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General Practitioners

12. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): If he will make a statement on the measures taken by the Government to reduce shortages of general practitioners. [129959]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): As part of our commitment to increase the number of GPs, a range of measures have been implemented including financial incentives, extended opportunities for flexible working and improved family-friendly working practices. The latest figures show that the total number of GPs working in the NHS has increased by 1,500 in the past three years. In addition, we have met our target of recruiting an extra 550 GP registrars a year ahead of schedule.

Mr. Illsley : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. May I recommend to him a report that has been compiled by Barnsley council on the acute GP shortage there, which is one of the worst in the country? The report draws attention to an ageing population of GPs and list sizes that border on the excessive. It makes several recommendations including a mixture of independent and salaried GPs, golden hellos, retention bursaries, training and recruitment and assistance with administration and premises. Will he work with Barnsley council to try to address the shortage as soon as possible?

Mr. Hutton: Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to that piece of work by Barnsley council, which is a model of the contribution that local authority scrutiny committees may make. He is right in his analysis—the council's view is right, too—that there is a specific problem in Barnsley, which the primary care trusts and the strategic health authority are trying to resolve. The report to which he draws attention points in the right direction. Additional resources have been made available this year to try to improve GP recruitment. We are recruiting more GP registrars—GPs in training—this year in Barnsley than we have been able to do in the past. I think that investment in the local LIFT scheme will help to improve premises and the infrastructure of primary care, which will all help the recruitment and retention efforts that are necessary.

Finally, the new GMS—general medical services—contract will especially address what I am sure that my hon. Friend considers an anomaly in the present funding arrangements: money flows to primary care depending on the number of GPs employed locally. If there is a shortage of GPs in Barnsley and other parts of country, clearly the money does not flow in the way in which he

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and I would like. That will change under the GMS contract and the additional investment will significantly benefit Barnsley primary care trust.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What estimate has the Minister made of the additional number of GPs who will have to be recruited to meet the requirements of the working time directive? If those doctors are not available because there has not been long-term planning, does he expect that the shortage will result in cuts to patient provision or that the directive might not be implemented in some instances?

Mr. Hutton: I do not think that there will be a particular problem with primary care and the working time directive. Obviously, we talk closely with the British Medical Association and the NHS locally to resolve those issues; I do not underestimate the fact that they are serious for the NHS. The principal concern about the working time directive is focused on emergency out-of-hours care, maternity and paediatrics, which is where the bulk of the work is being done. The growth in the GP work force will help to ease the pressure. I am sure that all hon. Members share our desire to ensure that GPs work fewer hours in a more family-friendly environment. That would be good for doctors and, certainly, for NHS patients.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I welcome the work that the Government are doing to train more people and I am sure that it will reap benefits. However, as in Barnsley, there is an acute shortage of GPs in Stoke-on-Trent, North. It is a short-term problem because so many GPs are retiring at the same time. Will my right hon. Friend visit us to discuss specific things that could add to schemes such as the LIFT project and others because we cannot tolerate the present situation?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, I do not underestimate the issues that must be addressed. There is a shortage of GPs and we are actively trying to recruit more, with some success. I hear what she says about Stoke and I am happy to discuss her worries further. However, we should not lose sight of the important fact that more GPs are working in the NHS than at any time in its history.

Contaminated Blood Products

13. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): If he will meet the Haemophilia Society to discuss the proposed financial compensation scheme for those who contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood products. [129960]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson): I am meeting my hon. Friend and the Haemophilia Society on 29 October when the ex-gratia payment scheme announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 29 August will be discussed.

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Mr. Connarty: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I put on record what I said when the Secretary of State announced the scheme—that it was a marvellous step forward and a very compassionate move by this Government after 20 years of campaigning. She will recall that we met her predecessor to present the Haemophilia Society's expert working group's analysis of a proper compensation scheme for the harm that is caused by hepatitis C to people with haemophilia. Can she assure me that the structure of any payments will be based not just on a token payment, but on a logical analysis of the loss that is suffered by people, in order to

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ensure that we do not draw negative comment from the haemophiliac community regarding what should be a very welcome scheme?

Miss Johnson: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the scheme and recognise in return his contribution, along with those of several other hon. Members, to recent campaigns on this front. It is an ex gratia scheme, and we shall work out the details in relation to eligibility, size of awards, payments and so forth. I look forward to a dialogue with my hon. Friend and others on how it should proceed.

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Transport (Concessionary Fares)

12.30 pm

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I beg to move,

The lobby of Parliament by the National Pensioners Convention last week will, I am sure, have focused the minds of hon. Members on many of the issues that are currently of concern to pensioners. I welcome the new measures that have helped pensioners over recent years—the winter fuel allowance, the increase in pensions, the reduction of VAT on domestic heating, TV licence concessions, and so on. However, one issue on which older people consistently place importance is that of the cost, availability and accessibility of public transport and the link between the affordability of such transport and their quality of life. Indeed, that was recognised in a Government publication stating that

The situation in England regarding travel concessions for pensioners and the disabled remains far from satisfactory. The concessions that a person enjoys depend very much on the area in which they live. Unfortunately, England has what amounts to a postcode lottery, with some areas offering free bus and other local travel, some charging a flat rate, some charging a half fare and some applying other arrangements. The Government's approach is to achieve a system of half fares as a minimum throughout England. By contrast, the purpose of the Bill is to achieve the goal of free bus passes throughout England, as is the case in Wales. So far, the devolved territories have a much better record than does England. In addition to the national free bus system in Wales for all pensioners over 60, more generous schemes exist in Scotland and in Northern Ireland than in England. Although it is right that Scotland and Wales can decide such issues for themselves under the devolution settlement, I do not want England to end up as the least enlightened part of the United Kingdom in this respect.

The ultimate aim of my Bill is nationwide free bus travel for pensioners, but it is worded so as to allow the Government to reach that goal by stages. In the first stage, the travel concession authorities would need to provide free bus travel within their areas. The Bill would provide the framework for those authorities to reach agreement with neighbouring authorities on cross-border travel, with the clear aim of extending the scheme

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more widely until universal coverage is achieved. My Bill would allow the Government, working with the relevant authorities, to assume the cost of the scheme gradually—although the overall cost of moving towards full coverage straight away is far from inordinate at some £300 million, according to the calculations of Help the Aged.

The Bill would also, while fully respecting the devolution settlement that the House has approved, enable co-ordination between the national authorities and, indeed, local and regional authorities, if established, to facilitate cross-border arrangements. It is based on concessions being available to pensioners of both sexes at age 60 and would have many benefits additional to those that I described earlier. There would be environmental benefits in encouraging car-owning pensioners to use public transport in preference to private transport, thereby easing congestion and pollution. It would also particularly benefit large numbers of women pensioners who, according to the statistics, are less likely to be car owners and therefore especially dependent on public transport.

In short, I believe that what I am proposing is a sensible yet radical measure that can bring immediate practical benefits. I am grateful for the assistance in introducing these proposals that I have received from Help the Aged, which, this summer, produced an excellent report on the subject entitled "Fair Fares" in which it called for freedom of travel for older people in the UK. I am also pleased to have the support of pensioners in my own area, particularly from the North East Pensioners Association, who feel strongly that sufficient funding for full fare freedom passes in their area should be provided.This Bill has the important aim of improving the quality of life of some of the least well-off people in our society. It aims to tackle the inequality of provision and the patchiness of current transport concessions that characterise the situation at present. For all those reasons, I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Joyce Quin, Valerie Davey, Mr. Jim Cousins, Mr. Chris Smith, Lynne Jones, Angela Eagle, Mr. Win Griffiths, Mrs. Jackie Lawrence, Mr. Ian Davidson, Alan Keen, Mr. Parmjit Dhanda and Vera Baird.

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