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and continues:

That is a petition for GPs to sign telling us how important it is to look after their interests rather than those of the patients. That is the position that the Opposition have put them in.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that in some parts of the country GPs have already got together to provide perfectly satisfactory out-of-hours services that nobody wants changed?

Alan Johnson: The common problem among those on the Conservative Benches is that they do not understand the difference between extended hours and out-of-hours services, to which I shall come in a second.

The Opposition offer a return to the bad old days, when GPs were effectively responsible for their patients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Royal College of Physicians is among the many organisations that have pointed to the international evidence of the risk to patient safety that long hours pose. How could we ever have supported a system in which tired GPs called out in the middle of the night had to attend patients the next morning, and it was common to wait weeks instead of days for an appointment that would often be little more than cursory, because of the pressures that GPs faced?

The new arrangements for extended hours will mean that the average-sized practice, run by three to four GPs, will open for an extra three hours a week. Those arrangements offer a fair deal for both doctor and
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patient, and I am pleased that the British Medical Association has given its agreement, following a ballot of its members in which 92 per cent. voted in favour.

The Opposition claim that they support the traditional family practice, but what does this mean—restricted opening hours, problems getting appointments, tired GPs and under-doctored areas? Yes, small family practices can work well and are popular with many patients; but we should not support this fixed model of primary care any more than we should support any other fixed model, particularly at the expense of improving access to primary care in areas of most acute need. Patients should be able to see a GP or a practice nurse at a time and location that is convenient to them. That should be a defining feature of a world-class primary care system, but it will not be for politicians to determine nationally what will work best locally.

The next stage review, led by the noble Lord Darzi of Denham, is a bottom-up process, with 2,000 clinicians engaged with the public, unions and patient groups in determining how clinical care can be improved in every part of the country. That will be another stage in the exciting journey that commenced with the NHS plan and that has seen greater investment, improved resources, new hospitals and better clinical outcomes—a journey to an NHS that is world class in all aspects, instead of world class in just some.

Rob Marris: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alan Johnson: No, I am coming to the end of my speech.

Although the Conservative party professes to have joined us in supporting the NHS, it has proved by its approach to primary care that it remains stuck in the past—conservative in every respect and willing to put vested interests before better service to the public. I commend the amendment to the House.

1.36 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): This is an opportune time for us to discuss the Government’s record and their plans for family doctors. The debate gives us Liberal Democrats an opportunity to reaffirm our opposition to central control of local health services.

I was fascinated when the Secretary of State again tantalisingly indicated his recognition of the lack of accountability among primary care trusts to the communities that they serve, while the Conservatives rejected any change to the accountability of primary care trusts. May I commend to the Secretary of State the Liberal Democrats’ proposals to democratise the commissioning of health care? Primary care trust boards should be elected, not appointed nationally. Ultimately, the Conservatives want to retain the central model of control of the NHS. The Secretary of State suggested that he recognised the case that we had made, but will he go the whole way and provide proper accountability to the communities that trusts serve? We wait to see what his announcement amounts to.

I want to talk about the morale of general practice. It is important to recognise that the network of family doctors in this country is the bedrock of health care and the NHS. As others have said, that network is the
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envy of the world. We should not, however, be complacent or take the view that the service is never capable of improvement to meet modern needs. We should always be prepared to accept the case for evidence-based reform. The Government must recognise that they damage the service, which is so widely supported among the general public, at their peril, because it is such an important part of our health service.

Whatever the Secretary of State says about how fortunate GPs are, given the way in which the Government have treated them, he must recognise that morale among GPs is very low. I am sure that he talks to GPs throughout the country, so I am sure that he recognises that they feel demoralised. Indeed, one Norfolk GP said to me recently, “We’re well paid—we recognise that—but we feel that some of our professionalism has been taken away from us, because we’re dictated to so much from up above”—that is, from Whitehall. When GPs try to develop practice-based commissioning, those who make the decisions often do not listen. When they try to refer patients for services such as those for teenagers with mental health problems and discover that services are inadequate or simply non-existent in rural Norfolk, they cannot feel much pride in their job, despite the fact that they are being well paid. The Secretary of State should recognise the real concerns among general practitioners, who take pride in their work, which they undertake for the very best of motives. Their concerns should not simply be dismissed as unfair attacks on the Government.

I have spoken to a number of GPs in the past fortnight. They raised several issues with me, the first of which was the GP contract, and I shall come back to that in a moment. The second issue was the state of practice-based commissioning and where it is going. The Conservative spokesman rightly referred to the fact that it appeared to have completely stalled, certainly in many parts of the country. The third issue is the central imposition of what we must now call health centres, rather than polyclinics. I shall return to that issue later as well.

Are those concerns justified? Doctors feel that they are taking the blame for a contract that was ultimately the Government’s contract. It was forced through three years ago, and GP leaders at the time warned the Government of the effect it would have. The National Audit Office reports that there has been a £1.76 billion overspend on the contract since its introduction. Remarkably, the contract frustrates GPs while failing to be consistent with some of the Government’s key objectives, particularly in regard to preventive care, despite the potential of the quality and outcomes framework—QOF— system. I fully recognise that the introduction of that system could do much to incentivise preventive care. The contract also fails to be consistent with the Government’s stated objectives on reducing inequalities.

Dr. Pugh: Is my hon. Friend aware that the NAO report states quite explicitly that there has been no productivity increase in GP practices?

Norman Lamb: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that. We should acknowledge, however, that measures of productivity can sometimes be misleading. If GPs are spending more time with their patients, that
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could be a good thing. This is certainly an issue that has been highlighted by the NAO, however.

I want to deal specifically with the QOF system—the system that encourages GPs to do all sorts of things with preventive care. When the QOF system is reviewed, there is an evidence-gathering process to determine what should be incentivised in the reviewed system. On this occasion, a lot of work was done to develop ideas for addressing osteoporosis, including testing those who are most at risk, especially after the first fracture. A lot of work was also done on peripheral arterial disease and on heart failure. But what happened then? The thing that particularly frustrated GPs and many others is that the entire objective evidence-gathering process came to nothing because, at the last minute, the Government decided that the political imperative was to force through a one-size-fits-all extension of hours. That is the reality.

An NHS Confederation briefing yesterday confirmed that the political imperative had involved increased hours and that all the evidence-based work—especially the work on osteoporosis—had gone out of the window. That is what frustrates clinicians who care about their patients more than anything. A one-size-fits-all extension of hours has now been forced through. I fully support the case for extending hours and for making access more flexible. I am sure that everyone in this Chamber finds it difficult to see their GP—because of the hours we work and the fact that we work away from home—quite apart from those on low incomes who feel anxious about taking time off work and who would like to see a GP outside normal working hours.

Sandra Gidley: I agree with my hon. Friend about the one-size-fits-all solution. One of my local surgeries deals with a lot of commuters, and it has devised a scheme whereby people can e-mail their doctor and get a response on a certain day. Often, it is not a case of needing to see a doctor so much as needing to ask a question and getting reassurance, which might not be available from someone who does not know the patient. Would my hon. Friend support more such schemes being developed in the future?

Norman Lamb: Absolutely. All sorts of innovative things are being developed. In many practices, there is a commitment to speak to a patient by telephone on the same day, if an appointment cannot be arranged. Often, a telephone consultation is just what the patient needs. We should certainly support the use of e-mail and telephone consultations. Surely it should be for local commissioners to drive through decisions on increasing hours and making access more flexible in order to meet their local needs, rather than having a one-size-fits-all solution imposed from the centre.

I want to return briefly to the question of osteoporosis. When I asked about the loss of that valuable work at the NHS Confederation briefing yesterday, I was given an indication that there would be an announcement shortly on ways—outside the QOF system—of encouraging GPs to test for osteoporosis. I understand that there was a written statement yesterday, although I have not seen it. I would welcome an intervention from the Secretary of State to tell us what might be about to happen. We understand that an announcement is imminent.
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Will he tell us, either now or through the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), at the end of the debate, what is proposed? A lot of people who care a lot about this matter want that work to be incentivised, because it involves good, preventive health care.

In an earlier intervention, I challenged the Secretary of State about the fact that the GP contract often ends up paying more to GPs in the leafy suburbs than it does to those in the most deprived communities. I want first to look at the minimum practice income guarantee. The Health Service Journal has highlighted huge variations in payment to practices, regardless of the number of patients they serve or the needs of those patients. The article highlights two practices in Westminster, one of which happens to be based at Buckingham palace. That practice gets twice as much money as it ought to, because of the minimum practice income guarantee. The article states:

How on earth can the Government justify that system? They are paying more money to practices—often in the more affluent communities—that do not need it. As the Health Service Journal and many others have said, that money ought surely to be used to address health inequalities.

Another issue highlighted by the Health Service Journal is practices excluding patients under the QOF system. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to this when he winds up the debate. Massive variations have been highlighted, with some practices excluding 10 times more patients than the national average. As I understand it, if patients can be excluded from the QOF target, it is easier to hit the target and to get the money. There is no evidence, however, that the problem is most serious in practices that genuinely find it difficult to approach patients because they are in hard-to-reach communities. For example, Tower Hamlets and the Heart of Birmingham primary care trusts have among the lowest levels of exclusions in the country. The point made by the Health Service Journal is that this is a misapplication of millions of pounds of public money that ought to be going towards reducing health inequalities in some of the most deprived communities.

Overall, the highest payments under the QOF system of incentivising GPs to undertake preventive health care, which is so important to reducing health care inequalities, go to practices in leafy suburbs. How on earth can the Government justify that system? My fear about the Conservative perspective is that if we simply give all the responsibility and power to GPs, that will ultimately do nothing to change such inequalities. Ultimately, if we are to ensure that money and funding is directed to the most disadvantaged communities, there is an essential role for strong commissioning.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful speech. I think that he puts his finger on a difficulty that, if we are honest, all political parties have with these issues: on the one hand, we seem to have the shibboleth of local control and local accountability; on the other hand, we have things such
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as health inequalities, which we would like to address with different mechanisms. Perforce, such mechanisms are often seen as top-down control—and it seems to be another shibboleth that we should decry that sort of control. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how one does that balancing act? It is difficult for any of the three main parties to balance in their policies the top-down element, which, unlike local control, we think we do not like, bearing in mind some of the results that flow from local control—most notably displayed in the phrase “postcode lottery”.

Norman Lamb: The hon. Gentleman makes a thoughtful intervention. There is, of course, the potential for conflict. Ultimately, however, our highly centrally controlled system has failed to deliver in reducing health inequalities; and all the evidence suggests, particularly if we reflect on what happens overseas, that real engagement at the local level and integrating services for health and social care with housing, community regeneration and so forth is the best way to address those underlying inequalities. Change to that extent cannot be delivered from Whitehall; it simply does not work. All the evidence from centrally controlled systems demonstrates that point. For me, then, we are more likely to achieve success if we provide genuine accountability to the communities that are served.

The evidence that I have picked up from talking to GPs in many different parts of the country—it was reflected in what the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said earlier—suggests that practice-based commissioning is dead in the water. There is a growing frustration among GPs that all their efforts to try to make something of it and put forward innovative ideas about services that could be delivered in a community setting close to people’s homes—perhaps avoiding the need for a long journey to an acute hospital—are falling on stony ground. They feel that there is no longer any political drive behind it, which has resulted in GPs becoming completely disillusioned with the concept, increasingly believing that it is going nowhere.

Over the past few weeks, I met a group of GPs in Dorset. I noticed that the Conservative spokesman was in Poole, so I was about 10 miles up the road from there. I met another group of GPs in Norfolk last week and heard how frustrated they were about putting forward their ideas on how to develop services to the primary care trusts, yet getting no reaction at all.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making an intelligent point, but I have to say that I disagree with him on a number of issues. Certainly in my area, the availability of alternative community-based clinics has made a radical difference to GP referral patterns—hugely to the benefit of patients and patient satisfaction. In my practice, we do regular surveys of patient satisfaction and we have seen significant increased satisfaction as a result of patients being able to see medical people much closer to their homes and much more focused on their GP practice. In many cases, they receive care and treatment from people they personally know, which has to be an advantage. I accept that in other areas it might not be working as well, but the model itself seems to work very well.


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Norman Lamb: I am encouraged to hear what the hon. Gentleman says—despite his very recent arrival in the Chamber, which I welcome. I have to say that in many parts of the country— [Interruption.] I hear a suggestion from a sedentary position that the hon. Gentleman has been saving lives, but I suspect that he was just having his lunch—[Hon. Members: “Ooh.”] I do not know how much the hon. Gentleman talks to his GP colleagues around the country, but what he referred to is simply not happening in many parts of the country, where many GPs are becoming very disillusioned as a result.

I want to say a few words about the Conservatives’ over-reliance on the GP to ensure that that whole health system works effectively and in the patient’s interests. The Conservative spokesman acknowledged, in response to an earlier intervention, the importance of recognising the potential for conflicts of interest, but that is absent from the Conservative motion and from most of their pronouncements. There are real concerns, including among many GPs, about potential conflicts of interest, and it cannot be said that GPs will always act in the patient’s interests. One example can be seen in what I said earlier about exclusions under the QOF system. In my view, it is a dangerous game simply to believe that GPs can run the whole system. They are absolutely central to it, but their role has to be combined with strong, effective commissioning.

This afternoon’s discussion on the difference between a polyclinic and a health centre was interesting. As I said at the NHS Confederation briefing yesterday, the honest truth is that the difference amounts only to a rebadging. The Government were calling these bodies polyclinics, but they got such a bad name through what GPs and others said about them that we now call them something else. When I asked what a GP-led health centre was all about, all the things that I was told they would contain sounded very much like a polyclinic. These are, at the very least, embryonic polyclinics.

Dr. Pugh: There is a lack of semantic clarity about the issue, as we have already seen in our debate, but one would expect the Government to know where polyclinics were. When I asked the Secretary of State

I received the reply:

That was news to all of us; as well as not knowing what they are, it seems that we do not know where they are.


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