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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 December 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

LIFT Programme

1. Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the progress of the NHS local improvement finance trust programme. [202201]

13. Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the progress of the NHS local improvement finance trust programme. [202214]

The Secretary of State for Health (Dr. John Reid): Good progress is being made. The first NHS LIFT building has opened its doors to patients in east London. On 26 November, I announced another nine LIFT projects, taking the total across the country to 51, of which 29 have started construction.

Mr. Hall: Bedford primary care trust and others are pleased with the success of their LIFT application. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in high population growth areas, such as Bedford and Kempston, future capitation allocations will be based on forecast population growth, rather than always having to play catch-up? In that case, will the full rental costs of new facilities delivered by the LIFT be met from the day the facility is opened, which may be some years before the target population is reached?

Dr. Reid: Announcements on the redistribution will be made early in the new year. The announcements have been delayed by some months because we have been waiting for census statistics on which to base them. We will continue to increase the money available to the NHS, 80 per cent. of which will be made available to local PCTs, which will have to allocate that funding.

Linda Perham: I am pleased that a LIFT project is going ahead in Manford way in Hainault. The area is one of the most deprived in my constituency, and my GP practice is located there. Has the Secretary of State assessed the likely impact of those improvements to
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primary care facilities and services on hospital attendances, and in particular on accident and emergency attendances?

Dr. Reid: My hon. Friend's constituency is part of Redbridge and Waltham Forest LIFT scheme, which signed a contract in August this year. The company has already started construction of the new £5 million Manford way health centre, which will have three floors and will bring together not only three GP practices but health visiting and dentistry. It will be of huge benefit and will provide speedier, more convenient access for her constituents. I hope that much more will be done on the primary care level and that that will be reflected in turn in a reduction in demand, waiting lists and waiting times. Both the primary care and secondary care sectors will benefit from the new developments.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I invite the Secretary of State to look favourably on those constituencies, such as Vale of York and others in North Yorkshire, in rural areas that face difficulties in delivering health services and social services because of their sparse populations and rural nature. One PCT and the ambulance service have run up a deficit of £10 million between them. How does he expect that shortfall to be made up?

Dr. Reid: The hon. Lady will be aware that over the past few years the increases in expenditure on the NHS have been far greater than in the past, and that will continue. I do not have the figures for her area, but I will be pleased to write to her. I am absolutely certain that her area will have had at least 6 per cent. real growth per annum over the past few years and that that will continue for the next few years. We understand the huge range of demands, even on the extended services, but the hon. Lady knows that we cannot write off deficits willy-nilly. The right to have extra money comes with the responsibility to run health services efficiently at a local level. We currently give 80 per cent. of the money to the local level, and we expect those involved at all grades of management to address local problems as well as dispensing local income.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): The Atherton LIFT scheme in my constituency will open its doors early in the new year and will be one of the first in the north-west to do so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that development, which is like a cottage hospital for Atherton, has the potential to transform health care? Will he ensure that his Department works with the hospital trust to put services on people's doorsteps, so that people do not have to travel to the acute site?

Dr. Reid: I certainly hope that what my hon. Friend has asked for comes to pass, because he is right. We tend to discuss statistics, buildings and physical and financial increases: some 2,500 GPs' premises have already been refurbished or replaced, and 51 new LIFT schemes—another £1 billion—have been given the go ahead, but the benefits are better measured in terms of human access and convenience for patients. There is no doubt that patients will get a wider range of health and social care under one roof. They will get help in making healthier choices and therefore in fostering prevention
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rather than cure. They will have access to more than just health care; in many areas, housing and welfare are being offered as well. I hope that what my hon. Friend asks for proves to be the outcome; it is certainly our intended outcome.

Hearing Aids

2. Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): if he will make a statement on waiting times for digital hearing aids. [202202]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The modernising hearing aid services programme was developed with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to respond to audiology issues, and so far 250,000 people have received digital hearing aids. Awareness is now so widespread that some people have to wait, but I expect primary care trusts to do all that they can to meet the increased demand.

Mrs. Brooke: I welcome the progress that has been made in the provision of digital hearing aids. However, does the Minister share my concerns about the quality of life of one of my constituents, who was recently told in a letter from Bournemouth primary care trust that it was currently seeing patients who went on the waiting list in July 2003? That prompts the question of how long it took to get on the waiting list. What action will he take to ensure an improved service for my constituents? The current situation is highly inequitable, given the differing lengths of waiting lists around the country.

Dr. Ladyman: I share the hon. Lady's concerns. I point out to her, though, that this is a four-year programme to extend the availability of digital hearing aids across the entire country. As different parts of the country joined the scheme at different stages, some areas are experiencing particular problems; Bournemouth is one such area. That is why we provided central funding for a further 1,200 people to receive digital hearing aids in Bournemouth. The local PCT has provided funding for a further 2,000 people on top of that; it has also decided to join the public-private partnership, which means that audiology services can be made available from the private sector. Those three factors should lead to some dramatic improvements in the Bournemouth area.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Will the Minister consider offering guidance to PCTs to prioritise people with other sensory deprivations such as deaf-blindness, which is a not infrequent development of old age?

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should be doing everything that we can to ensure that people with multiple sensory deprivations get digital hearing aids as quickly as possible. I am sure that her local PCT will have heard her remarks.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Following my questions to the Minister last July, the British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists conducted a survey among hospital trusts and found enormous
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discrepancies in the availability of and waiting times for digital hearing aids, including 130-week waits for fitting at the Chase Farm trust and the Kent and Sussex trust in Tunbridge Wells. What does the Government's promise to roll out digital hearing aids by April 2005 really mean, given that there are such long waiting times now? Around 1.8 million people are still waiting, many of whom are elderly and will find a four-year wait far too long. Why is not the Minister speeding up the use of independent hearing dispensers, who stand ready and willing to help to shift the backlog urgently?

Dr. Ladyman: Of course, there were no waiting lists for digital hearing aids under the previous Government, because they were not available on the NHS under the previous Government: only people who could afford £2,500 to go and buy one in the private sector could have one. This is a four-year programme. By next April, digital hearing aids will be available everywhere in England. As I explained to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), different parts of the country are at different points in the programme, but I expect digital hearing aids to be made available to everybody. Some 250,000 people now have the benefit of digital hearing aids and are able to hear far better than ever before. We are a victim of our own success, because people are coming out of the woodwork to go on the waiting lists. We will meet their needs, unlike the hon. Gentleman and his Government.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Will the Minister ensure that trusts conduct holistic assessments of people waiting for digital hearing aids? He will know of the case that I raised with him concerning the lady with hearing problems who also has severe depression that would be alleviated by getting a better hearing aid fitted. Is it not right that trusts need to take such factors into account in order to provide better help for patients and to ensure better use of NHS resources?

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is right. When people have multi-sensory deprivation or wider health needs that are being exacerbated by their failure to get a digital hearing aid, it is appropriate that we look at their cases individually rather than sticking to rigid procedures, to ensure that they get treated with the proper priority. My hon. Friend should remember that this programme is being managed for us by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People in a unique collaboration between the Government and the voluntary sector. That digital hearing aids are available to anyone at all is due to the fact that this Government decided to invest in them.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Answers to written questions to the Minister suggest that statistics on this programme are not centrally collated, yet the RNID has been collecting statistics on the modernising hearing aid service project. Is this just another example of a waiting list that the Government want to hide? When will the Minister publish the statistics? Will it be after the four years, when the playing field has been levelled?

Dr. Ladyman: We are working in a partnership between the state and the RNID. We do not collect these statistics nationally in a centrally collated list, but the modernising hearing aid service project does collate
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some local information. That information is available to any Member of the House who takes the trouble to talk to their primary care trust. If waiting times are outside the standards being set by the RNID, it is open to any Member to go and talk to their PCT and ask it to place a higher priority on providing digital hearing aid funding for its local area. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome this unique collaboration, and the fact that 250,000 people now have digital hearing aids. That is 250,000 more than would ever have had them under her policies.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Despite the scepticism of both the Opposition parties, does my hon. Friend agree that the roll-out of the digital hearing aid programme has been a massive success for a partnership between the public and voluntary sectors? Although I am sure that he would not wish to see a voluntary sector equivalent of privatisation, does he agree, based on this evidence, that the voluntary sector has a major role to play in future partnerships, not only for local delivery but for the strategic delivery of enhanced and increased services in the NHS?

Dr. Ladyman: As usual, my hon. Friend provides a voice of sanity in a debate too often distorted by the biases of the Opposition parties. This has indeed been a unique collaboration between the voluntary and public sectors. It is something that we can learn from across the board, and I want to see more of these collaborative projects being rolled out in a range of other areas besides audiology.

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