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7. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): If he will make a statement on the recent trend in the incidence of suicide; and what assessment he has made of the prospects for achieving his target for its reduction. [59125]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): We have set a challenging target to reduce the death rate from suicide and undetermined injury by at least a fifth by the year 2010. The target is monitored with a three-year moving average from a baseline using 1995–96–97 figures of 9.1 deaths per 100,000 population. The latest three-year average available is for 1998–99–2000, which shows a level of 9.4 deaths per 100,000 population. While that is disappointing, the single year rate for 1999 and 2000, following the announcement of the targeted action, fell and is now lower than in 1995. We published a national suicide strategy for consultation in April and will continue to work to ensure that the target is met and lives are saved.

Peter Bottomley: The Minister will have the backing of Members on both sides of the House in trying to cope with the consequences of the misery, caused mainly by depression, felt by adolescents and people in their early adult years. The fluctuating figures from one year to the next are not important, but will the Minister ensure that there are specialist centres and that there is a greater understanding of what is normal mental health for young people and what is abnormal, and of what people can do to get help?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman has made an important and sensible point. It is certainly worrying that young men are the group in which there is a growth in suicide. The Government's investment in child and adolescent mental health services is therefore important, both for the specialist services and increasingly for lower-tier services that enable work between mental health professionals, schools and other agencies to identify mental health problems in young people much earlier. For example, early intervention teams are being set up to treat the development of psychosis in young people. The target is to ensure that by 2004, 7,000 young people with early signs of psychosis receive support from those teams.

Furthermore, the Government recognise the need to tackle stigma to ensure that young people access services when necessary. The "mind out for mental health" campaign, supported by the Government, specifically targets young people in youth groups and universities but we plan to extend its remit. We must ensure that we both offer services and break down barriers, especially on stigma, that prevent young people from accessing services when they need them.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Does my hon. Friend agree that a crucial plank in that strategy, which will help us to meet the target, is to ensure that the children's national service framework on mental health and medical services looks at the way in which vulnerable children are supported? Sadly, for many decades, in certain regions there has historically been under- acknowledgment of the funding needed for core services for that fragile group of young people. May I make a plea

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to the Minister to look at core services before we look at developing them further in some regions? Many young children desperately need our most special care.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right. Children with mental health problems certainly deserve our special care. The Government have made some progress following the £105 million extra investment in child and adolescent mental health services. However, I certainly agree that while there is excellent provision in some areas, it is not spread as well as it could be across the country, which is why, as my hon. Friend pointed out, an important component of the children's national service framework is developing standards in child and adolescent mental health services. I assure my hon. Friend that that is an important part of the work that is going on. With the extra investment that is going in, there will be better and more consistent services in future.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome what the Minister said about children's and young people's services. However, is she concerned about the growing number of suicides in rural communities and whether we have faced up to pressures on our farming communities?

Jacqui Smith: Yes, we are concerned. The hon. Gentleman will see from the suicide strategy that we identify certain high-risk groups, including farmers. We also outline action that the Government have already taken, such as supporting the rural stress action plans and working with the National Farmers Union and other voluntary organisations to identify and support people in our rural communities who find life difficult. That will ensure that we minimise the risks to them and tackle depression and stress, which will contribute to our target of reducing suicide.

Royal United Hospital

8. Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): If he will make an assessment of the reliability of waiting list data at the Royal United hospital, Bath. [59126]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): The National Audit Office raised concerns last December about the accuracy of waiting list information at the Royal United Hospital Bath NHS trust. Those concerns were well founded. Since the publication of its report, the trust, the health authority and the regional director of health and social care have taken steps to ensure that waiting list information is reported strictly in accordance with the 1996 guidance. As a result of those and ongoing measures, I am confident that waiting list information that is reported from the trust is now accurate and reliable.

Dr. Murrison: I thank the Minister for that reply. The Royal United hospital is clinically excellent, but administratively it has not been so. If the administrative problems at the RUH were replicated in just small part across the country, the Government's recently announced figure of an increase of 23,000 for the total number of people waiting for treatment in the NHS would be a serious underestimate. Does the Minister agree that ministerial pressure on officials to come up with politically acceptable figures is unhelpful at the RUH and

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elsewhere? Will he assure me that he has personally taken charge of the dire situation at the RUH, and will he please respond to my letter of 7 May in which I asked for a meeting with him to discuss progress?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those observations, and I am of course more than happy to meet him. I must say that I have not yet seen his letter of 7 May, but I am not surprised by that.

It is hugely important that information about waiting lists and times is accurate and reliable—not only for the benefit of the NHS, but for that of the public and Members of Parliament. That is why a considerable amount of effort is put into ensuring that the data are accurate and reliable. For example, we recently asked the Audit Commission to conduct a series of spot checks. We will continue to look carefully at how the information is collected to make sure that it is accurate and reliable. That is an absolute obligation, and we intend to discharge it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): A significant number of my constituents noted the assurances that only two patients waited for longer than 15 months for an operation with mounting anger, because they knew perfectly well that they had waited that long for treatment at the Royal United hospital. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the significant problems at the RUH are not the fault of the medical and nursing staff, nor of the local population that is served by it, and that it should not be saddled with a history that prevents its staff from providing the improved level of care that we can reasonably expect in the Somerset area?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. No one is calling into question the commitment and dedication of the health care staff at Bath—they clearly do a fantastic job for their patients—but there have been serious management failures at the trust. We all have an overall responsibility to ensure that those failures are tackled, not brushed under the carpet, and that is what we are determined to do. However, it is fundamentally a matter for the local trust to bring any disciplinary action against the individuals who have been involved in this sorry business. That is the right way forward. I do not want to comment on the disciplinary aspects of the case—that would be inappropriate—but no one should doubt our determination to ensure that such episodes are not repeated and that the public and Members of Parliament have absolute confidence in the credibility and reliability of this important information.


9. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): What advice his Department gives on the health and developmental benefits of breast-feeding. [59127]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): The Department advises that breast milk is the best form of nutrition for infants to ensure a good start in life. Breast-feeding confers significant short-term and long-term health benefits for both mother and infant beyond the period of breast-feeding itself. Infants who are breast-fed have a lower risk of infections and of developing obesity in childhood. Breast-feeding for a prolonged period can

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reduce the risk of mothers developing pre-menopausal breast cancer and may help them to lose the weight that they gained during pregnancy.

Mr. Kidney: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she accept that many mothers who start breast-feeding give up earlier than they wish because of the many obstacles that they encounter? During the recent awareness week, the summit that I co-hosted with the National Childbirth Trust revealed surprising ignorance among employers about the needs of breast-feeding mums returning to work. Will my hon. Friend consider forming alliances with employers' organisations to spread the advice that she has given us to employers and, through them, to their workers?

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend is right that there is a marked drop-off in breast-feeding in the early weeks by women who want to breast-feed but encounter a range of difficulties. Some are caused by not having role models or the influence of family and friends. It is especially worrying that 91 per cent. of women from the highest social class—social class 1—breast-feed, whereas only 59 per cent. of women from low-income households, who could perhaps benefit most from breast-feeding, do so.

The Health and Safety Executive currently issues advice to employers to set aside quiet areas for women to breast-feed at work. I am delighted to say that we are working with employers to ensure that as many women as possible can breast-feed for as long as possible and thus gain the benefits for themselves and their babies.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): The Minister mentioned the need for role models. Does she therefore believe that there should be better facilities in the House of Commons?

Ms Blears: That is clearly a matter for the House authorities, but I understand that steps have been taken to provide more facilities, not only for hon. Members but for visitors. That means not only that the Department of Health is encouraging breast-feeding, but that we can make facilities available.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): With all the advantages of breast-feeding that my hon. Friend mentioned, does she believe that women who wish to breast-feed should be able to do so in public without embarrassment to them or to passers-by? Can she take any action—apart from breast-feeding a baby—to try to make breast-feeding more commonplace and acceptable?

Ms Blears: In May, we held the breast-feeding awareness week, which was incredibly successful. Its excellent slogan was, "Mother's Milk: the perfect take-away". We are constantly trying to raise awareness. In my constituency, we have a project with our local cafés to ensure that breast-feeding women are welcomed into them and can breast-feed in an acceptable and normal way. More work needs to be done. We have also funded an organisation called Breast Mates, which enables women who have breast-fed to talk to their friends and colleagues and encourage other women to breast-feed and get over some of the initial technical difficulties so that they can continue for as long as possible.

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