Motion to Take Note

Part of Genomic Medicine: S&T Committee Report – in the House of Lords at 8:33 pm on 9 June 2010.

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Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 8:33, 9 June 2010

My Lords, I begin by saying what a privilege it was to serve on this inquiry, which was so skilfully chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. We owe him a great deal of gratitude for ensuring the presence of scientific stars of a positive World Cup standard, who appeared before us to give evidence that helped to inform our report. I also look forward to the appearance of my noble friend Lord Winston on the Front Bench. I wish only that the Labour Party had thought of the idea of guest spokesmen on the Front Bench when I was a Minister. I thank Tim Aitman and wish him a happy birthday and thank all the clerks' office staff for the work that they put in.

This was an important report for the NHS and patients. It is based on extensive evidence-gathering. As a committee, we were fully seized of the state of the public finances, and we went to some trouble not to produce a wish-list of things to please scientists and damage the Government's finances further. We have been hard-headed in the recommendations we have made, with a strong focus on things that will benefit patients. What is, however, clear is that in the world of genomic medicine things will not stand still but will change at a rapid pace whatever a UK Government do about this report. It looks as though linking therapies for identifiable individuals with common diseases is progressing very rapidly, and we cannot ignore, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said, the speed of that progress.

The UK has traditionally been a world leader in the field of genetics and we were told consistently that it has punched above its weight in genomic research. That was reflected in the 2003 White Paper that I was involved in as the responsible Health Minister. The world moves on, with many advances overseas, especially in the US and China, but the UK still has a major advantage if we choose to use it wisely-a National Health Service, with universal population coverage and health data. This provides a strong scope for population-based approaches to early diagnosis of diseases and targeted personal drug therapies. Moreover, the cost of burgeoning genetic knowledge is falling rapidly, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, described so well.

The pace of change presents serious challenges to government and the NHS. To be honest, I found the previous Government's response to our report disappointing and, if I may say so, in some respects slightly complacent. I note that respected bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, and others, were also disappointed in that response. Too much of it looked back to what the Government had done rather than forward to what the Government and the NHS needed to do, given the pace of change. I can see that there could be a case for setting up a Human Genomics Strategy Group, which seems to be the cornerstone of the previous Government's response, but my fear is that this will be a poorly resourced talking shop with no clear mission statement and without the authority to drive change. For me, the unwillingness to produce a new White Paper that looks ahead for five to 10 years and sets out a new agenda for genomics within an NHS context is a sign of the Department of Health's reluctance to define and drive a new agenda through a HGSG or alternative machinery. After so many years around government, I have developed an expertise in recognising bureaucratic inertia, which is what this could be interpreted as. So my first question to the Minister is whether he and his colleagues in the new Government are willing to revisit the issue of producing a forward-looking White Paper and creating a more sharply defined machinery for driving forward a new agenda in this area. That would be totally consistent with the efficiency and quality agenda for the NHS that the new Government wish to produce.

I shall confine myself to a few specific issues on the other points in the report around the translation of this new knowledge into patient benefit. The NHS in my experience has a mixed track record in translating discoveries from the lab to the bedside. There are four of these translation aspects in the report that I have concerns about. The first is extending the remit of NICE to evaluate validity, utility and cost-benefits of genomic tests for common diseases. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has spoken in more detail about this critical area. We thought that it was best to place this responsibility on an existing, respected body, and I think that that was the right thing to do. However, as a former Minister responsible for NICE, I know how many new duties have been piled upon it. Can we be confident that NICE will have the resources, including the specialised expertise, to take on this demanding new role, and when can we expect to see this new role featuring substantively in NICE's work programme?

My second area of concern relates to pathology, on which the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has spoken. We deliberately proposed centralising laboratory services for molecular pathology as a way of making the efficiency savings that would fund much of the new equipment that will be required and on the basis of evidence given to us, particularly in relation to Oxford from Sir John Bell.

Amalgamation also goes with the flow of the two reports on NHS pathology services by my noble friend Lord Carter of Coles, who, if I may put it this way, I unleashed on these services when I was a Minister nearly five years ago. However, never underestimate the capacity of parts of the NHS to resist change. As the committee indicated in its report, implementation of the Carter proposals has been painfully slow, given the scale of the possible savings that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, described. The previous Government's response on this issue was hardly galvanising, even though they sort of accepted our recommendation. Their proposal was that SHA medical directors were to lead work on pathology service redesign to bring together pathology and genetics laboratories. I certainly would not have bet the farm on this achieving change quickly in the face of longstanding resistance from many local consultant pathologists, but if SHAs are to be abolished in 2012, I would expect even less to happen between now and then.

Will the Minister have another look at this whole area, including the Carter recommendations, and come up with a more convincing plan that is also likely to deliver substantial savings and improve services? I remind him that when I was a Minister setting up the Carter review, we were thinking then in terms of 20 per cent savings on the cost of the pathology services by consolidation and amalgamation.

My third area of concern is commissioning, where the previous Government rejected the committee's recommendation that changes were needed in the commissioning of genetic tests because of the inconsistency across the NHS in the provision of genetic tests and genetic testing for subtypes of common diseases. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, has already referred to the risk of a postcode lottery with regard to the availability of these tests. The then Government wanted to rely on the web portal NHS evidence to inform commissioners, and on the current commissioning arrangements. The respected PHG Foundation has sided with the committee after expert workshops looked at this issue among others. In a report published last month, the foundation said that the DoH,

"should review how NHS funding mechanisms act as a barrier to the utilisation of new tests", and that, in effect, these make it difficult to realise cost savings throughout the healthcare economy. Given that the new Government have in mind new approaches to commissioning, this would seem a good opportunity to revisit the concerns over the commissioning of genetic tests that others have raised. Will the Minister be prepared to do this?

My final point relates to issue of medical bioinformatics, which is critical to success in this area, as other noble Lords have mentioned. All the evidence that we received suggested that a shortage of bioinformatics personnel and kit was likely to be one of the greatest impediments that the NHS would face in using the new genetic knowledge. I am pleased that the previous Government accepted that more secure funding for the European Bioinformatics Institute was needed. We hope that this will not be a victim of cuts. However, I have grave doubts about whether the DoH is doing enough to provide sufficient bioinformatics capability to the NHS through its Modernising Scientific Careers programme, which seems to be its process of choice. That is why we recommended the establishment of an institute of biomedical informatics. I encourage the Minister to get his colleagues to look again at this proposal, particularly drawing on the potential for savings, as a number of us have said, from consolidation in the pathology area.

I recognise that there is a lot of detail in these questions and that the Minister may well need to take further advice. We should say to him, though, that the Science and Technology Committee-I hope-will continue to keep a beady eye on this area and progress in it.