The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward):
The regional fertility centre in Belfast advises me that it currently uses
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four gonadotropin products: Puregon, Gonal F, Menogon and Menopur. Puregon is currently prescribed as the product of choice.
Mrs. Robinson: I thank the Minister for that response. As he will know, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines on fertility treatment advise that consideration should be given to minimising costs when prescribing drugs. Certain products have been used at the regional fertility centre despite other less expensive alternatives being made available, and the total amount spent is almost half a million pounds per year. Will the Minister look into the process whereby specific products were selected, and provide advice for future practice in Northern Ireland if necessary, to ensure that costs are appropriately considered in future years?
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Lady makes a significant point about an important part of the Department's work for any couple who wants to have children and cannot. She rightly mentions spending £500,000 on the work. Given that couples are waiting to start the treatment, I suspect that there is genuine pressure to spend more, not less money.
One of the reasons for the use of Puregon is that it is a synthetic product. The alternative products are urinary based and some people do not want to use them for health concerns and so on. However, the current tender is coming to an end and that process will be completed by 2007. In the next 12 months, I shall conduct a review with the health boards of the tendering process for such products. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that my concern in Northern Ireland is, first and foremost, to do as much as we can to help couples who cannot have children through the health service to be given access to that important treatment.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Under-Secretary is aware from written answers that he has provided that there are geographical disparities in accessing regional fertility services. Will he tackle those when he introduces his proposals by providing a more balanced network of services? Will the proposals also address counselling and revising the criteria for qualifying for IVF?
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman has raised important points not only about counselling but regional disparity in Northern Ireland. We are currently conducting a review. The devolved Assembly and the Assembly Minister responsible for the matter put the interim arrangements in place. There are good reasons for re-examining access to fertility services and I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall also consider access to counselling services as part of that. I believe that he will see improvements in overall access and in tackling regional disparity.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): This time last year, we had people waiting up to six years for in-patient treatment. As a result of policies that we announced last summer, every in-patient in Northern Ireland is now treated in less than 12 months. For hip and knee replacements, everyone is treated in less than nine months, and, for cardiac or cataract treatment, every patient waits not six years but less than six months.
Mr. Woodward: Those changes will make a huge difference to efficiencies in the Northern Ireland economy. When out-patients and in-patients have to wait six years, there are huge costs to the welfare service. However, the Secretary of State and I were convinced a year ago that a programme of investment and reform in the health service in Northern Ireland must radically change the position on waiting lists. In two years from now, no out-patient will wait six yearsthe maximum will be 13 weeksand, a year from now, every in-patient will be treated in six months.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Under-Secretary appeared to imply that, previously, people were waiting a totally unacceptable length of time for operations and that they are now waiting a simply unacceptable length of time. In his discussions with the trusts, will he ensure that, in cases where people wait a long time for needy operations, additional resources can be deployed to clear up outstanding waiting lists?
Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and of course those discussions should take place. However, any British Minister making such decisions is second best and soon the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will have the chance, if they want it, of getting control of the health service, running it, making the decisions and making waiting times even less.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The Bill to facilitate that has its Second Reading later today. It is now up to the parties themselves to decide whether they want devolved Government restored or locally unaccountable direct rule to continue.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he agree that the Independent Monitoring Commission report published today shows an historic change in the position of the IRA, and that, although a lack of trust remains in Northern Ireland, the best way to build that trust is for politicians to sit down together and discuss the way forward?
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Mr. Hain: I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. The IMC report published today is extremely important. It is of an historic nature, not just because it reports an end to IRA paramilitary activity, violence andinterestinglyintelligence gathering for those purposes, but because it says that the IRA is committed to cracking down on and eliminating criminality. That creates circumstances in which there is no reason for any party not to go into the Assembly to work with the other parties to get the Executive fully restored and the institutions up and running[Interruption.]
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State agree that, in the light of the IMC report, it would be completely unacceptable to have in government in any part of the United Kingdom those who are still linked to an organisation that is engaged in criminality, and who refuse to give their support to the police or who tell their supporters not to give information to the police? Is not that support an absolute prerequisite for people being in government in any part of the United Kingdom?
Mr. Hain: On the hon. Gentleman's point about criminality, it is now clear that the Provisional IRAand, therefore, its political link, Sinn Feinis now committed to stamping out criminality and paramilitary activity. The only logical, sustainable long-term position for anyone seeking to perform parliamentary legislative duties or exercise ministerial office is to support the police. We will be working on that and encouraging Sinn Fein to do that.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): In the long march towards a functioning Assembly, we have seen deadlines come and go. The Government's abandonment of those deadlines as they drew closer has typified the process. Will the Secretary of State accept that this has seriously compromised the credibility of the Government's deadlines? Why should we believe that his deadlines are any more robust or serious than the ones that the Government evidently did not take seriously before?
Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I want to assure him, and to inform the House explicitly, that if anyone thinks that the Government are going to blink, come midnight on 24 November, they could not be more wrong. This deadline will be set in statute in the Bill that we shall debate this afternoon. All the parties need to understand that, if midnight on 24 November comes and goes and there is no restoration of the Assembly, the salaries and allowances will stop and the curtain will come down. It would be the parties themselves that had brought the curtain down, not the Government.