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Bowel Cancer Screening

– in Westminster Hall at 11:06 am on 1st May 2018.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 11:06 am, 1st May 2018

I apologise to Members for my late arrival; the previous debate finished early and I was under the impression that I was in the Chair only until 11 o’clock.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered bowel cancer screening.

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Roger, and I am glad that you have taken your seat.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. Sadly, around 16,000 people die from the disease each year. It is estimated that between now and 2035, around 332,000 more lives could be taken by this awful condition. Nearly everyone will survive bowel cancer if it detected at its earliest stage, but unfortunately only 15% of bowel cancer patients fall into that category.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Does he agree that early-stage cancers are not only easier to treat, but less costly for a cash-strapped NHS? That is why we need an effective screening programme that includes lowering the screening age to 50 and implementing the simpler and more accurate faecal immunochemical test. That would help to get the earlier diagnosis, to stop the cancer.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for an optimal screening programme—I will come to that in a moment.

In Wales around 2,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. Nearly half of those are diagnosed at a late stage. Approximately 900 people in Wales will die from bowel cancer every year, but 78% of patients will survive for one year or more, and 58% for five years or more. These figures are not mere statistics; every single extra day with the people we love is a great joy.

I lost my own mother, Pamela Symonds, to bowel cancer on new year’s day this year. She lived just under two years after her formal—too late, I am afraid—diagnosis. She was one of the 10,000 people diagnosed annually at the late stage of bowel cancer. I know only too well the impact that bowel cancer has on families.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour/Co-operative, Islwyn

I pass on my condolences to my hon. Friend. With all candour, I know what he is going through: I lost my father in 2003 to bowel cancer. He was just 51. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to start screening people for bowel cancer at the age of 50?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I pass on my condolences to him, even though the loss of his father was some time ago.

Along with my father Jeff, my wife Rebecca and my mother’s many friends, I supported her through three arduous rounds of chemotherapy, helping her to achieve her goal of living long enough to meet her grandson, my son William, who was born some three months after she was diagnosed. Owing to the care and treatment she received, her inspirational bravery and her sheer determination, she lived not only to see him born but to see him reach his first birthday in September 2017, and to see her beloved granddaughters, Matilda and Florence, reach the ages of eight and five—precious moments that are now my precious memories.

For families dealing with cancer, time is everything. Those who are diagnosed with bowel cancer have the best chance of surviving—and of surviving for much longer—if they are diagnosed at the earliest stage. This is why screening is so important.

Photo of Stephen Lloyd Stephen Lloyd Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I offer him my condolences on his dear mother’s death. He will be aware of the enormous public petition—it has received 446,000 signatures—that was started all those years ago by Lauren Backler, who also lost her mother. I have supported that campaign for a long time. Does he agree that the evidence is clear that we should be screening at the age of 50, so it is surely time for an end to shilly-shallying from the Department of Health and Social Care? Will the Minister agree to at least pilot screening for bowel cancer at 50? It is obvious that the evidence from such a pilot would be irrefutable.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. The situation we are in is entirely of my making, and for that I can only apologise. Given that there are so many Members present who might wish to intervene, I am prepared to stay in the Chair for six minutes of injury time to enable the hon. Gentleman to take interventions. I am sure that is illegal, but I am willing to do it, provided that the Minister and the hon. Gentleman, who are in charge of the debate, are prepared to accept that.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I am grateful for that kind offer, Sir Roger. I am delighted to hear that we can continue for an extra six minutes.

Stephen Lloyd is absolutely right. This is a cross-party issue. I believe that his predecessor spoke in favour of the system that he proposes, and Guy Opperman contacted me to draw attention to the debate that he led back in 2011. There is broad cross-party consensus for looking at the screening age and at more accurate screening methods, which I will come on to.

Participation rates remain an issue. We should send a very simple message to people: “Please do not ignore your bowel cancer screening kit, which could save your life.” There is no doubt that we must also do more to raise awareness of symptoms. Bowel cancer is often mistaken for other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. That only reinforces the point that a number of hon. Members have made about the importance of highly accurate screening.

Previously, the standard screening test was considered to be the faecal occult blood test—the FOB test, as it is known—and all men and women between 60 and 74 received a home test kit, but that has been changing across the country. The best available test is now the faecal immunochemical test—the FIT—which can detect more cancers and can be set to different sensitivity levels, enabling any traces of human blood that are found to be investigated. The Royal College of Pathologists sent me a useful briefing, in which it indicates that it would expect a 45% increase in demand on pathology if the test were set at one level, but a 480% increase if it were set at a more sensitive level. That sensitivity level is important.

The Welsh Government are introducing the FIT from March 2019. I believe that it was due to be introduced in England in April. I hope that the Minister can update the House on when that will happen. I hope that there will be a decision for Northern Ireland soon. Of course, Scotland already screens people using the FIT at age 50.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

As ever, it is lovely to have you in the Chair, Sir Roger. We forgive you, of course.

My youngest sister had bowel cancer. Mercifully, she had an early diagnosis because she had a wonderful GP. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Northern Ireland. In the continued absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly, will he and his colleagues, and colleagues from other parties, please support the very active campaigners in Northern Ireland who, like me, wish to see the screening age for bowel cancer reduced to 50?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I am pleased to hear the good news that the hon. Lady’s sister was able to recover well. Of course Members across the House should look to support those campaigners. I am in favour of consistency across the UK. One of the great things about devolution is learning from best practice in different parts of the United Kingdom, and people in Northern Ireland absolutely should benefit too.

There are other differences in testing. In England and Scotland, people aged over 75 can obtain a screening test by calling a free bowel cancer helpline. In England, a one-off bowel scope screening is promised for those aged 55, but only around half of areas currently offer that. Will the Minister update us on how progress towards all areas being covered can be sped up?

As I indicated in answer to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, there is cross-party support for reviewing the age at which testing starts. I ask the UK Government and all the devolved Governments to look at and keep under review the age at which screening begins—that is crucial—and the sensitivity of the tests that are used. It seems to me that reducing the screening age, which many Members have pointed out, and increasing the sensitivity of tests are the two uniting themes.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Transport Committee

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Like him, I lost my mother to bowel cancer when she was only 53—an age I am now approaching. Does he have evidence on whether there should be a lower screening age at least for those of us with a family history of bowel cancer, even if the screening programme cannot be extended to everyone under 60 or 55?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I absolutely agree. Although we all want a blanket reduction in the screening age across the United Kingdom, there are a number of risk factors for bowel cancer, one of which is family history, and we certainly need to look at having flexibility around the country so that screening can be done earlier where those risk factors are present.

The charities Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer seek an optimal screening programme for men and women from 50 to 74. They rightly point out the importance of early diagnosis and the real opportunity to reduce the number of people who die from this awful disease.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this debate at what must be a difficult time for him. My sympathies are with him. A member of my close family—my father-in-law—is suffering from bowel cancer. Thanks to the superb support of the NHS, we hope he is on the road to recovery. That has brought home to me the importance of early diagnosis. I just want to put on the record the fact that I would support the hon. Gentleman on a cross-party basis to ensure that we bring down the screening age and improve testing wherever we can.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I am sure that all hon. Members would join me in sending their very best wishes to the hon. Gentleman’s father-in-law. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman passed those on. I welcome the cross-party support for reducing the screening age. I referred to Bowel Cancer UK, and I should point out that I have been pleased to do a number of runs to raise money for that charity through sponsorship.

I realise that we must deal with two other things to ensure that lowering the screening age and improving the screening process across the UK is effective. First, pathology capacity must be increased, because there will obviously be vastly more samples to deal with. Secondly, we need high-quality colonoscopy capacity to deal with the increased numbers of people referred on for further investigation as more sensitive tests yield further results that need to be checked out.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I extend my condolences to my hon. Friend on the sad loss of his mother. I worked in pathology before I became an MP, and I am grateful to him for mentioning it and the increase in capacity that will be required if it is found to be indicated clinically that we need to reduce the screening age to 50.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her sympathy and for her bringing her experience to bear on the debate. Such increased capacity will be so important.

That we need to be ambitious on pathology and colonoscopy capacity should not deter us from the ultimate goal, however; I want to see every eligible person across the United Kingdom have access to the best and most effective screening methods so that we can finally defeat this cancer. Saving lives—giving more families more precious moments with their loved ones—should be the only incentive we need to make progress.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 11:21 am, 1st May 2018

I congratulate my friend Nick Thomas-Symonds on securing the debate. I pass on my condolences, as others have, for his loss just a few months ago. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up in the House of Commons and talk about the passing of a mother so soon after it happened—I am not sure that I could have done so when it happened to me. As the Minister with responsibility for public health and cancer, I thank him for his interest in this subject and for the support he has shown. He mentioned the runs he has done—I am sure I could not do that—and his support for our excellent bowel cancer charities, Beating Bowel Cancer and Bowel Cancer UK, which recently joined together to become one charity. We await with interest what the new name will be—answers on a postcard to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Let me start by assuring the hon. Gentleman that bowel cancer is a priority for me, the Government and NHS England. That is simply because it affects so many of our constituents—about one in 20—during their lifetimes. It is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second leading cause of cancer deaths, with up to 16,000 people sadly losing their lives to the disease each year. If we want to improve on what are the best ever cancer survival figures, we need to do better with bowel cancer and, indeed, with all other cancers. Thankfully, more than 76% of men and women now survive for one year, which is a crucial landmark, and about 60% survive for five years. It is encouraging that survival in those detected and treated following bowel cancer screening is about 97%.

Let me talk about FIT, the subject of our discussion. Rolling out FIT—faecal immunochemical testing for haemoglobin, to give its full title—is recommended in the independent cancer taskforce’s strategy for England. We have much more to do to catch bowel cancer early and achieve better figures, which is why the Government accepted the recommendation of the UK National Screening Committee, which provides the Government with independent, internationally regarded evidence relating to screening, that FIT should replace the current home test. The pilot work showed that FIT will increase by about 7% the proportion of people taking part. Importantly, we expect those communities not returning the current home test kits to show the most interest in using the new ones. That is an important part of England’s cancer strategy. I am sure we will all welcome that contribution to the reduction of inequalities in screening and cancer mortality for those communities.

NHS England, Public Health England and NHS Digital are working together to finalise a number of practical arrangements regarding sensitivity, rightly mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as well as production and distribution of FIT kits and diagnostic and pathology workforce capacity—I will return to that—to ensure that when FIT is implemented, it is, critically, sustainable.

It was important to get this right first time. When I was appointed last June, I was aware of the issue. One of the first questions I asked was about it, and I am as frustrated as anyone that it has taken so long. However, I am pleased to say that we fully expect that FIT will begin to be rolled out in the autumn. The hon. Gentleman mentioned NHS Wales and next spring and it being great that devolved Administrations follow best practice. Perhaps NHS Wales could follow NHS England’s best practice and bring forward its timetable.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I am grateful to the Minister for his tone and constructive approach. May I press him for a little more detail? He said that FIT will be introduced in England in the autumn, but when will we get closer to a precise date?

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the precise date today, but I know of his and other Members’ interest in the matter, and as soon as I can give that date I will tweet it and tag him. I assure Members that I will let the House know as soon as I have the date, and I have a funny feeling that Members will be watching closely for that.

On lowering the age for screening, many right hon. and hon. Members and their constituents are concerned that the age at which we invite people for bowel screening should be 50 rather than 60. Such concern is sometimes driven by personal experience of the impact of cancer on families as well as on constituents. Stephen Lloyd feels particularly strongly about the issue and has worked on it for a long time—I worked with him a lot during his first iteration as an MP, and it is good to see him in his second chapter. I thank him and his constituent Lauren Backler, who sadly lost her mum to bowel cancer, for personally delivering to my Department last week a petition on the screening age with, as he said, 400,000-plus signatures. I was in my constituency; otherwise, I would have come down and got it myself. I saw him on “ITV News Meridian”, our local news, walking up Victoria Street with the petition. I thank him for that and will take great note of the petition. We will, of course, consider it carefully and respond in due course, but I hope what I will say today will give him some cause for optimism.

When the bowel cancer programme was introduced in 2006, it focused in the first instance on those aged 60 to 69, and then in 2010 it was extended to 70 to 74-year-olds. When we consider that eight in 10 cases are in over-60s, we can understand why that was the starting point, but that does not have to be the end point. It is therefore crucial that the clinician looking at the bowel following a finding of blood in a stool is as skilled an expert as possible, and the NHS has to make sure there was enough clinical capacity to follow up referrals.

The hon. Member for Torfaen rightly mentioned NHS England capacity, which is critical. To boost clinical capacity in the NHS in England, Health Education England has recently pledged to fund the training of 400 clinical endoscopists by 2021, which will significantly increase the endoscopy capacity in England and is a key part of the jigsaw.

This decision to screen from the age of 60 was also based on the fact that, as I have said, the risk of bowel cancer increases with age and people in their 60s are found to be most likely to complete a testing kit. However, that does not have to be the end of the conversation. Therefore, five years ago, in 2013, we started to introduce bowel scope screening for those aged 55. In the research that underpinned that decision, those who took up the offer of a bowel scope test and follow-on treatment reduced their chances of dying from bowel cancer by more than 40%. Those are good stats. Now, with the introduction of FIT, we have an important, evidence-supported opportunity to consider the totality of the bowel cancer screening programme and maximise the benefits of bowel cancer screening.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

One of the issues with the scope test is its geographical spread: as I understand it, at the moment only about half of England is covered. First, will the Minister comment on when it will be extended? Secondly, I would welcome his commitment to reviewing screening in its totality.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I will indeed ask the question that the hon. Gentleman raises about geographical spread. It is a key point.

I am pleased to say that the UK National Screening Committee is now considering how to optimise bowel cancer screening using those two evidence-based testing methods, namely bowel scope screening and FIT. It will advise on the optimal strategy—the hon. Gentleman rightly used that term—for England, this summer. To inform that advice, it ran a consultation, which ended on 9 April. That focused on whether the current evidence supports a change to the current tests approved for use in bowel screening programmes. In particular, it considered whether an optimal bowel screening programme should use both BSS and FIT. Both those screening methods require significant numbers of highly trained people and significant amounts of hospital resources in the NHS. With the introduction of FIT, it is therefore timely to carry out further work to decide the best combination of tests for the English programme; that includes the issue of sensitivity. I know that there is a lot of debate in the clinical community about the range and the number of people affected. We must get that right.

I am pleased that as part of its deliberations, UKNSC will also consider the most appropriate age at which FIT screening will start. It would be wrong of me, however, to pre-empt its recommendations or, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, to announce an exclusive from Westminster Hall. However, it is being considered and Ministers, including the Secretary of State, take a close interest. That is as clear as I can be. We are clear that recommendations must be achievable, so the availability of high-quality follow-on tests—colonoscopy and pathology—will be central to ensuring that we can turn the benefits of a better test into thousands fewer people getting and dying from bowel cancer. I am asking NHS England to consider that carefully. It knows of my clear interest in the matter.

I am thankful that survival rates are improving year on year, with about 60% of bowel cancer patients now surviving for five years or more, compared with about 25% 40 years ago. That is a significant change. As hon. Members have said, early diagnosis is vital—for all cancers, but certainly for bowel cancer—which is why the independent cancer taskforce included driving a national ambition to achieve earlier diagnosis among its six strategic priorities in the cancer strategy for England, which I am passionate about implementing. We remain on track to deliver that priority and to deliver every one of the 96 recommendations in the strategy by 2021. We are, of course, thinking about post-2021 as part of the long-term vision for the NHS, which the Prime Minister spoke about at the Liaison Committee recently.

We hope that the introduction of FIT as the primary test in the bowel cancer screening programme later this year will further enhance the drive towards early diagnosis and ensure that we catch more cases of bowel cancer early and allow for better treatment outcomes.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

Northern Ireland has not had a Health Minister since January 2017. It would be enormously encouraging if the Minister would confirm that he has spoken to the permanent secretary for the Northern Ireland Department of Health about introducing the FIT technology in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I personally have not, but I will do so, as a takeaway from this debate. Jim Shannon, who is no longer in his place, has made the same point to me in other contexts. I shall speak to my officials and make sure that happens. I will keep the hon. Lady informed.

I have mentioned the bowel cancer charities I have a regular roundtable with all the cancer charities—it is one of the great privileges of my position. They have worked on the narrative of needing, as they put it, to talk about poo. When mainstream drive time presenters talk, as they did on BBC Radio 5 Live last week, about looking at poo and “taking a look back” as the presenter put it, it shows how far we have come. Breaking down barriers and Members talking about their experience is important, as is the way in which charities approach the subject. We look forward to seeing what the new combined charity can do. It is an important part of changing the narrative and culture, in addition to the Government’s work with NHS England to change the testing regime and the other issues I have mentioned. The battle is long, as it always is with cancer, but with the support of “Team Cancer”, in which I count all hon. Members present, I think we are winning.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.