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I am keen that we take on board the observations that the hon. Gentleman set out tonight, which are contained in his report. I certainly welcome the work done on commissioning and writing the Walton report. He may be aware that there is already an advisory group looking at wheelchair services, involving service users, representatives from the NHS and local government, clinicians and
third sector organisations. It would be very helpful indeed if a representative from the muscular dystrophy campaign was involved with the group and, through the debate, I extend an invitation to that organisation to take part. I also invite the hon. Gentleman and members of his all-party group to meet the chairman of the advisory group, David Colin-Thomé, to discuss specific issues arising from the report, with a view to holding a meeting with me to discuss how we take matters forward.
I certainly agree that there is a great deal in what the hon. Gentleman said. We can see from the reviews carried out over recent years that there has been tangible improvement, but-an important but-as the hon. Gentleman outlined, it has been extremely limited. The experience for many people is a poor one. The service is characterised by long waiting times. As we have heard, it is quite common for people to wait months for a wheelchair, and not uncommon for them to wait years for a powered wheelchair. That really affects outcomes for people. It poses particular problems for children whose needs change as they grow, and for those with progressive conditions such as muscular dystrophy or motor neurone disease, whose needs can change very rapidly. The service is also characterised by considerable regional variation-in assessments, procurement, and choice for the individual. Quite simply, that is unacceptable.
The majority of wheelchair services are provided by the national health service, and should be subject to consistent, national standards, applied by local commissioners to the needs of individual populations. I think the hon. Gentleman and I agree on the diagnosis, but we might disagree about the best way to effect a cure.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should ring-fence wheelchair funding and introduce a new target on waiting times. However, we are already performing the biggest ring-fence possible. By providing real-terms increases in NHS budgets for the duration of the Parliament, we are protecting all health services, including wheelchair services, at a time of unprecedented spending restraint; yet even with that protection, the NHS faces a stark challenge as the population ages and lives longer, and the increasing costs of treatment squeeze health budgets. That demands greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness across the whole of the health service.
If the NHS is to meet that challenge, local organisations must have the freedom to allocate funds in the best interests of their local communities. In that sense, I am afraid that proposals for a new ring fence and centralised targets swim against the tide. The Government strongly believe that we need less Whitehall control, not more; we need to liberate the NHS and ensure higher standards for patients.
In the case of wheelchair services, a ring-fenced budget could have the opposite effect. By extending autonomy for the local NHS, a ring-fenced budget could effectively cap resources, and cap the amount a trust spends on wheelchairs, rather than allowing commissioners to make a judgment, informed by local need, about what should be spent on those services. Furthermore, ring-fencing could result in services that fail to improve, and we need to make sure that does not happen.
With greater freedoms come greater responsibilities for the local NHS. We want to strengthen both the patient and the clinical voice, so that patients, general practitioners, consultants and other clinicians, rather
than layers of NHS management, call the shots and control the way services work. We will strengthen accountability and transparency so that the public can hold the local NHS properly to account for the decisions it makes, and poor performance can be properly challenged across the country.
We need to address a number of issues and the hon. Gentleman has touched on several of them. First and foremost, commissioning has to improve. The fact that wheelchair services account for only a small proportion of local budgets means that they have been neglected by too many. Good assessment of local need is rare, performance information is patchy and procurement is often left to individual wheelchair service managers.
Furthermore, higher costs due to rising demand and improving technology have not been properly reflected in many local budget allocations for wheelchair services. As a result, service managers have tended to focus on purchasing the right volume of wheelchairs for their communities, but not necessarily the right kind of wheelchairs for individual clinical needs. That gives rise to some shocking examples of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for his studied reply. One of the things that came to me was the fact that the spending that is put aside averages £2,000 per chair, but people want probably five or six times that amount for a chair that really meets their needs. Although I take on board the resources issue, it is pointless people saying that they can commission a number of chairs if, as he says, they are not worth having.
Mr Burstow: I take the point, but if one caps a budget, the danger is that the likelihood of rationing the service increases even further. We want to ensure that the services are tailored to local needs, but there are clearly some quite unacceptable performances around the country in how the service is being delivered at the moment.
On a related point, there are several funding streams for wheelchair services, and that is rather confused and confusing. Alongside NHS provision for wheelchairs, they can also be supplied through local children's trusts and Jobcentre Plus, so there is duplication and inefficiency in the system, not to mention problems for service users in terms of understanding where their entitlement might lie. Indeed, in preparing for this debate, my jaw nearly hit the floor when I read that 57% of wheelchair budgets currently go on back-office costs. Fifty-seven pence in every pound that the taxpayer puts into these services fails to reach the front line at the moment. That is not acceptable; it is not a good way to use our taxpayer-funded resources for the health service. In these financially straitened times, it is clear that we have to make the available funding work much harder than that, and we can achieve much greater efficiency and a much better quality of service by encouraging a more co-ordinated system of assessment and provision across the Government. For example, there is a good argument for managing procurement regionally, not locally, so we can benefit from the economies of scale that that would provide.
It is also important that commissioning is sufficiently flexible to accommodate those who wish to use personal health budgets to purchase wheelchair services. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more needs to be done to
ensure that commissioning and procurement processes work for those with the most specialised needs. I do not think that we have been bold enough in using third sector organisations, in the sense not that they are charities that hand out something that the state does not provide, but that they are good partners with the state to go the extra mile to deliver the sort of service that we need. Indeed, Whizz-Kidz has been mentioned in the debate, and there is a major success story in the partnership that that charity has formed with NHS London, local primary care trusts and local authorities to improve wheelchair services for children.
I want to encourage more of those innovative partnerships with the voluntary sector, so that we can start to make a difference by improving quality and efficiency in the system. For instance, we could usefully deploy the specialist skills of a social enterprise such as Whizz-Kidz as the main procurement body in a more co-ordinated regional system. That area needs further exploration across the NHS.
The Whizz-Kidz example demonstrates another important point: the picture is not entirely black. There are beacons of best practice in some parts of the country, and we need to learn more from them so that one area's best practice becomes common practice throughout the country.
I can announce tonight that the Government will be pursuing a pilot programme specifically to examine the commissioning of wheelchair and seating services. The work in the two regional sites that have been selected-the
east of England and the south-west-will see PCTs, councils, NHS trusts and clinicians examining new ways of commissioning wheelchair services along the lines that I described. They will make recommendations for new models that will be underpinned by consistent approaches to eligibility and access, which could then be established across the country. I understand people's frustration and desire that this should happen quickly, which the hon. Gentleman articulated clearly. However, the big risk of rushing to a conclusion is that we will not arrive at the best possible solution. It is important that we work through solutions to develop a robust, evidence-based system.
The pilot programme is an important start on building up the comprehensive understanding that we need. It will help us to uncover the best ways of organising wheelchair services to meet people's individual needs, and it will sow the seeds for best practice to take root across the whole NHS. I hope that we can work with the hon. Gentleman and his all-party group to ensure that we achieve the tangible outcomes that we all want so that all people who need powered wheelchairs get the quality of life that they desire and can contribute to society in the way in which they want.