Childhood Cancers: Research — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:36 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 5:36 pm, 7th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I commend the petitioners for securing this important debate about childhood cancer. As my hon. Friend Wes Streeting said, it is hard to get the required signatures for these debates, and it happens only when the issue is as significant as this. I hope that the petitioners will see that their efforts have been rewarded with as full a House as we can have in the context of covid-19 and with the high quality of this debate.

I echo the comments commending Fiona Govan, who set this petition up following the tragic death of her grandson Logan in 2017. I am sure that many of the over 100,000 people who joined her in signing it have been touched personally by this issue. I say to Fiona and all those watching that the way that she and they have turned their grief into action is an incredible feat of bravery, which has had a powerful, important impact on all of us as legislators and has pushed us to drive change more quickly. I know that is what they want. I also thank Brain Tumour Research, which has been a phenomenal driving force in this area with the petition, the debate and all the other work that has gone on.

This debate has been an important reminder that, while we were elected by voting-age people almost a year ago today, we represent all of our constituents, including children. MPs have spoken today for those children: Logan from Ayrshire, Izzy from Islwyn, Daniel from East Renfrewshire, Georgia from Buckingham, Isla from Bosworth, Benny from North Norfolk, Kaleigh from Ilford, Grace from York, Cameron from Upper Bann, Atticus from Winchester, and Bradley from Easington. Their stories have been told by their representatives today, and their names will live on in the record for as long as this Parliament stands. I know that will not bring those children back to their families, but I hope that they can take some comfort from it. As we make progress in this place—we will make progress—I hope they can also take comfort from the fact that their children have been an integral part of this story. I am sure we all want to send our prayers to Eva from Wrexham and her family as she goes through her treatment.

We heard contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Easington (Grahame Morris), as well as from Derek Thomas, who all provide leadership through their relevant all-party parliamentary groups, which do really important work in keeping this at the top of the inboxes of busy Ministers. I know they will continue to make significant efforts to turn today’s discussion into activity and change.

I must talk about a few numbers, because we have to discuss this at a global level. But before I do, I want to say, as all colleagues have, that behind every number is a child who has had their life taken before they have had the opportunity to really live it, and their family, who have to live with this extraordinary pain. As a country, we must strive to do our best for children who are afflicted by cancers, as if they were our own. We must take the efforts of parents, which we have heard about today, and act with that level of urgency. As colleagues have said, covid-19 has shown what can happen when we join together in common purpose and are properly resourced to meet great challenges.

Cancer remains the most common cause of death in children, with around 240 aged 14 and under dying each year. Research has made significant inroads. Mortality has decreased by around 70% since the 1970s. The five-year survival rate for retinoblastoma is now 99%. There are recent examples, too, with a clinical trial for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia improving survival rates by a quarter, thus offering promise for the future. However, as colleagues have said, that picture is inconsistent. The incidence of childhood cancer has risen by about 15% since the 1990s, and there are many cancers for which the five-year survival rate remains devastatingly low: it is 67% for neuroblastoma, 65% for bone cancer and 32% for atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour.

Then, of course, there is DIPG, which Logan Maclean suffered from, as have many others, as has been mentioned today. When I spoke to people at Brain Tumour Research about DIPG, they labelled it the monster of all monsters: there is no cure, the two-year survival rate is less than 10% and the five-year survival rate is zero. As to treatment, surgery is rarely an option. Radiotherapy is the preferred option, but it is suboptimal, providing a temporary positive response but not a curative one. Chemotherapy has been trialled, but that is all. The only way out today —and the only way out for our collective energies—is through research. That is how we will make the difference for DIPG and for cancers in young people on a wider scale.

At the moment only about 20% of childhood cancer research is funded by the Department, with the rest funded by charities—most significantly Cancer Research UK. What assessment has the Minister made of how the gearing could be improved and what the results of that would be? Similarly, on brain tumour research, I know that the Minister will refer to the welcome £40 million that Steve Brine spoke about, which was announced in 2018 as part of the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission. Two and a half years later, I understand that only about £6 million of that has been allocated. Will the Minister confirm that and set out what the plan is for the other £34 million? That money needs to be put to use for the things we want it to be used for.

Charities, as I have said, are playing a crucial role in research, but their fundraising avenues have been severely hit by covid, so research funding is in danger. Sue Farrington Smith, the chief executive of Brain Tumour Research, put it bluntly:

“The stark reality is that charity-funded research into brain tumours could stop and the vital progress we have made will be lost.”

What are the Minister’s views on that? What assessment has the Department made of the resilience of research funded by charities and of how we are, at least in the short term, going to fill the gap that covid has created?

I want to finish by majoring on the points that the petitioners asked us and the Government to focus on in moving towards solving childhood cancer. First, transparent data classification systems, coming through from the National Institute for Health Research, could be dealt with relatively simply and quickly, so I hope the Minister will support that. The petitioners also ask for the ring-fencing of funding for research on childhood cancers. Finally—this is important for rare cancers and rare diseases more broadly—they want the incentivising of research in these areas, where the incentives will not, clearly, be financial. Taking those steps would make a significant difference for future children and families, who will not know that we are having this discussion. I would like to hear the Minister’s assessment of those asks. Will she let us know more broadly what steps the Government will take to reach those goals?

The debate has been a poignant and moving one, but those who signed the petition and triggered it want action. They have set out what those actions might be. It is time for us to pull together and get on with it.