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29 Oct 2002 : Column 672continued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): The north-west public health observatory is taking a lead role in the north-west region and nationally on important policy areas of communicable disease, health protection and drug misuse to provide intelligence to protect the public's health. Its success is reflected in a move from annual funding to a three-year funding programme.
Helen Jones : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What she says about funding is good news, but what steps will she take to ensure that the work of the public health observatory is properly disseminated and that it informs the decisions of primary care and acute trusts, so that decisions on the provision and accessibility of health services are directed at those areas most in need?
Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The north-west public health observatory has a link to the Department on communicable disease and drug misuse, so its information and evidence are fed through the system. There was an excellent example of that recently when the observatory was able to trace the people involved in a significant outbreak of syphilis in the Manchester area, and to carry out tests. As a result of the intelligence that it gained on the ground from that important project, it was able to inform our policies centrally on prevention and tracing.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Is not the Minister aware that the Government have been heavily criticised by their own adviser, Steve Jamieson, who has said that the Prime Minister and the Government delayed introducing the sexual health strategy because they were embarrassed about the high level of sexually transmitted disease? He said:
Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have introduced the first ever sexual health strategy, so we are taking the issue seriously. It is backed by additional funding of #47 million, and an extra #5 million this year for genito-urinary services. I have visited GU services in the past few weeks, and I know the pressure that they are under. They are having to treat many more people, which is why the Government have put their money where their mouth is and have established a strategy, with money to back up the action plan.
Mr. Jack : In welcoming the Secretary of State's promise of a decision, may I remind him that a powerful case for Blackpool to have an additional CT scanner was made with all-party support in February? We were promised criteria for their allocation in the summer, but they did not appear. Now we are told that strategic health authorities were supposed to have made recommendations about the allocation of the scanners to his Department in September. May I press him to be more specific about when he expects that announcement to be made? Can he help Blackpool by telling us whether it is in with a chance?
Mr. Milburn: I see the Blackpool mafia on both sides of the House rising to their feet. The Blackpool Victoria infirmary does a good job and has made an impressive case. Given that there have been gaps in CT scanner capacity, it is right that we match demand with supply. That decision is best made locally, so the strategic health authority in the area is considering a number of possible sites for additional scanners. I cannot say exactly what the decision will be for Blackpool, but its case will be fully taken into account. I hope that I can make final decisions in the next couple of months. We can make these investments precisely because we have raised the resources. We back those resources, but the question for the right hon. Gentleman is whether his party does.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the fact that the Government have ensured that there are more CT scanners throughout the country and that capacity is expanding. Would not we get better value if we could ensure that they were in use for longer hours and that there was a better choice for people who need them? That is important. What can he do to ensure that we get better value?
Mr. Milburn: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must plug the huge, historic gaps in capacity. By the end of this year, we expect that the number of CT scanners will have increased by more than 50 per cent. since 1997, and that the number of magnetic resonance imaging scanners will have increased by almost 100 per cent. That means that 28 per cent. of MRI scanners and 48 per cent. of CT scanners now working in the NHS are new and have been provided since January 2000. Communities up and down the country are benefiting from them, although we need to do more to plug gaps in capacity.
Obviously, the equipment will work only if there are staff to operate it. As my hon. Friend knows, there is an acute shortage of radiologists and radiographers. That is why we are increasing the number of radiographer training places, which was cut in the past. It will take time to achieve what we want to achieve, but I want to record my thanks to radiologists, radiographers and other scanning department staff, who do an outstanding job in what are often difficult circumstances.
Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): Does the Secretary of State believe that CT scanners and other diagnostic measures such as radiotherapy units are vital to the provision of NHS treatment? If so, why are so many being funded through the lottery and local charities?
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), the Minister of State, Department of Health, approved the establishment of the County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust from 1 October 2002. The merger will offer patients greater choice and faster access to specialist treatment at a wider range of hospitals.
Mr. Jones: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the main problems facing the trust is bed blocking at the new North Durham hospital? The solution clearly lies with a number of organisationsthe primary care trusts, Durham county council, the district councils and the trust itself. Will he support an initiative from the county council to get all the stakeholders round the table to come up with such a solution?
Mr. Hutton: I agree with my hon. Friend, and hope that he too will play a positive role in the process. I can tell him that Durham county council, the strategic health authority and the new acute trust are already trying to find a better way of tackling what I accept is a problem in his constituency.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Will the Minister warn the people of Durham that mergers of this sort are usually followed by proposals for mergers or closures of accident and emergency and acute hospitals? The merging of all the trusts in Hertfordshire was followed by proposals to close between half and three quarters of Hertfordshire's accident and emergency hospitals. Will he promise a national study of the alleged results of past mergers of this kind before any more are allowed to proceed?
Mr. Hutton: I think that the right hon. Gentleman is describing what happened under the last Conservative Administration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), the Under-Secretary of State for Health, has said, for the first time for many years, bed numbers in the NHS are increasing. Under the Administration of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a prominent member, the number of beds fell by 60,000. A little more penitence from him might go a long way.
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): At a recent meeting between Durham Members and the county council, the social services department told us that it had not received money promised by the Government for the releasing of beds, and that the money had been retained by the primary care trusts. At Prime Minister's Question Time a while ago, the Prime Minister said that the money would release beds. Will the Minister's Department investigate, and find out exactly what happened to the money and whether it was spent on releasing beds?