Health Questions

George Freeman answers questions on subjects including medicinal use of cannabis, accelerating access to innovative medicine and access to off-patent drugs.


5. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the potential medicinal benefits of cannabis. [906222]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): Cannabis is classified as a class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as my right hon. Friend knows. To sell cannabis or preparations made from it as a medicinal product would necessitate obtaining a licence from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Cannabis in its raw form is not authorised as a medicinal product in the UK. However, certain cannabis extracts are contained in Sativex spray, which is the only medicine produced from the cannabis plant that is approved for use as a medicinal product in the UK. It is licensed for use in treating spasticity in multiple sclerosis and was approved in June 2010.

Norman Baker: Over the last year or so, I have met a number of credible people from all walks of life and with a range of medical conditions who have told me that the only substance that helps their medical condition is cannabis. However, they cannot secure it through the NHS and they risk getting a criminal record if they try to obtain it for themselves. Will the Minister look at the much wider availability of cannabis for medicinal purposes in other countries and try to find a way to help those in need in our country?

George Freeman: As a former Home Office Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the difficulties of getting this policy right. I do not believe that anyone in the House thinks that we ought to allow the prescription of a controlled substance willy-nilly without good evidence. I should like to draw his attention to this evidence from Cancer Research UK, which states:

“At the moment, there simply isn’t enough evidence to prove that cannabinoids—whether natural or synthetic—work to treat cancer in patients, although research is ongoing. And there’s certainly no evidence that ‘street’ cannabis can treat cancer.”

We continue to keep this matter under close observation, and there is good evidence of science being done by companies and by the National Institute for Health Research.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Has the Minister assessed whether the use of cannabis can result in paranoid and deluded behaviour, leading people to believe, for example, that it is possible in this country to mount a huge conspiracy to pervert the course of justice involving the police, the ambulance services, the security services, the Government of the day and the media, and to pretend that someone who had killed themselves had actually been murdered?

George Freeman: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting parliamentary point, but my responsibilities cover only the licensing of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Cannabis no doubt has some limited medicinal benefits for some illnesses, but will the Minister put it on record that it is not the Government’s intention further to liberalise any licensing of cannabis, especially in the light of the Institute of Psychiatry’s empirical evidence that abuse of the substance can lead to severe mental illness?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am happy to give him that undertaking. We have to be careful to maintain a distinction between recognising the damaging effects of the recreational use of cannabis and the specific medicinal benefits of some of its derivatives, when tested and proven, in medicinal products. We intend to make that distinction very clear.

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Innovative Medicine and Health Care Technology

8. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to accelerate access to innovative medicine and health care technology in the NHS. [906226]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): Accelerating access for patients to innovative medicines and health care technology is central to my mission as the UK’s first Minister for life sciences. Breakthroughs in genetics and the use of data are unlocking a new era of precision medicines, earlier diagnosis and remote monitoring, which can dramatically improve patient outcomes, and the efficiency of our health service. That is why I announced last week a major review of the role of the regulators, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, in accelerating innovation in the NHS.

Andrew Stephenson: I know that the Secretary of State has already visited Airedale general hospital to see its telemedicine service. Earlier this month, I visited Marsden Grange care home in Nelson to look at the service from a patient’s perspective. The service is reducing pressure on the ambulance service, local GPs, A and E departments, and, crucially, improving patients’ experiences. How can we ensure that telemedicine is much more widely used?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As with Airedale, the Marsden Grange care home initiative shows that we can improve patients’ outcomes, deliver more health for the same amount of money and make our system much more efficient. That is why we so strongly support telemedicine, why NHS England has undertaken a rapid review of the 3 million lives programme and why, last week, we launched our review to accelerate the adoption of innovative med-tech and e-health technologies into the NHS.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What is the good of innovation if we do not use it? For the 1 million people who suffer from atrial fibrillation, the three new NICE-approved drugs are a life saver; they make life worth living. But only about 6.5% to 7% of people have been prescribed the new drugs, as they are being blocked by clinical commissioning groups and GPs. What will the Minister do about that?

George Freeman: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the matter. We have all seen it coming in recent years. Extraordinary advances in science are developing a huge range of new products, which our system is having to adjust to cope with, and that is precisely why I launched the review last week with NICE and the MHRA. We must look at these transformational technologies that bring new opportunities to our services and at how we can design a system that is better able to target innovations to the patients who need them.

18. [906237]Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): Dementia is an abhorrent disease that affects thousands of people across the UK, and a significant number in my constituency of Fylde. With that in mind, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that dementia sufferers have access not only to the most innovative medicine but to the most advanced early diagnosis?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Dementia is one of those diseases where the loved ones and the carers of patients often suffer every bit as much as the patients. That is why, under the Prime Minister’s leadership, we have launched the G8 dementia summit to bring together the world to tackle the disease. We have launched a dementia strategy. Diagnosis rates in Britain have gone from 42% to 55% in two years. We have launched a new dementia service and doubled research spending. We will have 250,000 staff trained by next March, and, from April, we will be investing £3.8 billion into the Better Care fund. It is an important disease that deserves our priority.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The Ear Foundation recently published a report that estimates that the real cost of adult hearing loss is at least £30 billion a year. I hope that the Minister has read it. What is he doing to ensure that adults who could benefit from improved hearing technologies, including cochlear implants, do so, and when does he plan to publish the action plan on hearing loss that has long been promised?

George Freeman: I am not aware of the veracity of the £30 billion figure, but I will happily look at it, and I happily undertake to look at the progress of the report and the work that the hon. Lady raised.

20. [906239] Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): It is a well-established fact that type 1 diabetics who have insulin pumps are much more able to control their condition than those who do not, yet the take-up of insulin pumps in the UK compared with Europe and America is pitiful. What is the Department doing to increase the commissioning of insulin pumps? In the long run, the costs go down with better control.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend raises a important example of an innovation that, despite costing a little extra at the beginning, saves substantially downstream. One of the challenges in our national health service is tackling a series of ways in which the system is not well geared to incentivising such innovations. NHS England recently set out its five-year forward view, which has, for the first time, a strong commitment to tackling such issues, and we are working with it to see what we can do to remove barriers and promote incentives for earlier adoption.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): What steps are being taken to ensure that emerging treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy that receive conditional approval are available through the early access to medicines scheme as early as possible?

George Freeman: I was delighted, when we launched the early access to medicines scheme earlier this year, to see the very strong support that we got from the Duchenne dystrophy group. Dystrophy is one of those terrible diseases that desperately need the fast-tracking of new medicines. As I said, last week we launched a major review of our landscape for the earlier adoption of innovative medicines in the NHS, so that patients in the most severe clinical need can take part in cutting-edge research and we get drugs to patients more quickly.

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Off-patent Drugs

9. Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): What recent representations he has received on access to off-patent drugs; and if he will make a statement. [906227]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the debate in the House two weeks ago in which I gave a very full statement of the Government’s position on off-patent and off-label drugs. We want to promote their wider use, but we do not believe that the Bill presented to the House is the right mechanism for achieving that.

Mark Durkan: Will the Minister borrow from the approach taken with the Medical Innovation Bill, and commit to consulting on whether the Government should support, or how they might pursue, the key purposes of the Off-patent Drugs Bill?

George Freeman: As I said in the debate, we absolutely support the Bill’s intention, which is to promote the greater use of off-label and off-patent drugs, but that must remain a decision for clinicians exercising their judgment about what is best for their patients. We do not think it right that the Government should be put in the position of effectively sponsoring new drug licence applications to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. I have convened a round table working group with all the stakeholders to try to look at how we can maximise information to clinicians to promote the use of off-label and off-patent drugs.

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Cancer Drugs Fund

11. Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): Whether it remains the policy of the cancer drugs fund to provide drugs which NICE has rejected for general use in the NHS. [906229]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on the issue of cancer drugs. I can assure him that the cancer drugs fund now administered by NHS England continues to fund effective cancer drugs which have been not been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Over 60,000 patients in England have benefited from the fund since October 2010. That is why we announced a £160 million boost to the fund earlier this year.

Eric Ollerenshaw: Will my hon. Friend look again at the CDF’s proposal to delist 42 cancer drugs, including Abraxane, which was put on the list only nine months ago and is the first new drug in nearly 40 years to produce an extension of life for pancreatic cancer patients?

George Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his notice. I have spoken to NICE. It is appraising the use of Abraxane for pancreatic cancer and has not yet published its final guidance. It would not be appropriate for me to intervene at this point. Obviously, we respect NICE’s clinical independence. Abraxane is available through the CDF for patients meeting specific clinical criteria. I understand that the NHS England’s CDF panel plans to reassess the inclusion of Abraxane in the national list, but no decisions have yet been made.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). Everyone in every part of the United Kingdom wants to improve access to cancer medicines. When the Prime Minister launched the cancer drugs fund in the home of Clive Stone, he promised to get

“more drugs to people more quickly”.

Mr Stone recently criticised proposals to remove a number of drugs from the fund, writing in his local newspaper that

“People are going to die, there is no doubt about it. Why don’t people keep their promises?”

Additionally, the Breakthrough Breast Cancer campaign has said that it is

“deeply concerned that several very effective breast cancer drugs appear on the list of drugs at risk of delisting”.

We all know someone affected by cancer in some way. What does the Secretary of State have to say to those patients relying on those drugs that are being removed from the fund?

George Freeman: The first thing I would say is that we have given an undertaking that any patients currently on drugs will not have the drug removed. Secondly, we are dealing with some very difficult issues. We have had extraordinary breakthroughs in the progress and rate of development of new cancer drugs, and we need to have a system for ensuring that the cost-benefits—the health economics—are done properly. NICE leads the world in making these difficult clinical judgments and we support its independence in doing so, but we need to ensure that we are not turning this issue into a political football. I notice that the shadow Health Secretary said that this was good politics but not good policy. It is really important that we ensure that when we set a benchmark on this debate we are guided by what is best for patients.

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Topical Questions

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): My constituent, six-year-old Sam Brown, is one of 100 people with the rare disease Morquio. His family live in a state of anxiety because they do not know whether the drug Vimizim will be approved for further use on 15 December. Will a Minister please meet me and Katy and Simon, Sam’s parents, to give Sam the Christmas present he needs and to keep Sam smiling?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (George Freeman): I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents to review that very important issue.

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My Work in Westminster

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George Freeman in Westminster


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