Speech in the Scottish Parliament

Free prescriptions for cancer patients

21 January 2010

I start by expressing my disagreement with the motion and with the whole notion of stopping the reduction of prescription charges, particularly in the light of the SNP's early promise to abolish prescription charges for cancer patients and those with chronic conditions.

Those were the first election promises that the SNP broke on entering office.

Its manifesto stated:

"We will immediately abolish prescription charges for people with chronic health conditions and people with cancer."

The only thing that happened immediately was that the promise was broken.

Today, people with chronic health conditions and cancer are still paying for their prescriptions, albeit at a reduced rate.

Shona Robison: A number of Labour members have talked about the pressing need to abolish prescription charges for cancer patients immediately. Why, in eight years, did they not do that, given that they feel so strongly about it today?

Marlyn Glen: That is an interesting question coming from the SNP.

People absolutely have the right to change their minds and I understand the progress of policy.

I take the minister back to the promises that the SNP made, because to have broken a promise is a serious charge. Broken promises seem to be a recurring theme of this session.

What makes this particular breach so serious is that it was a promise made to a particularly vulnerable group of people.

It was the only part of the SNP's 2007 manifesto where the word "immediately" appeared.

It was a new promise that was not mentioned in 2003.

Those patients have been badly let down by this Administration, which has not kept its promise.

To indicate the scale of the problem, we can look at the 2008 figures for the number of prescriptions issued for cancer drugs.

In NHS Tayside, the number was 18,000 and in NHS Grampian it was 24,000.

Overall, there was a grand total of more than 236,000 prescriptions for cancer drugs throughout Scotland, which involved more than 14 million items being dispensed.

Cancer is an expensive disease that often needs multiple drugs.

It brings additional worry and increased health risks and frequent visits to hospital are required.

I am still outraged that patients and visitors continue to be required to pay car parking charges at hospitals such as Ninewells in Dundee.

It is highly contentious that patients are charged £1.70 per visit on top of other costs—that is neither free nor targeted.

In December 2007, the health secretary made the excuse that it would take too long to compile a list of chronic conditions.

I understand that difficulty, but what was the excuse for not abolishing charges for cancer patients immediately?

As the Labour amendment says, in England, cancer patients began receiving prescriptions for their treatment free of charge almost a year ago.

I welcome the reduction in the cost of prescriptions and prepayment certificates, but phasing out prescription charges by 2011 is very different to immediate abolition.

The Conservative motion calls for more money to be spent on health visitors in Scotland, to be funded directly by withdrawing the proposals for further reductions in prescription charges.

I disagree with that premise, but I welcome the opportunity to have a debate about health visitors, who are key professionals.

I agree that their work should be seen as a priority—there is no disagreement in the Parliament about that.

I am concerned about health visitor vacancies in NHS Tayside, where four posts were unfilled for three months at the end of last year.

Health visitors are key professionals whose expertise is vital in matters such as the assessment of child protection.

Unfilled vacancies place additional pressures on existing nursing staff, particularly when they are in addition to other nursing post vacancies.

Between April and October last year, bank nurses worked more than 162,000 hours in Tayside.

Of course budgeting is difficult—priorities such as screening babies, tackling health care associated infections or paying £30 million in distinction awards for consultants must be balanced—but choices must be made and with the utmost care.

Scotland has the umbrella organisation the Scottish cancer coalition, but some cancer charities, such as Macmillan Cancer Support, are cross-border organisations because of the nature of their work.

Macmillan now has a different message for cancer patients in Scotland from that in England.

On 20 January 2009, Macmillan welcomed on its website the UK Government's announcement that cancer patients would receive free prescriptions by April 2009. It said:

"This was absolutely the right thing to do.

"Cancer not only threatens your life, but can also make you poor.

"Free prescriptions will transform the lives of thousands of people living with cancer who were struggling to pay for drugs."

Macmillan pointed out that

"most people's income drops significantly after a cancer diagnosis ... the extra costs mount up."

Labour's amendment does not ask the SNP to do something that it has not promised to do.

Cancer has afflicted, does afflict and will afflict many Scots.

One in nine males and one in seven females develop some form of cancer before 65.

After 65, the risks rise to one in three for males and one in four for females.

They are the people whom the amendment would help.

I support the Labour amendment and call on others to do so, too.

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