Prime Minister’s Questions – Cancer Treatment & Care

Jeremy Corbyn: Tomorrow is world cancer day. Cancer is a disease that almost every family in the country has been affected by in one way or another: 2.5 million people in the country have cancer, and Members on both sides of the House have received cancer treatment or are receiving it at the present time. A thousand people a day are diagnosed with cancer, and they go through a trauma as soon as they are diagnosed. In the last year, however, there has been a 36% increase in the number of people waiting more than six weeks for vital diagnostic tests. Can the Prime Minister do something to bring that down?

The Prime Minister: First, I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the fight against cancer is one of the great fights of our time, and it is one that we are determined to win. On treating cancer in our country, we are putting an extra £19 billion into our NHS, and specifically—he is absolutely right to say that everyone in the House and every family in the country will know someone affected by cancer—we are treating more patients. I will give him the figures. Compared with 2010, over 645,000 more patients with suspected cancers have been seen, which is a 71% increase, and almost 40,000 more patients have been treated for cancer, which is an increase of 17%. We have more doctors, more nurses and more cancer specialists, but we need to continue with the fight against cancer.

Jeremy Corbyn: Early diagnosis is absolutely essential to dealing with cancer, as we all know from personal experience. The Government’s independent cancer taskforce reported last year:

“We currently have a serious shortage of radiologists in England”.

We need more of them, so will the Prime Minister explain why we are cutting by 5% the number of training places available for therapeutic radiographers?

The Prime Minister: We need more radiologists, and we are getting them, because we are putting more money into the NHS. He is absolutely right, however, that waiting times—[Interruption.] A minute ago the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) was shouting about waiting times, so I will answer the question about waiting times. There are three key targets on waiting times. The first is that, on 93% of occasions, people should be seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent GP referral; the figure is currently 94.7%. We also need to make sure that the first treatment comes within 31 days of diagnosis—that is extremely important—and on that there is a 96% standard; we are meeting that by 97.7%. I accept, however, on the first treatment being within 62 days, the standard is 85%, but we are at 83.5%, so we need to improve our performance.

On training, we are increasing the number of training places in our NHS. We discussed nurses last week. We are opening up nurse training by training an extra 10,000 nurses, but the crucial point is that the money is in our NHS—£19 billion more—because we have a strong economy. That money would never be there if we followed the right hon. Gentleman’s crazy economic plans.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister did not answer my specific question about therapeutic radiographers. Without an improvement in the numbers available, there will be a problem over treatment. That must be obvious to absolutely everybody.

The cancer taskforce also asked for “a radical upgrade in prevention and public health”.

Programmes such as on stopping smoking and anti-obesity are essential to stop the spread of cancer and to help people live better lives so they do not develop cancer at all. If we cut £200 million from the public health budget, as the Prime Minister proposes, surely it will lead to an increase in cancer, with all the trauma that goes with it and a greater cost to the rest of the community. Will he explain why he is making this cut?

The Prime Minister: First, there are actually 1,800 more diagnostic radiographers than when I became Prime Minister in 2010. That is a 15% increase. The reason for the increase is that we said we would put more money into the NHS—a real-terms increase—which we were told by the then shadow Health Secretary was irresponsible. We ignored Labour, and we put money into the health service, and as a result, there has been a 15% increase in the number of diagnostic radiographers.

On the rest of the cancer plan, the money is being invested, but there is a key difference between England and Wales—the right hon. Gentleman can help with this—which is that there is a Labour Government in Wales. Whereas we have a cancer drugs fund, Wales does not. He needs to sort that out with that Labour Administration. As for public health, under this Government, real advances have been made, including with smoking rules for the backs of cars and plain-paper packaging and ring-fencing public health budgets—all done under the Conservatives, not Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Prime Minister is responsible for the health service in England—Wales is a devolved matter—but he must be aware that cancer survival rates are improving better in Wales than in any other part of the UK.

My question was about the cuts in public health budgets and the effect on cancer care. Will the Prime Minister tell us the last time the NHS target for starting cancer treatment within the 62 days required was actually met?

The Prime Minister: As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, of the three big targets, we are meeting the specialist within two weeks target and we are meeting the target for the first treatment within 31 days of diagnosis. We are currently falling short of the 62 days target, something I said in the answer to question two, but he has not got round to it until question five. I think the cogs need to turn a little faster.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot wash his hands of the situation in Wales. Labour runs Wales, and what has Labour done in Wales? Labour has cut the NHS in Wales. What Labour’s great plan is is now emerging: it wants to cut the NHS in Wales and put up income tax on hard-working people in Scotland. That is right. What are Labour going to do to radiographers in Scotland? Put up their taxes. What are they going to do nurses in Scotland? Put up their taxes. What are they going to do to dentists in Scotland? Put up their taxes. We now know Labour’s plan: higher taxes for more welfare. They have learned nothing in the last decade.

Jeremy Corbyn: The last time the two-month target was met was 19 months ago. The Prime Minister must be aware of that, and I am pleased if he is taking action to make sure that does not continue or get any worse.

I want to turn to another issue that affects cancer patients: the recently deleted provisions in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that would have taken £30 per week from employment and support allowance claimants in the work-related activity group. Martin contacted me this week. He says—[Interruption.] Okay, it is very funny for many Conservative Members, but it is not funny for Martin. Martin says he has a close friend who has breast cancer who “is obviously too unwell to work and cuts will put her into hardship at a time when she is most vulnerable.”

There are 3,200 people with cancer hit by this cut to ESA. Will the Prime Minister now confirm that when that matter returns to the Commons, he will ensure the Lords position is upheld and people like her do not suffer the cut he wanted to make in the first place?

The Prime Minister: Let me explain the situation to the right hon. Gentleman and the House. As everybody knows, there are two sorts of employment and support allowance: there is the work-related activity group who are able to train for some work, and then there is the support group who go on getting employment and support allowance indefinitely. That is the situation, and what we have said is that in future the work-related activity group should be paid at the same rate as jobseekers allowance, but that is for future claimants, not existing claimants, who continue to be paid at the same rate. Of course if someone has cancer and cannot work they should be in the support group. We have had this issue looked at again and again, and if someone cannot work they go on getting the welfare payments they need. That is what a compassionate Conservative Government do.

But I have to come back to the right hon. Gentleman because he cannot wash his hands of the situation in Wales. Hip operations in England have 75 day waiting times on average; in Wales it is 197 days. Diagnosis of pneumonia takes two weeks longer, and treatment of cataracts and hernias and heart operations take two months longer than in England. Labour are running Wales; he is responsible for Labour. Pick up the phone, tell them to stop cutting our NHS.

Jeremy Corbyn: It is very interesting that the Prime Minister did not answer the question I put, which is whether he will proceed with a cut in ESA to 3,200 people with cancer at the present time. I hope he thinks seriously about this and does not proceed with this proposal. He will find that Macmillan Cancer Support, Rethink Mental Illness and Parkinson’s UK are all united in opposing this cut because of the effect it will have on people with a range of serious conditions. The Prime Minister used to say that “those with the broadest shoulders should bear a greater load”. Can it be right that cancer patients and those with disabilities on £102 per week really are those with the broadest shoulders who should bear this cut? Please Prime Minister, think again and don’t try and reverse the decision of the House of Lords on this important matter.

The Prime Minister: The people with the broadest shoulders are the highest earners in this country, and they are paying a higher share of tax than they ever did under Labour. That money is paying for our NHS and for our welfare system. I answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question very directly: if you are an existing claimant on employment and support allowance, your welfare is not changing, but in future, we should help those people who are able to get back to work to do so. That is what a compassionate country does, but it is quite clear what Labour’s policy is: cut the NHS in Wales and put up taxes in Scotland to pay for more welfare. That is not the approach that this country needs.