Brain Tumours in Children: 3rd September 2013

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I have been called some bizarre things today. I was called “very libertarian” in a debate in this Chamber this morning, and I have been called something else this afternoon. I think it is a compliment, but in any event I will take it as such.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this important debate. As I have said on many occasions, the clock is always against us. I look around and I see the faces of Members who have been engaged not just in similar debates but, most importantly, in some of the meetings and in the all-party group on brain tumours, with which we have all been involved for some time.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). She and I had a very good meeting with some of her constituents on brain tumours in adults, and many of the problems of diagnosis are also experienced by adults who suffer from this unpleasant, horrible and often fatal disease. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and Trudy’s Trust. Some of us were at the launch of Trudy’s Trust with Mr Speaker.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) and the Danny Green Fund. We hear today of yet another tragedy that has occurred, but some good comes out of every evil. One of the good things that comes out, especially when a child dies from a brain tumour, is the great power of a family to leave a legacy and make a great tribute to that child. There is nothing worse than the loss of a child—it is every parent’s nightmare—but to be able to turn that awful situation into something good, and to use that power to great effect, is something that we see in many instances. Today we have heard about just some of them, and there are others.
 
Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this debate, because HeadSmart is based in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend, the Minister pay tribute to Neil and Angela Dickson? Their daughter Samantha died of a brain tumour and they have done fantastic work, not only to produce the kind of initiatives that have been mentioned by several hon. Members today, but to raise funds that have contributed to research that has produced results ​that have enabled the causes of brain tumours to be identified in part. Neil and Angela Dickson deserve many congratulations on what they have achieved.

Anna Soubry
I am more than happy to add my grateful thanks for the work of Neil and Angela Dickson, and the work of all those who support them. There are many such examples, and funds are often raised for research and to support families or other bits of work.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, money that goes into research often has the most powerful results. I pay tribute to Headcase cancer trust in my constituency, as I am very much aware of the great work that continues to be needed on brain cancer, which is a pernicious and horrible disease that affects people of all ages, but it seems somehow to be particularly cruel and wicked when it is inflicted on children.

There are a few things that I want to mention before moving on to some of the substantive points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. We recognise that we need to do more to bring cancer survival rates up to the level of the best in the world—survival rates have been languishing in the wrong place for too long—so we have an outcome strategy that sets out our ambition to halve the gap between England’s survival rates and those of the best in Europe through saving an additional 5,000 lives every year by 2014-15. We know that the earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the greater the scope for curative treatment, and our strategy therefore prioritises addressing late diagnosis. To support that, we have £450 million over four years going into early diagnosis, which is part of the £750 million of additional funding from the Government for addressing cancer over the spending period. That funding will do much great work that I am happy to identify in a letter to my hon. Friend.

On direct GP access to diagnostic tests, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) made a good point about having someone within each clinical commissioning group who knows about not only brain cancers and brain tumours but other similar afflictions. As he rightly identifies, when a child has a headache, or when an adult has some other complaint and they are not sure what it is, there could be a more specialist GP who can say, “Maybe this is the sort of case that we need to scan swiftly,” or, “Maybe it needs some other treatment.” That is a very good point, but we need GPs to recognise symptoms that could be indicative of cancer and, where appropriate, to refer patients to more specialist care.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has published referral guidelines for suspected cancers, including a section on children, to help GPs and primary care professionals identify children with suspected cancer. The Department of Health published guidance in April 2012 on the best practice for what we call “referral pathways” for GPs.

When GPs suspect a brain tumour, they are able urgently to refer patients for special care using the two-week urgent referral pathway, and I have been helpfully supplied with some figures that I hope will give comfort and encouragement. Some 95.5% of patients were seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent ​GP referral for suspected cancer—that is for all cancers—in the first quarter of 2013-14, and 96.4% of patients urgently referred by their GP for suspected brain or central nervous system tumours were seen by a specialist within the two-week period. In the first quarter of 2013-14, 96.4% of patients in England urgently referred by their GP for a suspected children’s cancer were seen by a specialist within the two-week period. I think those are good figures, but of course we can always do better.

James Duddridge
Will the Minister give way?
 
Anna Soubry
Briefly, yes.

James Duddridge
Those are the figures for being seen by a consultant, but are there figures for when surgery actually takes place? Will the Minister provide us with those figures after the debate?

Anna Soubry
I do not believe I have those figures in front of me, but I am more than happy to provide them to everyone who has taken part in the debate. My official is indicating that we have the figures, and it is not a problem for me to give them to my hon. Friend.

NHS England now monitors the use of key diagnostic tests through the diagnostic imaging dataset, and the latest available provisional data for the period from April 2012 to March 2013 show that 28,995 tests—which is about a quarter of all tests—that may have been used to diagnose or discount cancer were requested by GPs under direct access arrangements.

I pay huge tribute to HeadSmart, and of course I welcome its “Be brain tumour aware” campaign and the collaboration between the Brain Tumour Charity, the children’s brain tumour research centre at the university of Nottingham—to which I admit I have a bias, being a Nottinghamshire MP—and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. I have written to HeadSmart offering encouragement and advising that it could apply to the voluntary sector investment programme for funds to raise awareness of HeadSmart cards in schools. I will continue to work with those great and wonderful charities, and I look forward to seeing them inform the development of our nationally led campaigns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton directly challenges me to take action, and I shall tell him what I will do. I might not completely agree with all that he proposes, but I am more than happy to speak to my colleagues at Public Health England—cancer screening is an obvious priority for Public Health England—about how we can best advance HeadSmart cards in schools. As he knows, of course, public health is now devolved to local authority level. And as he also knows, we are a Government who believe in localism, and therefore it is not for Ministers to tell people what to do, however much we might want to at times.

The idea advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth is very good. A great deal of work can be done by local MPs. Of course, hon. Members might not know about this, but we can talk afterwards about how we can alert our colleagues throughout the House to what can be done. A letter from a local Member of Parliament to their director of public health, or to the chair of their health and wellbeing board, will frankly have more weight than any letter from me.

Andrew Selous
As my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) has said, local authorities are already writing to schools and putting stuff in the post. If MPs do that too, it will cost the public purse. It strikes me that that already happens, and cheaply.

Anna Soubry
I do not agree. I do not know about my hon. Friend, but I write to all my schools. In truth, I do not have that many schools, so there are not that many letters. A letter from a Member of Parliament to all their schools and to their health and wellbeing board could be very powerful. I am more than happy to talk to my colleagues in the Department for Education, but I am not sure that a letter to cabinet members will have any weight.
 
Mr Raab
Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry
I am going to run out of time. Unless my hon. Friend is very quick, I do not see how I can respond.

Mr Raab
I thank the Minister for giving way. The whole point of this debate is to try to get central Government to co-ordinate with local government. We are not talking about forcing local government, but we are talking about urging local government to do something through its internal mail system. Will she give that further consideration and perhaps meet me and the HeadSmart campaign?
 
Anna Soubry
Yes. That is a brilliant idea, and I am more than happy to do it, especially as I have only six seconds left. Seriously, though, between us all we can find a way to ensure that we all get what we want.