The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The national health service is continuing to make huge progress in providing faster access to hospital care. In May 2000, 282,397 patients were waiting more than six months for hospital operations. That has now been reduced to just below 50,000 patients. By the end of this year, there will be no patients waiting more than six months for in-patient treatment.
Mr. Malik: Can I commend and congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress thus far on waiting lists? I welcome the target of 18 weeks for waiting lists, which is obviously very different from the position when the Tories were in power, when it was 18 months. Does my right hon. Friend agree that public accountability is central to public confidence? In that context, how does she propose to deal with hospitals that fail to meet their obligations vis-à-vis targets?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about accountability. We are strengthening the accountability of NHS hospitals and
12 Jul 2005 : Column 690
other trusts to their local communities through the membership and governance structure of foundation trusts and other means for other NHS trusts. May I take the opportunity to congratulate Dewsbury and District hospital in my hon. Friend's constituency? I recently visited the hospital where, in direct response to requests from women in the community, a midwife-led midwifery unit is doing excellent work and has recently won a modernisation award.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): What does the Secretary of State think will be the effect on waiting times for in-patient treatment in the New Forest and in Romsey if the cottage hospitals that are under threat of having their in-patient beds closed after a bogus consultation by the local primary care trust do in fact lose those beds? May I thank her for the response given by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) to the Adjournment debate on this subject last week, and ask her, on behalf of cross-party MPs from the New Forest and Romsey area, for a meeting to discuss this truly desperate situation?
Ms Hewitt: I understand that a consultation is taking place and that a close look is being taken at how best to provide services, particularly for elderly patients, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and nearby. I will take the opportunity to have a look at the record of the Adjournment debate, which I have not seen, and I will ensure that he and his hon. Friends are seen, if not by me, then by one of my ministerial colleagues.
Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that she has outlined on reductions in patient waiting times. Does she think that we would have made that progress had we allowed NHS funds to be diverted from the NHS to subsidise people to jump the queue and go private by adopting the Conservative proposal for a privatising patients' passport?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Liam Byrne): There is no doubt about the success of the new contractual arrangements. Patients are receiving better care, quicker access to GPs and nurses, and more services delivered locally. GPs are more satisfied because they are better rewarded for offering more services and for delivering better care.
Does the Minister accept that patients registering with the practice rather than with a specific GP causes concern, as my constituents want their personal care delivered by someone whom they know and ask for?
12 Jul 2005 : Column 691
Mr. Byrne: The new contract underpins some important changes in primary care. As I outlined, that care involves better and faster treatment, as well as delivering more specialisms and wider services locally. Part of the reason for ensuring that registrations are often with practices as opposed to individuals is that more GPs are engaging in sub-specialisms. There are now 1,400 GPs with a sub-specialism. We promised to deliver 1,000 under the NHS plan by 2004, and we achieved the target a year early.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): Patients in Snodland are delighted with the new contract. Indeed, I opened a £2 million new medical centre in Snodland just the other day. On the same day, there was a ground-breaking ceremony for a £5 million new medical centre. What else is my hon. Friend going to do for my constituency?
Mr. Byrne: I congratulate my hon. Friend on that excellent news. As he says, the new GP contract is underpinning a revolution in primary care. It is absolutely essential in helping GPs to play their part in cutting mortality rates. It is no accident that death rates from cancer are down by 12 per cent. and that death rates from coronary heart disease are down by 27 per cent.it is because the policy is right and is backed by the investment that patients such as those in my hon. Friend's constituency rightly deserve.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Would the Minister concede that there is huge dissatisfaction in rural areas with the delivery of the out-of-hours service? What steps has he taken to ensure its effective and efficient implementation?
It is worth pointing out that before the new GP contract was introduced, fewer than 5 per cent. of GPs provided their own out-of-hours cover. The new arrangements will ensure that the skills mix and team working that are well established in both primary and secondary care apply out of hours, accessed through a single call to NHS Direct.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The national Hepatitis C Trust has informed me that several patients have approached it after being either misdiagnosed by their GP or waiting an inordinate amount of time to be referred for either a biopsy or treatment. What processes exist to link patient feedback to GPs' continuing professional development? How will the new GP contract and appraisal system aid that activity?
The hepatitis C action plan is an important part of that, but it is up to primary care trusts to ensure that their contractual arrangements are audited effectively so that remedial action is taken when quality is found not to be up to the standard that it needs to be.
12 Jul 2005 : Column 692
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): There is a question about responsiveness. Following the previous question about flexibility, how flexible is the contract? Can it change to reflect the increased prevalence of other chronic conditions such as hepatitis C? What role do patients and the feedback from patients play in that?
Mr. Byrne: Primary care trusts are the local health professionals responsible for ensuring that needs in their communities are addressed. That is why they have a responsibility to audit the care that general practices provide in their area and to take remedial steps whenever they find that it is not up to the mark.
I stress that the new GP contract is delivering some important gains for constituencies throughout the country. The fact that 99.9 per cent. of people see a GP within 48 hours or a primary care professional within 24 hours is due to the new contract. Achievement in the quality in outcomes framework exceeds 95 per cent. Again, that is down to the new contract. Those changes are important. I am sure that that is why the chair of the British Medical Association's General Practitioners Committee said:
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Under-Secretary knows that one aspect of traditional primary care that is most highly valued by patients is GP support for community hospitals. Yet following the introduction of the new GP contract, GPs' out-of-hours cover for community hospitals has been greatly reduced. What assessment has he made of the threat to community and cottage hospitals following the introduction of the new contract? What will he do to ensure their long-term survival?
However, I want to be clear about the impact of the new GP contract on out-of-hospital care. The Department of Health has made it clear that primary care trusts must fulfil national quality requirements when they put arrangements in place. We can be confident that those arrangements will be satisfactory only because of the unprecedented investment that the Government are putting into primary care, not only the £54 billion that is available for local management through primary care trusts but the £322 million extra that was provided to ensure adequate out-of-hours cover.