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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and I agreed with much of what he had to say, particularly when he was talking about the great advances in cancer care in England in the past 10 or 20 years. However, quite frankly, it would have been rather surprising if those advances had not taken place. It would have been a scandal if we had been saying in today's debate that cancer services were precisely where they were in 1997, 1987, or 1967.
Although things have got a great deal better, I disagreed with the right hon. Gentleman when he became party political and seemed to indicate that that change was because of the Labour party. That was rather reminiscent of comments made by the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), who, at the Labour party conference in 2004, said:
"in the first 6 years of this government, the death rate from cancer is down by over 10 per cent . . . Isn't that just the sort of thing Labour came into government to do? . . . Thousands of real people walking the street who would not have survived under the last Tory Government."
I speak from personal experience. About this time last year, during the general election campaign, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were somewhat discombobulated by the surgeon, who told us that the operation would be on 5 May. We had to tell him that we would be otherwise engaged then and would have to delay the operation by a week or so. I am glad to say that the subsequent care that my wife received was excellent in every possible way and that she has been given a clean bill of health. I pay tribute to the care workers at the Royal United hospital in Bath, and at Chippenham, Swindon and elsewhere, who achieved that. However, I have to sayI hope that this will not disappoint the Ministerthat I do not thank the Labour party for achieving my wife's good health; I pay tribute to the scientists and health workers. It is probably wrong to reduce the matter to a party political issue.
That is why I welcome the positive tone of the motion. We are saying how well things have gone: a lot of money has been spent and a great deal has been achieved. However, the truth of the matter is that there is an enormous amount more to achieve. We do not know the cause of breast cancer. For example, why does it almost not exist in the far east? Is that something to do with health and diet? It probably is. Why is there a high incidence of breast cancer among left-handed women? We do not know, but it would be useful to find out. We need to spend more money on research. My wife happens to be left-handed, which is why I know that statistic.
On care, of course it is good that we have a target of people being seen by a specialist 14 days after they are first diagnosed by a GP, but the average waiting time in 1997 was only 11 days, so the much-vaunted 14-day target is not particularly useful. What it does result in, as I discovered when I accompanied my wife on that fateful day, is a waiting room packed full of people. I said to the surgeon, "Why are the waiting times so long? Why do
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we have to sit here from 8.30 am to 2 pm before being seen by you?" He said, "That is to achieve the two-week target. We cannot lay down when people are diagnosed. They have to be seen within two weeks and the clinic has to be jammed full to achieve that target. If we were allowed a certain flexibility in terms of days, it might be easier to organise timetables better." The targets may sometimes have the wrong results and are not all that they are cracked up to be.
We have to see some improvements in waiting times for treatments. My wife heard today that she will receive her radiotherapy within four weeks, but many women are still waiting for six weeks or longer. Surgery and chemotherapy tend to be done in good time, but there is a long delay on radiotherapy, even though it is an important part of the treatment.
There has been a terrific muddle with the prescribing of drugs. We have heard a great deal about herceptin, but the same situation will apply over the years to come to a variety of other groundbreaking new cancer drugs. We need to find a way in which NICE can license and approve them speedily. We cannot have another situation like the one last October when the Secretary of State encouraged women at the Breakthrough Breast Cancer eventI was thereto think that herceptin would become available, only for them to discover that it will become available only if there is plenty of money to pay for it, which there is not.
The experience of Anne Marie Rogers, in my neighbouring constituency of North Swindon, is a vehement comment on the awful effects on women who are discovering that they may face a shortened life as a result not of anything to do with clinicians, but of a shortage of money and of Government decisions. An awful lot needs to be done in that respect and in relation to radiotherapy. In particular, an awful lot needs to be done on research.
I pay tribute to the very high standard of care that my family have benefited from in the last 12 months, and I think that we see that across the book. I do not accept that that is anything whatever to do with the Labour Government. It seems to me that science is developing quickly and that wonderful support and services are provided by doctors, nurses and researchers in our hospitals, and I pay tribute to them. I very much hope that, 10 years from now, we will have seen the statistics improve even further, and that when a Conservative Secretary of State is standing at that Dispatch Box he does not fall into the easy trap of claiming that as a Conservative victory.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): This has been a very British debate. We should really be celebrating the excellent and magnificent work that has been carried out in cancer services since 1990, but particularly since 1997. I speak as someone who has chaired the all-party cancer group since 1998 and who worked in the field for many years, with patients and doing research.
You may remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you and I once put some bricks into a wall around an accelerator at Ipswich hospital, some time after a Labour Government came to power. There are many such stories to be told.
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Why did I set up the all-party group? People were in the habit of setting up an all-party group for every part of the body that got cancer. Somebody once asked me if they could have an all-party group on right-knee cancer, and at that point I said, "No way. You can work within the bigger all-party cancer group. There is no reason why things cannot be considered under that umbrella."
I remember, too, a Select Committee report on cancer in the 1990s, after the Labour Government came to power, which came up with the idea of joining two major cancer charities, the Imperial Cancer Research Fundhon. Members will remember that nameand the Cancer Research Campaign. At a meeting we were told by a man who became a Nobel prize-winner in this country, a scientist backed by British money and British technicians and workers in various universities and institutes in this country, that those two charities could never merge. One reason was that they were like Omo and Daz. That did not fool me because those two products are made of the same chemical substance and can be mixed.
The scientist also said that the charities would not get as much money if they came together. They fund most of the research in this country, and that came about through support not only from the Select Committee but from the Government. The charities get twice as much money now as the total that they got acting singly, which means that more research is being done, more projects are being funded and more young people are being given the opportunity to discover things. Although it is true that science has moved on and discovered much in cancer, it has been supported to a huge extent by the Labour Government.
I sometimes feel like going back and doing research because I have had many grants turned down, and I would have a much better chance now. I see that the Minister agrees that I should go back, before a few more votes are taken. I do not think that cancer research has ever been in a better state. In 1992, to give the Opposition credit, they implemented the Calman-Hine report so that the process started, but the acceleration really happened in 1997 and 1998.
I think too that there is a new understanding, and that is the essential feature. We used to teach students that genetics had nothing to do with cancer; it was all environment. Genetics has everything to do with cancer. We understand the causes of a genetic change that brings about a rogue cell that develops into a cancer. [Interruption.] I see that the Opposition are coming in to listen.
Understanding those genetic changes allows people to target drug development. Herceptin is one such drug, glivec is another, and there will be many more. We are also going to understand the genetic basis of who will benefit from treatment with a drug and who will not. That has been pioneered in Dundee using a certain drug. Now, in this field, genetics is all, and making that discovery has given us Nobel prizesprizes that, incidentally, were won working not on cancer cells but on yeast cells. That shows that basic blue-skies research can often turn up things that have a medical advantage, and we should remember that.
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We have had two British Nobel prize-winners at a time when we thought we were losing out. There are more to follow. I predict that, in the not-too-distant future, work being done at Dundee university will win a Nobel prize. Scotland deserves another one.
There is a new subject called bioinformatics, which is all about fancy computers, that allows us to look at amazing pieces of information. There was a shortage of people when bioinformatics were first discovered. We are now making up for that shortage by training people in colleges and elsewhere. We are punching our weight in this area. We shall make many more discoveries and we are supporting young people who are trying to develop career structures. We are enticing them. We are trying to change science in medicine that is taught in schools. Why should pupils in schools not be taught about cancer, for example? That is a good example of the things that we have done, the things that we can do and, if we get down to it and get more support from Government, the things that will happen in future. We maintain our position very well throughout the world.
I give credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who mentioned the work at Oxford. He did not mentionI was proud of thisa young 16-year-old who was leading a demonstration at Oxford that was supporting limited animal experiments. We are not saying that all work should be done with animals, and perhaps some of it should be done with computers and tissue cells, for example. The right to be able to do that is so important. Before a licence, there is a need for the toxic test. We do not stick drugs into patients and hope that they do not die. Certain tests have to be carried out in the hope that results will be obtained before the licence.
The changes that are coming about in scientific discovery will make a real difference. Quite often in science and medicine, discoveries happen long before politicians, particularly those who are lawyers, can pick up on what they might mean in terms of new laws and regulations, for example. We have genetic modification and stem cells. Many of us knew about stem cells before the many debates in this place that led to us ensuring that we could continue with research. We are hopeful that that research might pay off.
Much has been said about the cancer plan that came through for 10 years. We are halfway through that. Many new people have been appointed. Consultants are pouring out of oncology departments in our hospitals, and there are more to come. This is real encouragement. For the health service in general, such developments have stimulated mental health people and those who work in cardiology, heart disease and so on. How did these people do it? I will tell the House: politicians, scientists and medics worked together. There is huge team work. There are 20 cancer research charities and voluntary groups that meet once a week in this place to discuss various issues from a professional, knowledgeable position. That is what we have created since 1997, and that is important. Let us do away with competition and get people working together who have the best experiences.
I heard a woman from the Christie in Manchester talking about best practice there. She was telling 19 other people how it was done. That is excellent, and that atmosphere should be encouraged. We have talked about NICE and quality of life. People with cancer, in
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their last few years or days, experience tremendous fatigue. We can do things about that. There is the stimulation of blood, for example, which will stop these people being tired. NICE should be asked to examine that.
Of course, NICE will evolve. It will learn by some of the mistakes that have been made. That is what it has all been about. Thank goodness that NICE has been in place to give us some evidence-based knowledge of what we do and of what we do not know. That knowledge will increase.
The vision that we have in the all-party groupplease join itis how we are going to take things on. We realise that cancer is a complete journey from the early diagnosis, through treatment and then on to care in hospices, including palliative care. The passport needs to be examined. There should be no piecemeal approach when it comes to putting in money. The patient should be considered throughout.
I am excited about what is happening, but I think that there is more to do. What we have managed to do in providing better cancer services will stimulate us to do even better, as we learn more. That knowledge will come from science, medicine and practice. We have an enthusiastic work force who want to try to do things. In the light of experiments and clinical trialsmore and more of that is going on with the necessary resourceswe shall learn best practice.
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