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24 Jan 2005 : Column 171W—continued

Health/Social Care Staff

Dr. Francis: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what plans there are to assist the least well-qualified staff in health and social care, in particular through the "Skills Escalator". [202762]

Mr. Hutton: We are committed to supporting all national health service staff, including those least-well qualified, to realise their potential; to the benefit of the NHS, their communities, and themselves. The workforce development strategy, the "Skills Escalator", is one way in which NHS employers can do this.

The "Skills Escalator" is about attracting and enabling a wider range of people to work within the NHS and giving those already in the NHS the opportunity to develop and enhance their skills and take on new and more challenging roles. We are continuing to promote the "Skills Escalator" to the NHS through "Skills for Health".
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The NHS Plan (July 2000) pledged major investment to develop staff who do not have professional qualifications. During the three years from April 2003, over £180 million will be invested in support of NHS learning accounts, national vocational qualifications (NVQs), adult literacy, numeracy and language skills (Skills for Life) development. This investment will support learning opportunities for up to 240,000 staff.

Between April 2001 and September 2002 more than 43,000 staff accessed either a NHS learning account or NVQ training—of which over 21,000 undertook NVQ training to levels 2 or 3. Between April 2003 and March 2004 this rose to more than 65,000 staff accessing an NHS learning account and more than 34,000 undertaking NVQ training to levels 2 or 3.

For social care, funding of £15 million is being provided through the Topss England national training strategy grant, with the aim of having an additional 300,000 social care staff qualified to NVQ2 or higher by 2006. Funding is also provided to local councils through the national training strategy grant.

IT Strategy

Dr. Gibson: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what progress has been made in the IT strategy for the NHS. [208360]

David Taylor: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what progress has been made towards achieving an online system of (a) booking GP appointments, (b) health records and (c) prescription processing for NHS patients. [209233]

Mr. Hutton: Key components of the national health service care records service were delivered in July 2004 to support electronic booking of appointments. These included support for secure access using smartcards and user authentication, patient demographic information and the protocols for secure messaging, data storage and retrieval. Alongside these elements of the NHS care record, the application for electronic appointment booking for patients went live in early adopter sites in July 2004. Work is now well advanced to introduce electronic prescriptions during early 2005, with the core application delivered for integration testing by the end of 2004 as planned. The new national network is now on track to deliver, and probably exceed, contracted broadband connections by the end of March 2005. Progress has also been made on other national programme for information technology (NPfIT) services, particularly the roll out of the quality management and analysis system (QMAS) application to support the general medical service contract and the implementation of the new contract with Cable and Wireless to deliver the "Contact" e-mail service.

More detailed information can be found in the most recent (December 2004) edition of the NPflT's newsletter, "Making IT Work", available on the publications page of the NPfIT website at Printed copies have been placed in the Library.

Language Therapists

Dr. Cable: To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many qualified speech and language therapists are employed by the NHS; how many unfilled vacancies
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there are; how many are in training; and what the Government target for speech and language therapists in post is. [209525]

Mr. Hutton: There are no specific targets for speech and language therapists, though we expect that the national speech and language therapist workforce will grow in line with local workforce needs.

As at September 2003, there were 6,243 speech and language therapists employed in the national health service, an increase of 28 per cent. since 1997.

In 2003–04, 630 students entered training to become a speech and language therapist, an increase of 38 per cent. since 1999–2000.

The Department's vacancy survey collects information on the number of vacancies lasting three months or more as at 31 March each year. As at March 2004, there were 193 three month vacancies for speech and language therapists, which represents a rate of 3.8 per cent.

Medicines (Licensing)/Regulation

Mr. Hunter: To ask the Secretary of State for Health (1) if he will take measures to reduce the time between the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency granting a licence to first-in-class medicines and the issuing of guidance by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence; and if he will make a statement; [208181]

(2) if he will instruct primary care trusts to give equal consideration to the routine use of medicines which are not reviewed by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) and those which are to be reviewed by NICE; and if he will make a statement; [208182]

(3) if he will direct the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to issue general guidance for new medicines at the time of their launch, followed by a full review or clinical guidance; and if he will make a statement. [208183]

Ms Rosie Winterton: The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) develops its guidance after careful consideration of the available evidence, and in close consultation with patient groups, professional organisations and the pharmaceutical industry. Where new drugs are referred to NICE for appraisal, it monitors the licensing position closely and schedules the appraisal so that guidance follows as soon as possible after the granting of a licence. Other sources of advice are available in advance of publication of full NICE guidance, including Medicines Resource Centre publications produced by the National Prescribing Centre and funded by NICE.

In August 1999, the Department issued Health Service Circular 1999/176, which asks national health service bodies to continue with local arrangements for the managed introduction of new technologies where guidance from NICE is not available at the time the technology first became available. These arrangements should involve an assessment of the available evidence.

Harry Cohen: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what the outcome has been of the exploration by the
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Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, following its discussions with HM Customs, for the use of effective counter-warnings on foreign websites selling prescription and pharmacy-only medicines direct to the public; what improvements HM Customs have made in recognising and dealing with such packages of medicines; how these improvements are reflected in the number of (a) items being impounded or (b) prosecutions for breaches of the Medicines Act 1971; and if he will make a statement. [208777]

Ms Rosie Winterton: The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) controls the advertising, sale and supply of medicines on the United Kingdom market by regulation and enforcement of these regulations. Websites based overseas do not fall within UK jurisdiction and are therefore outside the MHRA's control. Although the MHRA cannot compel a foreign website to comply with UK domestic legislation, if there is a breach, details of the site will be passed on by the MHRA to overseas enforcement authorities.

The MHRA is currently investigating 43 cases involving sale of medicines via the internet. In addition, 30 sites have been identified as being hosted overseas and are being forwarded to the appropriate national regulatory authorities.

There is no restriction on the importation of medicines for personal consumption, unless they contain substances subject to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Where Her Majesty's Customs and Excise detect importations of medicines and the quantities involved seem inconsistent with amounts for personal use, Customs officials alert the MHRA on the grounds of public interest. Representatives from Customs and MHRA are engaged in on-going discussions about how this process might be strengthened.

Mental Illness (Smoking Cessation)

Tim Loughton: To ask the Secretary of State for Health what assessment he has made of how the proposals on banning smoking in enclosed public places will affect NHS mental health facilities. [203196]

Miss Melanie Johnson: The Health Development Agency will shortly publish guidance for the national health service on the provision of smoke-free buildings to protect staff, patients and others from the health risks of second hand smoke.

In NHS mental health facilities, the hospital is for some patients their main place of residence and therefore their home. We will be consulting on the special arrangements needed for establishments such as these in due course.

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