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Cancer Targets — [Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 1st May 2018.

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Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay 2:30 pm, 1st May 2018

I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Lady says, and that is why I think that cancer alliances have a decent role to play. They can take more of an overview and more responsibility for ensuring that best practice spreads and is learned from, but they can also take more of a role when it comes to clinical evidence in relation to treating cancer. My suggestion to the hon. Lady is this: if we get the NHS properly focused on improving its one-year figures and, therefore, its five-year figures, it will come closer to embracing the journey as a whole and coming up with initiatives, particularly at primary care level, that are designed to encourage earlier diagnosis. I fully accept that that is not the only answer—it is about supporting people and so on—but at the end of the day we are using blunt weapons to try to improve cancer survival rates, and the evidence clearly shows that we are not succeeding.

I will make some progress, but I will be happy to take more interventions later. In recent decades, the NHS has been beset by numerous process targets, as we have just discussed. Those have a role to play. It would be too revolutionary for me to stand here and say that we should discard them all and just bring in the one-year figures. I think that that would be too much for the NHS to grasp, but I do believe that process targets are too blunt a weapon. They offer information without context and, in my view, can hinder rather than help access to good treatment, especially when financial flows are linked to process targets, which has been the hallmark of our NHS since 1997. What is more, those targets, being very ambitious, have a tendency not to be met—a point made by Jim Shannon—except in the very best of circumstances. They can easily become, as I have suggested, a political football between parties eager to score short-term points when in reality a longer-term approach is required. All sides are guilty of that.

Cancer has been no stranger to process targets. As I have mentioned, the House of Commons Library suggests that no fewer than nine process targets currently apply to cancer, most notably the two-week wait to see a specialist after a referral and the 62-day wait from urgent referral to first definitive treatment. Process targets, as I have suggested, can pose a particular problem when the NHS’s performance against them is used as a metric to control financial flows, which tends to skew medical priorities. Such targets are only part of the journey when trying to improve one-year survival rates, yet CCGs, although held accountable for outcome measures, in practice follow process targets, because they are the key to unlocking extra funds. That is one of the key issues that we need to explore further in the months and years ahead. I am talking about the fact that process targets account for only part of the journey when we need a longer term view.

I also suggest that process targets are not the best means of helping when it comes to rarer and less survivable cancers, which for too long have been the poor cousins in the cancer community. Rarer and less survivable cancers often fall between the cracks of process targets. Data on those cancers is not used routinely in much of the NHS. That encourages the NHS to go for the low-hanging fruit of the major cancers. That has to change. Given that rarer cancers account for more than half of cancer cases, serious improvements in cancer survival will not be possible unless rarer and less survivable cancers are included. Outcome measures have the advantage of encouraging their inclusion when seeking to catch up with average international survival rates.

The all-party group’s most recent report, launched at the Britain Against Cancer conference in December, highlighted an example of how process targets can act against patients. In 2016, as I think all hon. Members in the Chamber will be aware, NHS England announced £200 million of transformation funding, intended to help the newly formed cancer alliances to achieve the standards set out in the five-year cancer strategy to 2020, and bids were invited. This should be straightforward. An extra £200 million is coming in and is being handed over by the Government to NHS England. The money should be going where it is most needed—to help cancer services at the front line to deliver on the cancer strategy.

However, after the bidding process closed, a requirement for good performance against the 62-day target was introduced retrospectively. That was after the deadline—by some weeks, if not months. It resulted in multiple alliances whose performance was not deemed good enough not receiving their expected funding allocation. Oral and written evidence was taken by and submitted to the all-party group last autumn. I see members of the group in the Chamber. For those who arrived late, I point out that I have thanked the members for their help and stalwart support over the years. The oral and written evidence given to the group when we were conducting our inquiry suggested that the retrospective application of the 62-day condition was causing real problems at the frontline. We heard in effect a cry for help from those at the frontline of our cancer services. Our December report, as the Minister will be fully aware, called for a breaking of the link between the 62-day target and access to the transformation funds. Let us break that link and get the transformation funding down to the frontline, where it is needed to help to implement the cancer strategy.

It is an iniquitous situation, as the conditionality on process targets prior to funding release means that high-performing alliances receive even more money, while those that are struggling and could therefore most benefit from the extra investment do not receive the extra support. That is against the whole spirit of transformation funding.