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House of Commons

Tuesday 26 February 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 5 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

NHS Dentistry (Yeovil)

1. Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): What plans he has to improve access to NHS dentistry in the Yeovil constituency. [34700]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): The Government are committed to improving access to NHS dentistry and are working closely with the profession to ensure that that happens. We have allocated £57 million to be spent on dental access centres and other personal dental services pilots over the current financial year. We will have 49 pilots running dental access centres from over 100 sites by the end of this financial year. Over £1.4 million of this funding has been invested to enable the opening of dental access centres throughout the Taunton and south Somerset area. Last February, a new centre was opened in the centre of Yeovil, and it has already provided NHS treatment to more than 1,200 local patients.

Mr. Laws: Does the Under-Secretary remember the Prime Minister's commitment at the Labour party conference in 1999 that everyone would have access to an NHS dentist by September 2001? Is she aware that none of my constituents has had access to such dentists for the past three years, and that new adult patients have not been able to see NHS dentists? What is she doing to put that right?

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken; his constituents have had access to NHS dentists. They may have had some difficulty with registration, but they certainly have had access to treatment. I understand that the hon. Gentleman personally opened the Yeovil dental access centre. He went there, he saw it and he opened it. The centre is treating 1,200 patients—1,200 people who

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have had access to NHS dentistry. Every week, 10,000 people are ringing up NHS Direct, 99 per cent. of whom are getting access to NHS dentists. Our pledge is being met; people can get access to NHS dentists up and down the country. Under the Conservatives, there was an onslaught on NHS dentistry. This Government are committed to improving access, in Yeovil and in the rest of the country.

Primary Care (South Derbyshire)

2. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): What steps he is taking to secure improved provision of primary health care in south Derbyshire. [34701]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): The Derbyshire Dales and South Derbyshire primary care trust will become operational on 1 April. Already, it is developing proposals to provide for the increasing population in that part of Derbyshire, to increase the number of GPs, to improve and extend practice premises and to increase access to NHS dentistry.

Mr. Todd: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which summarises the improvement in the prospects for primary health care within south Derbyshire. I should like to refer to the difficulties in accessing NHS dentistry within the area—which are now being addressed—and to the extreme pressure on GPs' lists in the area because of the rising population of what is a very attractive and popular place to live. Will my hon. Friend comment on the support that the Government will give to the primary care group and the new primary care trust, when it becomes operational, in any project that it proposes to improve the situation?

Yvette Cooper: The primary care trust locally is trying to increase the capacity of primary care locally, including increasing the number of GPs. I am advised that the rate of increase in GP numbers in southern Derbyshire is faster than the average increase across the country as a whole. Clearly, we need to increase capacity in primary care.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Can the Under-Secretary give any comfort to my 18-year-old constituent from Parwich—which was covered by the South Derbyshire health authority—who was refused beta interferon treatment, but desperately needs that drug? Will the new arrangements give any comfort or hope to her?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman knows that beta interferon has been extensively looked at by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. It is right that we take seriously its recommendations to the NHS across the country.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the Under-Secretary welcome the newly formed group of the mental health charity MIND in Swadlincote, south Derbyshire? Those involved will want to know whether she supports MIND's campaign "My Choice", to be launched tomorrow, which emphasises the need for a real choice of primary care treatments for those with mental health problems. What progress has been made in south Derbyshire in meeting the Government's mental health

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targets? In particular, what progress has been made in employing extra primary care staff to increase breaks for carers, employing new graduate primary care mental health workers and reducing suicide? We believe that in south Derbyshire—as in the rest of the country—the answer is that no progress has been made at all.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, for the first time ever, the Government have developed a national service framework for mental health. We are substantially increasing the capacity of primary care across the country. If the hon. Gentleman wants further increases in the capacity of primary care—including additional mental health workers in primary care, which the Government want and have set out targets to achieve—he has to say where he will get the money from. The Government have said where we will get the money from. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should ask his party's Front-Bench spokesperson whether he agrees with the shadow Chancellor on whether taxes would rise under a Conservative Government to pay for that.

Beta Interferon

3. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): If he will make a statement on the availability of beta interferon to multiple sclerosis sufferers. [34702]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): Following advice from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, we have agreed a scheme with pharmaceutical companies for all multiple sclerosis patients meeting the criteria agreed by the Association of British Neurologists to receive beta interferon and glatiramer on the national health service. The scheme will begin on 6 May 2002. The cost will be about £50 million a year.

Charlotte Atkins: I am extremely grateful for that reply, which will certainly bring much relief to many of my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those patients who currently have to pay privately for beta interferon, as well as those on health authority waiting lists, will benefit from the scheme? Does this mean that postcode prescribing—a legacy from the previous Government—has now gone?

Mr. Hutton: I thank my hon. Friend for her support for the scheme. She is right: it will mark the end of postcode prescribing for beta interferon and glatiramer, and that is a hugely important step forward. I can confirm that, as we announced the details of the scheme to the national health service in a circular on 4 February, patients will be eligible for free prescriptions of beta interferon from that date.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne): Why has it taken more than two years to reach a decision on this issue? If the Secretary of State is able to overrule the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and ignore its advice, what is the point of having NICE?

Mr. Hutton: It is rather sad that the hon. Lady could not welcome our announcement. The drug will now be available to NHS patients. It is true that NICE has been considering issues concerning beta interferon for some

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time, but it was a genuinely difficult decision for it to make. One of the benefits of the agreement is that it will now provide longer-term evidence of the benefits to MS patients of beta interferon and glatiramer—evidence that has not previously been available. It is an important step forward.

If the hon. Lady is bemoaning the fact that the Government have taken two years to get to this point, perhaps she will reflect on how long it took the Conservative Government to make no progress whatever on the issue.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The Government deserve the congratulations of everyone in the House on the decision and on the ground-breaking agreement linking payment for the drugs with their efficacy. I see that my right hon. Friend is smiling. I think that the Government have done a great job here.

Mr. Hutton rose

Hon. Members: Answer.

Mr. Hutton: Well, that's a tricky one. I was smiling because I was expecting a "but" halfway through my hon. Friend's point. I genuinely welcome his support and appreciate everything that he has said. There are some more general lessons to be learned, and I will ensure that I keep him informed of progress on not only this scheme but other relevant matters.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Will the Minister accept that it is not only beta interferon that can help MS sufferers, and that much pain relief is available from acupuncture, as practised at the George Eliot hospital in Warwickshire, for example? Will he also confirm that acupuncture is much cheaper and should be widely available in the health service?

Mr. Hutton: I genuinely do not know whether acupuncture treatment is cheaper, over the course of a year or longer. On the hon. Gentleman's wider point about the availability of complementary medicine, as long as there is a strong evidence base for a treatment, we will consider making it available on the national health service.

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