advocates. However, neither do they want to wait for 18 months for the operation, which is the current waiting time at the Royal United hospital in Bath. When are things going to get better?
Yvette Cooper: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the NHS in the south-west is treating more patients than ever, and is carrying out more hip operations than ever. I think that the trust in his area, along with the trust in my area and those right across the country, will strongly welcome the extra money that they have been allocated in the Budget, on top of the boost to their resources that they have had from this Government, who are doubling the real increase that they have had over the past 20 years.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to bring down waiting lists. That is why we have set a target in the NHS plan to bring down waiting times from 18 months to six months by 2005. That requires extra investment, which this Government are putting in and which, frankly, the Opposition could not match.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Will my hon. Friend congratulate staff at Swindon's Princess Margaret hospital who have worked extremely hard to reduce waiting times in ophthalmology and audiology? The dedication of staff teams and the Government's investment in resources have led to massive reductions in audiology and cataract waiting times. Will my hon. Friend assure my constituents that this investment will continue and that we will see further reductions in waiting times, increases in the quality of services and less pressure on our very hard-working NHS staff?
Yvette Cooper: I assure my hon. Friend that the increase in investment in the NHS of more than 6 per cent. in real terms each year will continue for the next few years. I congratulate staff across the NHS who are working to bring down waiting times, often through new innovative programmes, including the cancer collaboratives. It is not simply about extra resources--it is about modernisation as well.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does the Minister understand the deep-seated resentment of the droves of people in the south-west who languish indefinitely on the waiting list to get on the waiting list? Does she recognise that it is unacceptable that in many cases cheap, simple and non-urgent operations are leapfrogging expensive, complicated but urgent operations simply to satisfy the Government's ludicrous waiting list initiative? In answering that question, will she bear it in mind that her response is of the keenest possible interest throughout
Yvette Cooper: I am reluctant to intrude on this private argument. The extra investment in the NHS is about bringing down waiting times across the board. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should consider the fact that his party's policy to cut £340 million from resources for tackling waiting lists would push up waiting times. Patients would have to wait longer, apart, of course, from people needing hip, hernia and cataract operations--they would not have to wait at all, because Conservative party policy would deny them any treatment on the NHS.
6. Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): If he will make a statement on the proposed timetable for establishing the new community hospital in Gravesend. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart): The public consultation on the proposal to develop integrated health and social care facilities on the Gravesend and North Kent hospital site is due to begin this month.
Mr. Pond: I thank my hon. Friend not only for that reply but for the considerable support that she has given to our efforts to rebuild the health service in Dartford and Gravesham and for the extra resources to open the new ward at the Gravesend and North Kent hospital and to keep it open. In addition, there are plans for a community hospital of more than 100 beds with the full range of out-patient services.
Does my hon. Friend understand that after years of neglect of the health service in our area under the previous Government, my constituents are impatient to have the new community hospital in Gravesend? Will she make it clear to everybody involved in the project--and I pay tribute to the primary care trust for its work--that it is essential to stick to the time scale proposed for the community hospital? Will she also make it clear to all concerned that this is a hospital? If it has beds like a hospital, if it has nurses like a hospital and if it has out-patient services like a hospital, it is a hospital, and that is what we should call it.
Ms Stuart: Under the private finance initiative, my hon. Friend's constituents have benefited from a £94 million new hospital. In due course--I share his impatience, and certainly want it to happen on time--they will benefit not only from a new community hospital with about 100 beds and 200 day care places per week, but from extended new community facilities. The hospital is in addition to the new facilities--a new, innovative project with social services. People will benefit from extra investment and see in reality what modernisation means--bringing health and social care together under one roof.
7. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): What measures he has taken to promote a strategy of health care for older people that is based on keeping them in the community. 
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): The Government are committed to promoting older people's independence and ensuring that they are helped to remain in their own homes for as long as possible. The NHS plan announced a range of measures to promote independence and improved quality of care for older people, including additional intermediate care beds and places, extra rapid response teams, additional home care and other support services, improved community equipment services, and carers respite services. In 1999-2000 an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 more older people were being helped to live at home than in 1998-99.
Mr. Clarke: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that for many disabled elderly people the provision of aids and equipment can make the difference between enjoying living in their own homes and being forced into residential care? Does he agree that tackling that approach and ensuring that there is proper funding lie at the heart of modern care in the community?
Mr. Hutton: I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to his work in the House and outside to support people with disabilities. He is right about the importance of community equipment services. That is why in the NHS plan we announced a further £100 million of NHS expenditure in the next three years to support new types of equipment and ensure that they reach older people more quickly. That is the key to improving the independence of older people. By the same token, it is a matter of real regret that the Conservative party has not yet been able to match our commitment to making those investments in community equipment services. The Conservatives have refused to match our spending on social services, which lies at the heart of the new investments that we are making. Until they do so, their promises to older people will be treated with utter and total contempt.
Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Is my hon. Friend aware that the report that, thankfully, he commissioned in Rochdale on the care of older people looks as if it will show that there has not been enough investment in intermediate and intensive home care for the elderly? Will he do everything he can to ensure that the investment is there to help our council to prioritise that much-needed home care, rather than there being an over-average reliance on putting people into residential homes?
Mr. Hutton: I agree with my hon. Friend. Most Members, and most of our constituents, would certainly prefer to be looked after at home whenever possible--it is certainly where I would want to be, and I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member would want that option too. For far too many older people that option has not been available because the necessary health and social care services have not been available. We are putting that right. Nearly £900 million in new investment is going into health and local authorities in the next three years. I repeat
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Whatever the Minister's plans for home care for elderly people, may I urge him not to allow the Nunnery Fields geriatric and stroke hospital to be closed until alternative provision is genuinely available? It is now only a few weeks since 97-year-old Connie Jones died after a two-day wait in a corridor for a proper medical bed. Yet again, over the weekend all three of our accident and emergency units were completely overloaded, leaving many elderly people waiting; one unit was closed to new entrants. Will the Minister ensure that we have enough bed provision for elderly people before that hospital closes?
Mr. Hutton: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not familiar with the facility that he describes--but I will certainly write to him about the issue that he has raised. I am sure that he will be the first to acknowledge that the Government are making significant additional resources available both for the NHS in Kent, and for Kent county council to improve the range of services for older people. I know that it is the common practice of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to bemoan rates of expenditure, but until he can persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to match the expenditure to which we are committed, his words will sound rather hollow.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): I welcome the objective of treating more people in their own homes. However, is the Minister not alarmed that social services budgets throughout the country are expected to finish the financial year more than £200 million overspent? Although he has announced rises in the standard spending assessment for next year, social services directors expect next year to be even tougher. What hope is there that the services the Government talk about can be provided for people in their own homes, if social services departments struggle to meet even their existing commitments out of their existing resources?
Mr. Hutton: I am aware of the concerns to which the hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention--as are most right hon. and hon. Members. However, during the past three years we have provided 12 per cent. real-terms growth in social services spending. More real-terms growth is coming. It is worth comparing like with like: during the previous Parliament, real-terms growth in social services spending was 0.1 per cent. During this Parliament and over the comprehensive spending review period, it will be 3.4 per cent. in real terms.
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends are always saying that we must have more--I am sure that is what he is saying today--but when we look at the small print of the Liberal Democrats' policies on public finances, we realise that that is a complete load of old cobblers. The money does not add up; there is the same one penny on income tax--they recycle it time after time after time.
Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Most Labour Members support the sentiments in the main question. However, when I addressed the Caretalk conference for care home proprietors and managers at Leicestershire county cricket club last Friday, I heard that far too many elderly people, when they are eventually admitted to care, are poorly nourished, lonely, depressed, frail and more ill than they might otherwise have been, because of the failure of home care services. Is the Minister confident that we can improve those services so that it really is worth while to encourage elderly people to stay at home?
Mr. Hutton: If more older people are to be looked after properly at home, there is no doubt at all that we shall have to provide not only more but better quality services to support them in that environment. Last year, through much hard work and sensible use of resources, local authorities were able to provide a significant number of additional care packages to support more older people so that they could remain independent at home for longer. We intend to build on and develop that, but it is important--and fundamental to our plans--that if we are to encourage more older people to stay at home, which is the right thing to do, we provide better and more easily accessible services that are better supported and resourced. That is precisely what we are trying to do.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister knows, however, that from time to time older people have to go into respite care. Is he aware that in my constituency, South Staffordshire health authority now plans to close Hammerwich hospital and to halve the number of beds in the Victoria hospital in Lichfield? Is he further aware that Staffordshire MPs held a meeting with the health authority, and were told that the Government had uplifted prescribing costs by 9 per cent? That is good, except for the fact that the full cost of prescriptions is likely to be 12 per cent.--bad--and that, as a result of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, the Government have made an extra commitment of £500,000 for South Staffordshire health authority--good--except that the result of the cost will be an extra £2 million--bad. We currently suffer a £4.7 million rolling deficit. Come on, let us have adequate funding.
Mr. Hutton: I am probably not the only hon. Member in the House who did not follow the hon. Gentleman's question. Perhaps there is a chance that when I read it in Hansard it might make better sense. The hon. Gentleman ended his question--[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) has asked a question. The Minister must be allowed to reply.
Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. The only point that I understood in the question put by the hon. Gentleman was the request that the Government should spend more on the national health service. No one in the House could regard that as a serious question or a serious proposition. The official Opposition have not even
One of the points that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends refuse to deal with is their plan to spend £500 million more on subsidising private health insurance. Where is that going to come from? The hon. Gentleman should have a conversation about that with the hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench. His party will not match our expenditure on health and social services, so his question is complete nonsense.