Factometer: fact

The claim
“The Tories would scrap your right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks and your right to be treated within 18 weeks.”
Labour party election leaflet

The background

Labour party leaflets allegedly targeted at cancer sufferers made the front page of the Sunday Times today. A personalised mailshot showed a picture of a breast cancer sufferer, and details of how cancer treatment has improved under Labour.

The leaflets also warned the Conservatives would “scrap your right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks and your right to be treated within 18 weeks”.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley hit back at the claims, accusing Labour of alarming patients by “making up stories about what the Conservative party would do” and misrepresenting Tory policy in an attempt to scare people.

So what would the Tories do?

The analysis

“Greatly improved” waiting times for cancer diagnoses and treatment has been one of the government’s health successes, according to a report published today by independent health policy charity the King’s Fund.

Labour has waged a war on waiting times, drawing up a number of strict targets setting out how soon patients should be seen and treated. There’s little dispute that quick diagnosis and treatment of cancer can make the difference – literally – between life and death.

But the use of targets in the health service isn’t above criticism. In one particularly emotive example, watchdog the Healthcare Commission estimated between 400 and 1,200 patients may have died in Mid-Staffordshire because of an over-reliance on meeting targets and cost-cutting rather than patient care.

The Conservative party’s draft manifesto promised to “scrap all of the politically motivated process targets that stop health professionals doing their jobs properly”.

Instead, the party wants to focus on outcomes, such as higher cancer survival rates. The idea is to make NHS staff responsible for getting results, rather than focusing on the targets they should meet on specific aspects of patient care during the process.

The Conservatives confirmed today that the targets mentioned in Labour’s leaflets are on the list of those for the chop. So why did they hit out at the claims in the leaflets?

“We are going to increase the NHS budget in real terms and cut bureaucracy,” a party spokesman said.

“This will give us the capacity to ensure cancer patients are seen sooner and to meet the quality standards patients expect.”

The verdict
We’ve seen some Labour leaflets playing pretty loose with the truth, but on this occasion they’re grounded in fact as the Conservatives have promised to scrap Labour’s maximum waiting time targets.

As the King’s Fund report we quoted earlier noted, we do know that targets have “brought benefits to patients including shorter waiting times”.

However, it also sounds a note of caution saying “any future government needs to be aware of all of the potential consequences for patients of removing or reducing the number of targets.”

Scrapping targets doesn’t mean the Tories would immediately start abandoning people to longer waiting lists – the party says it has a different way of doing things that would be more effective – but then, that’s not quite what the leaflets say.