NHS Resources and Priorities

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health) 5:00 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I will try to reply to the points that have been raised in the limited time allowed. I am grateful for the overall welcome given to the Statement by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and for his acknowledgment of the significant sums being made available; also significant is the announcement of the three-year allocations. These are in response to requests made by health authorities over many years for more certainty in their future planning. I am sure that they will be warmly welcomed.

The noble Earl is right about the 6 per cent being a cash figure, but that is a minimum figure and many health authorities will receive considerably more than that figure within an overall context of a 6.3 per cent real growth over the four years. I am sure he would accept that in any resource allocation situation there will always be some authorities which receive more than others, in accordance with the criteria set out in the allocation formula.

I was asked about bed capacity. We estimate that by December we will have in operation 123,800 general acute beds, which is an increase of nearly 3,500 over 12 months ago. Similarly, 13,600 intermediate beds will be in operation: that again is an increase of 3,100 over the corresponding period last year. I would also inform the House that yesterday the Government announced the go-ahead for 18 new hospital schemes throughout the country in the next two years, worth in total over £2.3 billion. That will enable us to see a further expansion in overall bed numbers. Also, as part of our winter preparations we expect to have an additional 300 critical care beds over the corresponding number last year. That should be extremely helpful in meeting the expected winter pressures.

The noble Earl asked a number of questions in relation to residential care homes. He will know that we believe the Care Standards Act, as it now is, will help to improve quality in the provision of those homes, as we would all wish. I would also say that despite regional variations there is still excess capacity in the residential care and nursing home sector. Also, where there have been falls in nursing home places, these have been more than offset by an estimated 20,000 rise in the number of people helped to live at home. Of course, the whole development of intermediate care and of support within the community is intended to balance any changes that may take place in the overall nursing home market.

The noble Earl also asked about waiting times and waiting lists. He will know that we have succeeded in reducing the number on the waiting list by 126,000 below the figure that we inherited. That has a beneficial impact on waiting times as a whole. The current position is that 76 per cent of patients are seen within 13 weeks and 94 per cent of patients are seen within 26 weeks of referral by their GP. Also, the number of people waiting more than 12 months is one-third lower than at June 1998. The average waiting time for patients on the list is 13 weeks: two weeks less than at June 1998.

A number of questions were asked about NICE. I do not believe that the criteria set out for NICE are redundant. NICE will continue as in the past in making its recommendations. On funding, we believe that we are right to expect the health service to fund the drugs and other treatments recommended by NICE, on the basis of the overall allocation given to the NHS, which is the most generous allocation in its entire history.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about the statement made by Healthcare Navigator about waiting times. This company aims to help people to get private sector health care. Last August it ran a similar story and published similar figures, which were wrongly worked out. We believe them to be entirely guess-work, speculative and based on unsound mathematics.

Regarding central budgets, £5.9 billion is being held centrally, but much of it is for funding national programmes for education and training, research and development. We shall make announcements about that in due course. We are trying to push as much money as possible out to the health service so that health authorities can decide in their own way how to spend it.

Finally, I thank the noble Lord for his acknowledgement of the extra resources for dentistry.