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Investigatory Powers

That the draft Retention of Communications Data (Further Extension of Initial Period) Order 2005, which was laid before this House on 3rd November, be approved.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Question agreed to.

24 Nov 2005 : Column 1722

Essential Drugs (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]

3.20 pm

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I want to take this opportunity to highlight the importance of the availability of life-altering and, sometimes, life-saving drugs and to reiterate the fact that the Government must take the lead on the issue and not simply offload responsibility for it on to health boards in Northern Ireland.

The mailbag to my constituency office is dominated by health queries, and one of the most common problems is access to essential medications. I acknowledge the extra funding that the Minister has announced recently for high-cost medications, but I want to know how much of that is genuinely new money. Perhaps the Minister can detail that during his remarks.

Guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence does not extend to Northern Ireland. However, I understand that the Minister has given consideration to the matter, and perhaps he will take this opportunity to detail the latest position. In Northern Ireland, patients do not have the luxury of NICE guidelines to ensure that they receive critical treatments. The health boards can allocate their budgets as they please and can choose not to spend money on any of those essential drugs if they so desire. The Minister must give clear direction on access to those drugs.

Herceptin has gained significant press coverage in the Province during the past few weeks, particularly in relation to whether it can be used in the treatment of early breast cancer. An aggressive media campaign has been waged and concerned patients have threatened legal action. Those waiting for other drugs now fear that they may suffer as Herceptin is now provided to those who need it. Can the Minister guarantee that those with other cancer conditions will not suffer as a result of the funding for Herceptin?

In relation to multiple sclerosis, for example, a young woman who works in the health service has written to me. She has suffered pain and loss of feeling in her limbs and developed visual anomalies. She will not be able to obtain an MRI scan to confirm her diagnosis until the middle of next year. Only after that scan can her neurologist add her to the waiting list for beta interferon, and another long wait will commence.

That young woman is currently off work. She wants to work and realises that, if she remains off work and requires state benefits, her condition will end up costing society a great deal more than early treatment would have done. She feels that the provision that she is receiving is simply not good enough. Like many others who are in a similar position, she wonders what the point is of paying taxes and contributing for years to the public purse.

Unfortunately, the funding for MS drugs, such as beta interferon and glatiramer, have not improved and the waiting lists are increasing, both in terms of the number of people on the lists and the time that they are forced to wait. At the end of October 2005, 156 people
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were on the waiting list for disease-modifying therapies. The imbalance in numbers on the waiting lists from board to board raises fears of another postcode lottery for treatment if funds become available.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Is she aware that people face the same problems in not only Northern Ireland, but places such as Wellingborough?

Mrs. Robinson: I have absolutely no doubt about that. However, investigations by outsiders have indicated that we in Northern Ireland get 20 per cent. less for health care per head of population by comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman should also bear it in mind that some conditions are caused by stress and mental illness due to 35 years of ongoing terrorism. I hope that he can put the matter in perspective and appreciate that we have a greater need because of all the terrorist activity that we have come through.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I commend my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Democratic Unionist Members admire her work to highlight in the local media the problem in Northern Ireland. Does she agree that many illnesses that require specialist treatment are stress-related? There is evidence to link the higher incidence of stress-related illnesses in Northern Ireland to the troubles, so we must think about the necessary funding to help people there, who are coming out of a traumatic situation. The Government must think about the problem in that context, rather than considering simply funding under the traditional methods used in the national health service.

Mrs. Robinson: I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter. Having spoken to several psychiatrists in Northern Ireland, I totally concur with his views. One of the Cinderella-type structures in Northern Ireland is the mental health service. I intend to raise the question of mental health services and what is available in a future debate, because the situation is intolerable and unacceptable. Children have to go into adult units, although that is detrimental to them and certainly does not enable them to move on and progress as we would like them to.

Let me go back to what I was saying before I took interventions so that I can make my point. The imbalance in the number of people on waiting lists from board to board raises fears that there will be another postcode lottery for treatment if funds become available. That is because in 2004–05, one person in each board each month was given treatment. Surely that is a ludicrous means of distributing life-altering therapies in this day and age.

Even if NICE guidelines are eventually adopted in the Province, those whose treatment is currently being delayed might not fit the guidelines when funding becomes available due to the inevitable progression of their conditions. The psychological effect of being told that a treatment will help one's quality of life, but then learning that it is not available for funding reasons, is
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totally immeasurable in human terms. An increasing number of people are being recommended for treatment by their neurologist, but are informed in the next breath that it might be two years before they can commence treatment because there is no money to fund it.

To highlight the impact on individuals involved, I want to read from a letter that arrived in my office earlier this week. It was written by a lady from Killinchy, which is in my Strangford constituency. I will quote the letter in full, so please ignore all the nice things that she says and do not think that I am being conceited.

The letter says:

Unless by some chance extra funding was released specifically for beta interferon, that would be the case and she might pass the date when the drug could help her.

The letter continued:

How does the Minister respond to such a cry for help? That letter shows the strength of feeling and emotions experienced by patients awaiting disease modifying therapies.

Also within the past few days, another lady from Belfast wrote to me saying:

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Minister and the Eastern health and social services board, under whose jurisdiction this lady falls.

The letter continues:

Those are very moving and challenging remarks, as I am sure we would all agree.

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