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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Liam Byrne): There are no current plans to visit Royal hospital, Sunderland, but if my hon. Friend were to liaise with the chair of the trust I would be happy to consider an invitation.
Mr. Mullin: Is my hon. Friend aware that City Hospitals Sunderland is one of only seven trusts to have retained its three-star rating for five successive years? It was the first foundation trust in the north-east, it is well managed, it meets most of its targets, and yet no one can recall a time when our hospital had a visit from a Secretary of Statealthough we have had a visit from the odd junior Minister. Will the Minister be kind enough to ask the Secretary of State to pay us a visit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that his trust has an enormous amount to be proud of. In particular, I congratulate Gillian Reay on winning this year's child nurse of the year. In 1997, 1,300 people had to wait longer than six months for treatment at his hospital: now, that figure is zero. There is a new cataract surgery, a new cardiac unit and a new urgent care centre in his constituency. I observe with some interest that his strategic health authority predicted that it would finish the year not just in balance but in surplus.
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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): When the Secretary of State promised to listen to staff in our NHS, did she expect to go to them or them to come to her? She has managed to visit no more than an average of about one hospital a month. Would Sunderland not be a good place for her and her hapless Minister to start making amends and to hear directly from staff about job losses and the relentless pressures that they are under because of the gross financial incompetence of her Department?
Mr. Byrne: When the political history of this programme of reform is written, it will be seen that the Secretary of State undertook the largest ever consultation in relation to the development of reforms, which is why the White Paper on health that was published in January was so widely welcomed not just by the public but by the NHS as a whole.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): There are currently approximately 3,350 home and European dental students in dental schools in England. By 2010, as a result of our current programme to expand dental training and open a new dental school, there will be more than 4,000 dental studentsa 25 per cent. increase over the number in training in 1997.
David Wright: That is extremely good news. How are we going to communicate that information more effectively to our constituents? A lot of misleading information is put out, particularly by the Conservative party, about dentistry in local areas. As more NHS dentists go into communities, how are we going to communicate that? Will the Minister join me in thanking the Telford Journal for its excellent campaign to promote the 8,000 extra NHS dentistry places available to residents in my constituency?
Ms Winterton: I am happy to congratulate the Telford Journal on helping to communicate some of the good news about dentistry in my hon. Friend's area. After all, despite widespread predictions that there was going to be a mass exodus of dentists from the NHS, 96 per cent. of NHS activity has been continued. In his area, about 41 out of 42 contracts have been signed by dentists and the NHS has already recommissioned the 1 per cent. of services that were lost. His PCT has done an excellent job over the past two years in taking advantage of the £3.5 million extra that has gone into the area to make sure that access to NHS dentistry is being improved.
Ms Winterton: Approximately 1,000 contracts have not been signed or taken up by dentists, but all the evidence is that they tend to be single-handed dentists with a small number of NHS patients. However, 8,300 contracts have been signed, and nine out of 10 dentists have signed up to the new contract. In future, the different ways of working, combined with the £315 million extra investment in NHS dentistry, will improve access to NHS dentistry a great deal, and deal with the problems that were created by the previous Administration with the unpopular contract and the closure of dental schools.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): My constituency is not exactly rich in dentists, and the children's teeth are some of the worst in the country, so I was surprised to receive a complaint the other day from an orthodontist who is willing to set up a practice in my constituency but cannot obtain NHS backing. What advice can my hon. Friend give that dentist and others who find it difficult to set up a practice in the national health service?
Ms Winterton: If the orthodontist had practised during the reference period, when we gave an estimate of earnings under the contract, they would have been offered the same contract. They would also be able to treat all the patients that they were treating at that time and finish the treatment. There is a particular problem for orthodontists, for whom primary care trusts could not plan properly under the previous system. Under the new system, with local commissioning and the guidance that we have provided, PCTs are expected to join together to ensure proper provision for orthodontic treatment in, for example, a particular strategic health authority.
4. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): When the new joint working group on herbal medicine, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine will begin its work; what (a) support and (b) funding the Government will provide for this work; and what the expected time scale is for the process. 
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jane Kennedy): We have appointed a chair for that working group, and are currently seeking nominations for its members. I expect the group to hold its first meeting this summer, and discussions on funding requirements for the 200607 financial year continue.
David Tredinnick: May I welcome you back, Mr. Speaker? I note that the right hon. Lady did not provide a figure, and there is concern among practitioners and groups that there will not be enough money to conduct a thorough review. If she does not extend the review, many groups, such as aromatherapists and naturopaths who use herbal medicine under section 12(1) of the Medicines Act 1968, will be excluded from using those herbs if a register is drawn up and they have not been considered? Will she look at that very seriously?
I will do so, as I take the issue seriously. I am confident that we can deliver regulation
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of those practitioners, and the working group will look at that proposal. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have funded the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health to help a range of complementary therapies, such as those that he mentioned, to develop voluntary professional self-regulation schemes.
The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Since we launched our 10-year plan for investment and reform in 2000, last-minute cancellations in the last three months of the year went down by more than 21 per cent., while elective admissions increased by nearly 9 per cent.
Helen Goodman: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State. In the County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, control of cancellations has been accompanied by a reduction in waiting lists to achieve the target set by the Government. Does she agree that that is testimony to the benefits of the doubling of spending by the Labour Government?
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of our investment and our reforms, we have just come through one of the coldest winters with none of the beds crises that we all remember so vividly from the winter of 199697. In addition, more people are being operated on in our hospitals and we have succeeded in bringing down the maximum waiting time to just six months for items such as hip replacements, for which people used to have wait two years or more under the Conservatives. That is an enormous tribute to NHS staff and to the backing that the Government have been able to give them.
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood) (Con): As the Secretary of State seems to have mislaid the statistics for which her hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) asked, may I remind her that the hospital activity statistics published by her Department show that in the last four quarters for which I was responsible as Secretary of State, the number of operations cancelled at short notice was 52,000 and in the last four quarters for which the same statistics are available the figure was 65,000? Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever the statistics, the important consideration is that both those figures are too high and that the real question, at a time when hospital deficits are increasing the pressure on NHS trusts, is what the Secretary of State is going to put in place to ensure that the statistics for the next four quarters are lower than either the previous four quarters or the last four quarters for which I was responsible?
The right hon. Gentleman fails to mention how many fewer operations were carried out when he was Secretary of State for Health. Nevertheless, he raises an important question. My answer is that since 2003 we have put in place a guarantee to patients that if their operation is cancelled at the last minute, they will
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be given a fresh date for it within 28 days and that if their local NHS hospital cannot guarantee that, they will have the choice of going to any other hospital either in the NHS or in a private sector hospital paid for by the NHS. That has significantly reduced the number of cancelled operations and I have no doubt that, despite having to take some difficult decisions to restore financial balance in the NHS, we will continue to see further improvements in patient care over the next 12 months.
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