The difference between the right hon. Gentleman and Labour Members is that the policies on
24 May 2005 : Column 571
which he stood in the election campaign would have required those who wished to take advantage of additional capacity and faster treatment in the private sector to pay half the charges for their operations. That is why that policy would have benefited only a few. Our policies are benefiting everyone within the NHS.
I pay heartfelt tribute to my predecessors as Secretary of State for Healthmy right hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid). I feel enormously privileged to have been appointed to this office. It is an enormous responsibility and my Ministers and I are extremely fortunate in being able to build on the strong foundations that have already been laid.
John Bercow : A moment ago the Secretary of State set out a noble vision of delivering the best services for all that would also be personal to each of their individual recipients. Given that in this country no fewer than 350 children are diagnosed with brain tumours each week, that only 20 per cent. of those children survive five years after that diagnosis, and that brain tumours have now overtaken leukaemia as the biggest single killer of children under 15, can the Secretary of Stateaside from the inevitable party politicssay something about how the Government will improve on a record which, alongside the other provisions for cancer treatment, is not especially to be welcomed?
Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an enormously serious and important point and I hope that there will be many more such interventions during the debate. As I have been in office for only two weeks and two days, I am sure that he would not expect me to give him a detailed response at this stage, but I shall certainly look at what we are doing and at what more we need to do to ensure that those children, and of course their families, receive the support and treatment they need. If I may, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with more details on that subject.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Before my right hon. Friend leaves the question of private care in the health service, will she tell me what is the Government's objective in the provision of private care? Are they expanding the use of private care facilities as a goad to NHS hospitals to improve delivery times, or as a way of ensuring that the NHS is not the only provider, or is it an indication that in the long term private health care will be treated equally with NHS hospitals?
Ms Hewitt: We are bringing more independent providers into the national health serviceI shall say something about education in a few moments. In the NHS, we are commissioning more treatment from private and independent providers to raise capacity in the service so that we can cut waiting times and continue to raise the rate of innovation in the NHS, thus ensuring that patients have more choice and more control over the treatment and care they receive.
Last week, just five years through the 10-year programme of investment and reform in the NHS, we published the latest NHS annual report. The
24 May 2005 : Column 572
achievements it describes are remarkable. To take just one example, the waiting time for heart bypass operations is now within three months, compared with a two-year wait before 1997. Cataract patients, too, are operated on within three months; there used to be a 15-month wait. We achieved those maximum waiting times four years earlier than the promise we made in the NHS plan. Ninety-eight per cent. of accident and emergency patients are seen and treated or admitted within four hours. One million more patients are being treated in the NHS each year, and as a result deaths from lung cancer among British men and from breast cancer among British women are falling faster than anywhere else in the world.Many people said that those things could not be done, but they are being done.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): What would my right hon. Friend say to critics such as those in the Royal College of Surgeons who say that moving the more routine and profitable health care procedures from the NHS to the private sector will destabilise the financial integrity of NHS provision and also reduce the availability of such routine work for doctors in training?
Ms Hewitt: The most important thing, and our starting point in all this, is the needs of the patients themselves. Both the NHS and the independent sector treatment centres are showing that where certain kinds of, on the whole, routine operations are concentrated in a single centre, far more patients can be treated far more rapidly. That is what patients want. Of course, as we introduce payment by results, we must ensure that those system reforms work in a way that does not destabilise core services that will never be available in the independent sectorparticularly, of course, accident and emergency servicesand we are doing that. On training, we are already in discussion with the British Medical Association to ensure that doctors in training can receive some training at the independent treatment centres, where there are some excellent practices from which they can learn.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment to a very important portfolio? She is right to suggest that the needs of patients are very important, but the needs of those who visit patients are also an issue. As she knows, charging people for using hospital car parks is an issue in Leicester and both she and I have been involved in it, as have my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby). Will she look at that issue, because people are concerned that they have to pay such very heavy charges and that their cars are clamped on some occasions when they visit hospitals?
My hon. Friend raises an issue of great concern, particularly in Leicester and Leicestershire. I have, of course, discussed it with the chief executive of the Leicester hospitals trust, as have my hon. Friends. I do not intend to issue instructions from my office as Secretary of State about how hospital trusts should best balance their budgets or how they should make provision, which we would all want them to make, to ensure that, for instance, patients who need repeated hospital treatments or people who have to visit regularly can be exempt from such charges.
24 May 2005 : Column 573
We have spelled out in the latest annual report the really remarkable achievements that are a tribute, first and foremost, to the hard work and dedication of the 1.3 million staffconsiderably more staff than eight years agoin the NHS. We should be proud of those staff, just as we should be proud of the unprecedented investment that has made those achievements possible. Health service investment has doubled since 1997 and is set to be three times as much as eight years ago by 200708. But we should also be proud of the reforms that have made those achievements possible. We will certainly continue those reforms, such as NHS Direct and the walk-in centresI visited one 10 days ago in New Crossthat are available to patients, whether or not they are registered with a GP, 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. That is a model of primary health care in a disadvantaged inner-city area. We should be proud, too, of reforms such as the specialist treatment centres, including the mobile cataract surgery units, that are giving patients more control and choice over their health care. All that is available free at the point of care, as NHS treatment always will beat least, under a Labour Government.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Before we move on too quickly to the great successes in the health service, of which there are indeed many, will my right hon. Friend say something about the public-private provision of dental services in this country? Does she have a plan for a new dental school somewhere such as Norwich?
Ms Hewitt: We certainly do have a plan for a new dental school. Of course, that is in addition to the 1,000 new dentists that we are recruiting this year to improve access to, and the availability of, dental services.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I wrote to the Secretary of State last week pointing out that the Government have a policy of building large numbers of new houses in rural areas and that a consequence of the centralised manner in which the Government deliver health services is that primary care is simply not keeping up in rural areas. I know of doctors in Wem and Ellesmere who are desperate for a new primary care centrethe filing is held in the shower, the parking is totally inadequate and the waiting room is totally indiscreteso will the Secretary of State look at my letter and reply to it? Will she agree to meet a delegation of local doctors to hear about the problems that are imposed by one section of the Government building large numbers of new houses in the countryside and bringing in a new population, while her Department is simply too inflexible and rigid to cope with the increasing demand?