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The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of cancer services. I welcome, too, the way in which the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) opened the debate and the tone of much, if not quite all, of his comments. I particularly welcome his recognition that we have made significant improvements in the care of cancer patients in the past eight or nine years.

The death yesterday of the wonderful Linda Smith from ovarian cancer reminds all of us again of the terrible toll of cancer—over 4,500 deaths each year from ovarian cancer alone. This evening, many hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, will attend an event to celebrate the life of Gregor MacKay. Gregor worked as press secretary to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when the right hon. Gentleman was Leader of the Opposition, but he had many friends across the political divide. He died last year aged just 36, only eight weeks after being diagnosed with lymphoma. I wish the lymphoma research fund that will be launched this evening in Gregor's memory every success, and I am sure that Opposition Members will wish to join me in doing so. There is hardly a family in the country that has not been affected by cancer in one way or another. It is one of the highest priorities for the national health service, and we have made it so.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Cancer is an emotive issue, not least in south-east Essex, where a consultation is taking place about reconfiguring networks. The south Essex cancer network was given a
 
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special dispensation below the 1 million people threshold because we have a higher than average proportion of elderly people, who are unfortunately more likely to suffer from the disease. The network is popular and successful. Its headquarters are at the cancer centre at Southend hospital, which I am pledged to defend, as are other local MPs from south-east Essex. The network works and the centre is popular—it is not broken and we do not need anybody to fix it. Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind and look sympathetically on it?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman makes extremely important points which he and his hon. Friends are also making in the local consultation. Those decisions are best made locally, but I am sure that his comments will be fully taken into account.

In 1997, we set a target to reduce the death rate from cancer in people under 75 years old by 20 per cent. by 2010. I pay tribute to the work of the then Minister for Public Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who was instrumental in making that commitment in the public health Green Paper. The year after that, we set the target that every patient referred by a GP with suspected cancer would be seen by a specialist within just two weeks.

In 1999, we appointed the first national director for cancer, Professor Mike Richards, whom I thank for his outstanding clinical leadership on this issue. I find it extraordinary that the hon. Member for Billericay scorns political decision making, given that we have done so much to ensure that as we set targets and improve services, we do so on the basis of the best clinical advice and outstanding clinical leadership.

In 2000, again with the full support and involvement of leading cancer specialists, patients' groups and academic experts, we launched the first ever national cancer plan. As a result, we began an unprecedented programme of investment in cancer services, with an additional £639 million extra in the past five years. We have used that investment to train and recruit new cancer specialists, so that we now have nearly 1,400 more cancer specialists in the national health service than we had in 1997.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): If we have a national plan, could the Secretary of State explain to my 10-year-old constituent, Katie Morgan from Wixhall, why her mother, Susan Morgan, and another constituent, Mrs. Margaret Bradford, are today at a public meeting in Shrewsbury trying to raise money for a £47,000-per-person herceptin treatment although that treatment is available two miles away in Wales and 10 miles away in Staffordshire? If we have a uniform comprehensive tax system, as the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) said, why do we not have comprehensive provision of this life-saving drug? Mrs. Morgan has been told by the PCT: "Your circumstances are not exceptional." Yet this is a death-dealing disease.

Ms Hewitt: I shall come to that issue in due course. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would wait until I do so, because I want to deal with it in some detail.
 
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Mr. Khan: My right hon. Friend will have heard hon. Members cherry-picking from the progress report on the Government's NHS cancer plan by the Public Accounts Committee, which is excellently chaired by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). Far be it from me to engage in political point-scoring, but will she comment on that report? It said:

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that valuable report, particularly its commendation of the significant improvements that have already taken place. Obviously we will respond to it in detail in due course.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in acknowledging the good work of the Neuroblastoma Society, even though she said in a recent written parliamentary answer that she will not offer it any support. If such great improvements have been made, will she explain to my five-year-old constituent, Isobel Sanders, why, on 9 May last year, two of the eight specialist paediatric oncology beds were closed in the Thames Valley strategic health authority because of staff shortages and why not a single bed in England and Wales was available to take her?

Ms Hewitt: I am extremely sorry to hear about what must have been a desperately anxious and agonising predicament not only for the hon. Gentleman's young constituent but for the entire family. I do not know the background to the decision, but such decisions are rightly made by hospitals, primary care trusts and strategic health authorities in local areas. I believed that that policy was supported by hon. Members of all parties. However, I greatly hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituent has received the treatment that she needed.

I am sure that all hon. Members want to thank our superb cancer staff in the NHS. Thanks to their dedication—backed by our investment—deaths from cancer have fallen by 2 per cent. a year in people under 75 and decreased especially quickly for men who suffer from lung cancer and for women with breast cancer. We are well on course to achieving the target that we set of reducing the death rate from cancer by 20 per cent. by 2010. Already, 43,000 people's lives have been saved.

The hon. Member for Billericay referred to survival rates. We should all be proud of the improvements in survival rates, although of course they are not yet good enough. In 1970, a woman with breast cancer had a 50 per cent. chance of survival. Today, the figure exceeds 80 per cent. In 1970, a patient with bowel cancer had a 25 per cent. chance of survival. By 2000, the figure was 50 per cent. Genuine improvements have therefore occurred.

I agree with the hon. Member for Billericay that cancer does not have to be a death sentence. It is increasingly a long-term condition. More and more people—some of them relatively young—are living with cancer and after cancer. They will need continued, appropriate support.


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