I beg to move,
That this House
has considered primary care in North Essex.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. We face a serious problem of primary care provision in our corner of Essex. To put it bluntly, there are not enough GPs. In my part of Essex, there are three local GP surgeries, which are not taking on any new patients at all. Those fortunate enough to be registered with a surgery often struggle to get an appointment.
Here are some of my constituents’ experiences, pulled out from my postbag in the past three weeks, to give you a flavour of what they are having to put up with. An elderly lady from Little Clacton wrote to me a couple of weeks ago,
“On attending the practice, I realised that there was an average of three weeks waiting time to see a GP. …
When I did finally get seen, the practice nurse said, and I quote, ‘You have to be at death’s door to get an urgent appointment on the NHS now.’”
This is a woman who has spent decades paying into the system, unable to see a doctor for three weeks.
Then there is a lovely lady from Kirby in Frinton who emailed me, saying:
“I’m writing to say how abysmal the doctor’s surgery is now. I waited two weeks for an appointment, only to be told to go to a different surgery if I wasn’t any better in two weeks.”
There is not much sign of customer service there, is there?
Finally, a man from Clacton wrote:
“I am my mother’s carer. I’m not a doctor. I just do my best and feel abandoned by my medical practice. I am having great trouble making appointments for my mother to see a doctor so that we can control her pain.”
Those are not isolated cases. My postbag is full of examples—it is fair to say that something is badly wrong with primary care in our part of Essex. What concerns me is that it was possible to see the problem coming. Back in September 2013, I led a delegation of GPs to see the health Secretary to flag it up, precisely because GPs said the problems were going to happen.
To be fair to Ministers, we in this room all know—I hope people outside know it too—how disastrous the 2004 GP contracts were. They were certainly disastrous for those who are meant to be provided with primary care—but that is now more than a decade ago. We also recognise that a Minister cannot, as I think Nye Bevan put it, be held responsible for the “sound of every dropped bedpan” in every NHS surgery and waiting room. In fairness, I do not think we can blame Ministers for the failure of individual surgeries to get their appointment systems sorted out. But the question is, who does take responsibility? Who will answer to my constituents for these failings?
It is clear there has been a failure to provide the level of primary care that is needed in our part of Essex. What is less clear is who we hold to account. We have an alphabet soup of different agencies and quangos in charge, but none of them seem to be properly responsible. There is something called the CCG—the clinical commissioning group. It allocates the money and the patient is then expected to follow. The technocrats commission and the patient is expected to follow. Then there is the CQC—the Care Quality Commission. It inspects the GP surgeries. Would it not be better if surgeries had to satisfy customers and not simply comply with CQC assessments? Then, of course, there is NHS England, and in our part of Essex, something called ACE—Anglian Community Enterprise—which provides certain primary care services.
I have raised concerns with all those different branches of NHS officialdom on behalf of constituents and I have done so repeatedly. Promises are invariably made. I am told that we will get more GPs, that new contracts and a new kind of contract will be sorted out—always tomorrow. Not much ever actually seems to change on the ground.
Sometimes I am told, or it is implied—they do not dare tell me this any more because I react very strongly to it—that all of this is to be expected. There is, they say, an elderly population in our part of Essex. The profile of the patient group, I was once told, means that there is all this extra pressure.
Those sentiments are excuses for failure; they are not credible reasons. We should not be in the business of blaming people for being elderly. After all, if someone is elderly, it means they have paid more into the system. In what other walk of life or area of activity is a surfeit of customers regarded as a problem? In Clacton, it is possible—I speak as a father—to go shopping for the family 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so why is it not possible to see a GP on a Saturday if a child is ill?
At the root of the problem is a system of state rationing—it is probably one of the last vestiges of the mid-20th century system of state rationing—in which the patient is expected to stand in line and wait. The patient is made to follow the money. We need a system of primary care in which the money—for a taxpayer-funded service, free at the point of access—follows the patient.
Ministers are absolutely right to want to see surgeries open on a Saturday, at weekends and in the evenings. Heaven forbid, if we really had a system of primary care that responded to my constituents’ needs, there might even be GP surgeries in railway stations, where quite a large number of my constituents tend to congregate in the early morning and late evening. If we are to have a more accessible, customer-focused service, it means making the patient king. It is not something that can be done by top-down design or by ministerial decree. Good customer service comes from the need to please customers, not from on high.
GPs tell me that the burden they face could be alleviated in part if more people were willing to use and made better use of pharmacists. There is a lot of truth in that. Pharmacists are highly qualified and often very experienced, and we are right to look into that. I say this in the week when we have finally passed the legislation to get us out of the EU, but perhaps we could learn from some of our European neighbours who seem much better at making good use of pharmacists, particularly Italy and France. I gather that in Germany people do not have to depend on the equivalent of a GP acting as a gatekeeper in the way that we do in this country. I would be very grateful if the Minister could elaborate and talk about not just what we can do to alleviate the problems in our part of Essex but the far-reaching reform that is needed if we are to make sure that people who have spent all those years paying into the system can be seen by a doctor when they need to.