Liz Kendall – 2022 Speech on Cancer Services

The speech made by Liz Kendall, the Labour MP for Leicester West, in the House of Commons on 8 December 2022.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this hugely important debate and the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) for securing it. Ever since he was elected in 2010—the same year as me—he has championed health issues. We have sat on several Bill Committees together and I know that he will continue to champion health issues in his new role as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee. I was particularly pleased to hear him say he is determined to continue focusing on cancer care as that issue touches so many of our lives personally and professionally. I wish him well in his role.

The central point made in the Select Committee report is that early diagnosis and prompt treatment of cancer is critical to improving survival chances and to bringing the UK up to the standards of other countries. The grim reality is that patients are having to wait longer at every stage of the process and the fundamental reason for that is a shortage of staff. The report says:

“Neither earlier diagnosis nor additional prompt cancer treatment will be possible without addressing gaps in the cancer workforce and we found little evidence of a serious effort to do this.”

I am afraid this is a terrible indictment of the Government’s record on cancer care, and that is despite repeated warnings not only from Members on this side of the House but from cancer charities, NHS staff and a range of other organisations.

Members may know that the former Chair of the Select Committee and now Chancellor used to rightly say that the Government needed to do far more in terms of the workforce and that they did not have a proper workforce strategy; indeed, I think he may have joined Labour Members in the Lobby in voting to try to make that happen. Since becoming Chancellor he has been more silent on the issue. Labour, on the other hand, does have a clear workforce plan that would help make serious improvements in cancer care alongside many other parts of NHS treatment. I will say more about that later.

I want to start, however, by setting out some of the current situation on waiting times for cancer care, and there are problems every step of the way. More than 60% of cancers are diagnosed following a GP referral, yet the report rightly says pressures on general practice mean there is a big increased risk of cancer being missed in primary care. The report says:

“The NHS has lost 1,704 fully-qualified full-time GPs since 2015 despite repeated commitments to recruit more”.

The impact of these GP shortages is clear.

The standard is supposed to be that 93% of patients should wait two weeks between initial referral from a GP to cancer treatment. As of October this year only 77.8% of patients were seen within two weeks. That means 53,128 patients waited longer than they should. That is in contrast to when Labour last left Government, when over 95% of patients were seen within two weeks. The Government will no doubt say that that is entirely down to the covid pandemic. I am absolutely clear that covid has had a huge impact on cancer care, but let me remind the House that the Government were failing to hit the two-week referral target even before the pandemic. There are many problems in many other steps along the way. The Government have never hit their diagnosis target of at least 75% of patients being told whether they have cancer within 28 days of an urgent referral from either their GP or a cancer screening programme.

As hon. Members have said, patients are waiting longer and longer for treatment. If we look at the two-month target, we see that in the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, which serves the Minister’s constituents, 27% of patients are waiting longer than two months to have their treatment. That is two months when people will be terrified and anxious about what will happen to them. Will their cancer be getting worse? Their family members will be worried, too. In Leicester, the city that I represent, more than half of patients are waiting longer than two months for their treatment. I am afraid that the human cost of that has yet to be fully recognised by the Government.

The key reason for that is a lack of staff. Alongside the shortages of GPs that I mentioned, the report says that

“the NHS is estimated, on a full-time equivalent basis, to be short of 189 clinical oncologists, 390 consultant pathologists and 1,939 radiologists, and will be short of 3,371 specialist cancer nurses by 2030.”

It adds that there is “no detailed plan” to address that. When the Minister rises, I hope that she will set out what she intends to do about that. The Labour Party has set out its long-term workforce plan, which will have independent workforce projections, new career paths in the NHS and new types of health and care professionals to help solve those problems. That includes doubling the number of medical school places to 15,000 a year, doubling the number of district nurses who qualify each year and creating 10,000 more nursing clinical placements, paid for by scrapping the non-dom tax status, because we believe that people who come and live in this great country should pay their fair share of tax.

I could say far more about transforming cancer care and the need to fundamentally shift the focus of support towards prevention and early intervention, with more action on tobacco, on obesity, on exercise, and on alcohol —all the things that we know make such a difference. I could say far more about end-of-life care, which the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) spoke about, and the need to join NHS services with social care and support so that people have choice about how and where they die. Within these time constraints, I want to say that I am optimistic about the future facing cancer patients in this country. There have been huge advances in science, medicine and technology, and Britain has been leading the way in much of that. It gives us hope for the future, but cancer patients and their families need the Government to act to solve the huge problems in the NHS, starting with the workforce, to get those waits down, get early diagnosis up and transform survival rates for cancer treatment.