Grahame Morris – 2022 Speech on Cancer Services

The speech made by Grahame Morris, the Labour MP for Easington, in the House of Commons on 8 December 2022.

It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and I want to express my appreciation for the work of the Select Committee and for the way its Chair, the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), presented the report and the way forward. It is very instructive and informative, and I cannot disagree.

I must make some declarations of interest. I am, and have been for some time, vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy. I want to confine my remarks to radiotherapy, although I do have a broader interest as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer. People might not believe this, but I worked for almost 15 years in an NHS diagnostic laboratory, so I have a little bit of knowledge of the front- line. I served for five years as a member of the Health Committee when I was first elected, under the chairmanship of Stephen Dorrell initially and then Sarah Wollaston. I found that to be one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have done in the House of Commons since being elected.

I also served on the Health and Social Care Public Bill Committee—I must thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for putting me on that Committee—which was a marathon. I remind Members who were not around at the time that part of the justification put forward by the then Prime Minister and the coalition Government for those major reforms and restructuring of the national health service, including the commissioning of cancer services, was the poor outcomes on cancer. The system we have now was born out of a recognition that we needed to do better.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who chairs the APPG for radiotherapy, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is an assiduous advocate for improved cancer services, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the country.

I am delighted that this report signposts the way to future work. I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Winchester indicated that it is his intention, with the agreement of the Committee, to do further work on how we might achieve the laudable 75% diagnosis target by 2028. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), is responding to the debate. I am sure that, like some of her predecessors, including the hon. Member for Winchester, she will grow tired of me banging the drum for cancer services, and for radiotherapy in particular, but there are some very important points and sound advice that come not from me, although I should say that I am a cancer survivor. I have had lymphatic cancer on three occasions, and I have benefited from surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so I understand what is involved and I value the vast improvements there have been in all those pillars of cancer treatment.

The sexy thing on cancer services is early diagnosis. It captures a lot of headlines, and the hon. Member for Winchester was right to point that out, but it goes hand in glove with having the requisite treatment capacity. With the best will in the world, the investment in new diagnostic hubs, which I welcome and is laudable, will simply increase the number of patients in the system. If we are to improve outcomes for cancer patients, we simply must address the issues around cancer treatment capacity.

I believe the Minister has a copy of the six-point plan for improving outcomes from the APPG and the charity Radiotherapy UK. We are not saying that radiotherapy is somehow in competition with the other pillars of cancer treatment; rather, it complements them. Advancements in science, technology and skills, with the introduction of artificial intelligence, the ability to map tumours precisely and incredible advancements in MRI scanning facilities, used in parallel with precision radiotherapy machines, gives us an opportunity to make a quantum leap in treatment and to improve productivity.

The cancer workforce is very small; it is only around 6,500 nationally. They are a highly skilled, highly motivated group of individuals who are doing a fantastic job, and I pay tribute to the cancer workforce, particularly those who work in the field of radiotherapy, who are holding the line at the moment and facing growing pressures in the system.

As a country, we spend about 5% of our dedicated cancer budget—not 5% of the entire NHS budget—on radiotherapy. If we look at international comparators, which we must do, we see that the OECD average is about 9%, so we are spending about half as much as other similar developed industrial nations. To put that into context—because sometimes we get lost in the figures—the NHS spends more on a single cancer drug, Herceptin, than on the entire radiotherapy service across the country.

I want to touch on commissioning, which is an issue that can be readily addressed and that came about as a consequence of the 2012 Lansley reforms. We took that up directly with the Minister when she kindly met a delegation earlier this week. Cancer services are currently nationally commissioned by NHS England, but there are things that could be done rapidly to increase treatment capacity by addressing some of the anomalies in the current tariff system.

Perversely, NHS trusts that have the latest advanced precision radiotherapy equipment are financially disadvantaged from using it because of the tariff system. Bizarrely, patients are being treated with 30 fractions of radiotherapy when it is perfectly possible to treat them with four, five or six fractions of precisely delivered radiotherapy if the machines are available and the staff are trained to do it. In many cases, the machines are there but the tariff system works against rolling out that facility. That is completely perverse and it is crazy that we do not do that.

We can learn from examples of what is happening in similar European countries. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the rapid improvements that have been made in Denmark as a result of having a well-thought-through, well-developed and well-scrutinised plan to improve cancer services. Rightly, some European countries also have diagnostic hubs, but in many cases they are combined diagnostic and treatment hubs, so it is conceivable that patients go in for diagnosis and rapidly begin their treatment—in some European countries, on the same day. Many patients here wait a month, and far too many wait more than two months—62 days—before their treatment starts.

I have some particular points to make to the Minister, which we also raised with her directly. The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the new cancer plan. As a House and as a nation, we need some clarity on whether there will be a new 10-year cancer plan and whether the Department and the Ministers are making the case to the Treasury to secure the necessary funding. I hope that, as part of that, the Minister will look at the six-point plan for improved radiotherapy services that she has in her possession. Even without a cancer plan, however, there are things that could be done immediately to address the issues around the tariff system and the bureaucracy that holds back technology, which NHS England could easily resolve.

We are going to move to a new commissioning system with integrated care boards over large areas, but they have no capital budget and their funding is revenue based, so we must address the issue of those centres across the country. It is wonderful if people live near the Royal Marsden, which is one of the finest hospitals not just in the country or in London, but probably in the world, but if people live in the south-west, Cumbria or the north-east, they cannot readily access such a tremendous centre. We must address some of those health inequalities before the new commissioning arrangements come in, so that we have a systematic approach to replacing machines that are more than 10 years old, rather than having to make out a business case and compete against other centres that may already be well provided with the latest technology.

We are on a time limit, so I will wrap up, because I do not want to incur the wrath of Madam Deputy Speaker. I give the Minister credit for her commitment and aspiration to improve cancer outcomes and to have a first-class service. I hope that the Health and Social Care Committee will play its role in scrutinising the cancer plan, or the Minister’s plans to improve cancer services. I am pleased that she recognises the validity of the representations that have been made already and that there is an urgent need to address the tariff issue. I would like an assurance that that will be done quickly, not in a year or two, because there is clear evidence that it could improve outcomes and it is what we call low- hanging fruit.

There is a lot more that I could say and lots of figures that I could quote—for example, I am concerned about the latest cancer waiting times; the Minister attended our presentation where it was shown graphically that there are huge variations across the regions. The Government must address that. I think we could get cross-party support for a sensible cancer plan, so I look forward to seeing the proposals that she comes up with when she has consulted with her colleagues and the Treasury.