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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): Solihull primary care trust is currently considering options on the future of accident and emergency services at Solihull hospital. Should major changes be required, there will be a full, open, transparent
Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know, as I explained this to him in the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week, that local people will be considering future services at Solihull hospital. He will also know that I said that we see a vibrant and healthy future for the hospital. Indeed, there have been a number of dramatic improvements in servicesin renal care, ophthalmology, oncology and dermatology. The hospital is doing extremely well on its waiting lists. Local people will be involved in any consultation that takes place about the future of all these services at Solihull, including accident and emergency. Last week, the hon. Gentleman told me how much his local economy was thriving in Solihull. I am delighted about that. We will be ensuring that high-quality services are available to everyone in that community.
Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest): Will the Minister inform the House when the independent reconfiguration panel will begin its work to resolve such issues, as the chair was appointed more than six months ago?
Ms Blears: As the hon. Gentleman said, we are appointing members to the independent reconfiguration panel. The panel will help us with guidance and clinical advice so that we can study some of the more controversial reconfigurations that are proposed in a more consistent manner. Dr. Peter Barrett is the chair. We will be making further appointments to the independent panel in due course. We hope that it will be operating by the autumn and playing a significant role in bringing consistency to some of these decisions.
We are making £20 million available to extend the provision of digital hearing aids in 200203. That will enable at least a further 30 sites to start fitting digital aids and at least a further 15 sites to receive the equipment and training that they need to enable them to start fitting digital hearing aids from April 2003.
Mr. Webb: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Is she aware that my primary care trust, South Gloucestershire, which is one of the most efficient at prescribing in the region if not the country, has a prescribing deficit of £2 million this year? Although it has put in for digital hearing aids as part of the pilot, it has
Jacqui Smith: I understand that United Bristol Healthcare, for example, and the hospital in Bath are already able to offer digital hearing aidsin the case of Bristol, to children. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman's area already has new-born hearing screening. While I understand that Bristol did not feel able to put itself forward for consideration this year, it has been invited to become one of the 15 sites to be equipped and trained in 200203 to enable it to start fitting aids from 200304. Not only are the hon. Gentleman's constituents already benefiting from the extra investment that this Government have put into developing digital hearing aids, but we will ensure, through the way in which we continue to invest and modernise, that as soon as possible they can get the full benefit of the investment that this Government are making.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): The initiative has been warmly welcomed in Trafford, which is one of the 20 first-wave areas550 patients have so far been fitted with digital hearing aids. Given that we are now moving into a further phasethe initiative is to be rolled out to other areasand that more than 900 people are waiting for digital hearing aids to be fitted in Trafford, will my hon. Friend confirm that after the programme is rolled out, all first-wave areas, including Trafford, will receive proper national funding in the year ahead?
Jacqui Smith: I know that my hon. Friend has been concerned about the continuation of the very good service that his constituents are receiving in getting digital hearing aids with the modernised service on the national health service. I can assure him that we take very seriously the need to continue work at the first-wave sites. That is why the Department will be allocating £100,000 to each of the 20 first-wave sites at the beginning of April, to allow them to continue to fit digital hearing aids within the modernised context while we study in more detail the activity figures, staff costs and so forth, so that we can make accurate allocations of funds later in the year. I can assure my hon. Friend that the benefits that his constituents have received from the modernised service and the provision of digital hearing aids will continue.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does the Minister not agree that all people in this country should be treated the same? If people can benefit from digital hearing aids, they should be allowed to gain that benefit from this high-technology, sophisticated equipment, wherever they live. Does the Minister accept that the East Cheshire NHS trust, which includes the Macclesfield district general hospital, has made an application for designation to receive assistance from the Government? Will she give the matter very urgent consideration? There are people in my area who would benefit from digital hearing aids, which can provide a new quality of life.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in delivering an expanded service in relation to digital hearing aids, high street opticians are in a good position to provide a dual service? Many such opticians, including Dollond and Aitchison, already provide free hearing services. What progress has my hon. Friend made in considering such opticians as a new and modern way of delivering both sight and hearing services?
Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me on several occasions; she is a very doughty campaigner for the extension of digital hearing aid provision. I assure her that we are making progress in developing pilots to consider how we can involve private sector and high street providers, very possibly including high street opticians, to ensure that people can get treatment as quickly as possible as we develop the service. We are currently working on a private sector pilot that will operate in Shrewsbury, where a senior audiologist on the NHS site will consider GP referrals and, in cases that are considered straightforward, offer people the opportunity to have a digital hearing aid fitted on the high street or in a community centre. This is a very important initiative and we will consider the approach in detail and develop it as we take forward investment to ensure that as many people as possible can receive digital hearing aids on the NHS.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): If one strips out the Minister's soundbites and spin, one is left with only a cruel con. Does she not recognise that what the Government have been doing in the past few years is rationing and delaying, and depriving people who are badly in need of the finest, latest hearing aid technology of what they require, which has not been supplied? Will she explain how this latest spin can be fulfilled? Given the deficits and overspending this year by health authorities, and the fact that under the funding settlement for next year, primary care trusts will be penalised and get reduced funding, how will they honour the pledges that she is spinning?
Jacqui Smith: What a cheek! It is this Government and this Government's investment that have ensured that 18,351 people are now benefiting from a modernised hearing aid service and that 30 more sites will come online next year. When the hon. Gentleman was in government, he made no provision whatever for that service on the NHS. [Interruption.] Actually, it did happen towards the end of his time in office.
As we know from the speech that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made last weekend, Conservative party policy is now clear. It is to talk down the NHS and the extra provision that is being made. [Interruption.]
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I welcome the Minister's statement that the 20 pilot projects have been a huge success and that they are being expanded to afford further opportunities in new areas. Can I take her comments to mean that Health Ministers in the devolved regions can no longer hide behind the fact that they have been waiting for an evaluation of the pilot projects, and that she is now able to recommend that, should they so desire, they may allocate funding for digital hearing aids in the devolved regions such as Northern Ireland?
Jacqui Smith: Allocating funding in the devolved regions is clearly a matter for the Administrations concerned. It is important that we evaluate the success of this new NHS service. That is why, with the Institute of Healthcare Research, we are carrying out an evaluation process. If Ministers in the devolved Administrations want to share in the information that we are gathering from that, I shall be more than happy to do so.