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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Employment and Training

Question agreed to.

6 Feb 2002 : Column 1000

Southend General Hospital

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hill.]

12.12 am

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): My apologies to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), for raising the subject at this late hour, but I think that you know that it is not my fault.

This debate is about the future of the South Essex cancer network and the Southend cancer care centre, and the scope of the treatment and surgery that they provide. I hope to obtain assurances from the Minister that the 1 million patient rule will not be applied indiscriminately, thereby reducing the scope of treatment at the hospital and undermining the centre's success.

The cancer centre deals with patients from a population of about 680,000, which is represented by four MPs. On the basis of comments made at a meeting with the Southend Hospital NHS Trust and consultants on Monday, which was arranged by hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), we are united in our views. I hope that, following my short speech, it will be possible for my hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) to speak; the Minister has kindly agreed, subject to your approval, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so long as she has good time to reply.

The Minister is subjected to many complaints about the health service, as were the previous Government. I hope that she will be reassured to learn that the service provided by the cancer centre is of a very high standard, is greatly appreciated by the community, and is very successful according to published figures. She will know that while other centres in the region do not, according to the Southend consultants, publish figures, Southend tables, compared with those of regions which do publish figures, show that our centre has a high achievement record, both for routine treatments and for involvement in research. What is the problem? Of course, there is no threat to the centre itself, as the Minister confirmed in a written answer, and there is no immediate threat to the treatment of the more common cancers like lung, breast and colorectal, which make up about 50 per cent. of cases. However, other areas of treatment, such as upper gastro-intestinal, head and neck, haematology, urology, and possibly gynaecology, could be subject to transfer to hospitals as far away as Ipswich, Colchester and London.

What is the basis of the 1 million rule, particularly when it is not applied to sparsely populated areas, where 500,000 is accepted? The argument is that the larger centres will be more successful, on the basis of what is called best evidence. If the evidence shows that Southend is already successful by comparison with other centres, would it not be reasonable to leave the service as it is?

The second argument is that for some cancers such as gastric and oesophageal, the operations should be carried out by surgeons with a sufficiently high number of such procedures for a meaningful audit of outcomes, and the guidance quotes a figure of at least 10 per year. In the case of the South Essex cancer network, however, there are approximately 80 such resections every year, which is well above many of the networks with a population of 1 million.

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I hope that the Minister will also consider the impact on the needs of other patients if specialist surgeons are removed to other centres. I could quote many examples, but if we take the case of benign upper gastro-intestinal conditions, and if we remove the two accredited upper GI surgeons from South Essex, a specialty in which there is an acute shortage, how can we be expected to transfer cases to other networks that do not have the capacity to take on extra work?

We have been told that Professor Richards, the national cancer director, has been given the task of reviewing the South Essex situation. I am in no doubt that when he sees the stature and success of the centre, he will wish to help us. The crucial question is whether he has an instruction from the Department to implement the 1 million rule as far as possible.

My hope and that of my colleagues, and the hope of all who work in the hospital, is that the Minister will state clearly and unambiguously this evening that as the centre has achieved success and clinical excellence, the region and the national cancer director will be permitted to recommend that it should be allowed to continue, and thereby to maintain the superb service and safeguard patients from long journeys to other centres.

I know that the Minister continually hears constituency arguments making the case that the situation in one constituency is splendid, but I hope that she will accept that in this case there is a genuine, strong and compelling argument. If something is working well, it is to the benefit of society and all the people in the community if we let well alone.

12.17 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): Communities are invariably fiercely loyal to their hospitals. In that regard, Southend is no exception. For that reason, I was horrified when Southend hospital was given a one-star rating. Under no criterion was that justified. It is well known that local residents have the highest regard for the hard-working staff at Southend hospital and the wonderful service that they offer. In particular, the cancer service is first class. If the Minister cares to consider the outcomes at Southend compared with others, they are well above the average.

Having looked at the cancer plan, I understand why the Government were minded to draw up the plan. I applaud it. Following the meeting which my three colleagues and I had at Southend hospital on Monday, we have a number of genuine concerns, which we ask the Minister to consider. As she knows, although the hospital is situated in the constituency that I represent, it also serves the constituents of my three colleagues. Unfortunately, since anxiety was raised among the general public—it had nothing to do with local Members of Parliament—there has been an outpouring of concern.

I was delighted that the Secretary of State for Health decided to write a personal letter to the editor of the Evening Echo. That was much appreciated. However, the letter raised a number of concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) said, under the auspices of the new cancer taskforce led by Professor Mike Richards, the reference to areas of 1 million inhabitants is particularly worrying.

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Certainly, as far as local residents are concerned, we have a first-class service. The argument that the cancers are minor and that their treatment should take place in other parts of the country would be very distressing to people in an area that is populated by a higher proportion of elderly people than other parts of the country. I ask the Minister to consider that important factor.

As we have a first-class service and that is what the Government want, why change it? Monday's meeting was very productive and educated us on a number of issues. It was not biased at all. It demonstrated that, with a new consultant having been appointed at Southend hospital, some concern has already been expressed about morale generally, because it is argued that if the rarer cancers were taken away from the hospital, there would unfortunately be a knock-on effect.

I say very gently to the Minister that this is a warning shot across the bows. Local people will not just stand idly by and let their service be reduced in any way below the excellent standard that we currently have. I ask her to consider very carefully the pleas that my hon. Friends and I are making.

12.21 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

Castle Point people value very highly the cancer services at Southend hospital. Today, I questioned Professor Richards, the cancer tsar, in the Select Committee on Science and Technology, in an evidence session on cancer care and research. He was very well briefed and knew about the situation in Southend. It will be interesting to read the transcript of that exchange. I made a couple of notes. He said:

I suppose that that is the case to some degree, and certainly for the more common cancers. We are grateful for that undertaking, which was extracted by my hon. Friends the Members for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). However, Professor Richards went on to explain that some patients with less common cancers who need surgery would get better outcomes if they were treated in specialist centres. He quoted much evidence from around the world to illustrate that point. We all know that if we had a child with one of these rare cancers, we would not want them to go to just any hospital, even if it was local. We would want them to go to the very best hospital where they would get the best outcome. We are approaching this matter in a very grown-up manner.

The cancer tsar also said that Southend hospital cancer centre was "excellent". Residents and staff at the hospital are grateful for that acknowledgement, as the hospital really is excellent. He said that he would liaise with the eastern regional office to ensure that we get the best possible solution for local people. That is all we can ask from the Minister. I am delighted to see that she is giving her time tonight to listen to us.

Finally, the Evening Echo, and the two Southend MPs in particular, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), have done a very great community service in drawing attention to the problem and in getting the undertakings that we have so far been given. Castle Point people are indeed indebted to them.

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