27 January 2010
Shailesh Vara criticises Britain's poor record on the diagnosis and treatment of dementia.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is a pleasure and privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright).

Let us be clear about one thing. When we talk about dementia, we are effectively talking about people who have given the best years of their life to contribute to society and to make sure that the rest of us are in a better position than they were when they were living active lives. It is only right and proper that we, in turn, should look after them and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Sadly, however, that is not always the case. In fact, analysis shows that Britain is in the bottom third of European countries for diagnosis and treatment of dementia-below almost all northern and western European nations.

There are a number of reasons for that, including the stigma attached to dementia. It is not right that in the 21st century people should still be afraid to admit that they have dementia or that they have relatives with dementia. I was pleased that the Secretary of State said that there is going to be a publicity campaign to highlight the issue of dementia, and to reduce the stigma attached to it. I very much hope that it will highlight the early warning signs-for example, confusion, forgetfulness, problems with speech and so on. If someone thinks that they have those symptoms, they might take advice, and go and see a doctor.

Early diagnosis is a good way of dealing with the problem, and we have heard a great deal about the need for specialist doctors and other medical professionals to provide that. At present, as we have heard, one in three people receive formal diagnosis at any time in their illness. That statistic has simply got to change. We need to ensure that far more people experiencing the onset of dementia know that that is the case, to allow them to plan them for the future, when the illness will undoubtedly become worse. It means that families can become involved, especially in making plans for people who wish to receive care at home. It also enables people to talk to medical experts and social care services.

One of the crucial themes of the debate has been the repeated mention of support for families. May I add my appreciation of the superb work done by hundreds of thousands of family members throughout the country in supporting their loved ones who are suffering? In many cases the care is given at home, which eases the pressure on the social care services-something that is not often commented on. It also ensures that those who are suffering are able to maintain a sense of independence and dignity.

We must recognise that many family members themselves have other problems and illnesses, a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). As well as the pressure of looking after somebody who is suffering, they have to endure the personal pain of seeing a loved one decline. Relatively older people are looking after even older people who are suffering. In many instances, pensioners are looking after their elderly relatives and parents.

Given the importance of the subject, it is worth while considering the Government's record. The Government gave it priority only after receiving a couple of critical reports. In 2007 the King's Fund reported that the scale of dementia in the UK was considerable. The National Audit Office report in July 2007 highlighted the poor diagnosis, poor quality of care, and the disjointed approach taken by health and social care services.

It was only after these reports that the Department of Health could bring itself to admit that dementia should be a priority. That was in 2007, when the Government had been in place and running the administration for 10 years. At that time Age Concern summed up the situation by stating:

"For far too long, vulnerable older people with dementia and their families have been treated as second-class citizens".

It took a further two years for the Government to produce their national dementia strategy-10 years to recognise that the matter deserved priority, and a further two years to produce a strategy.

What is the position a year on? The report issued less than two weeks ago by the National Audit Office was anything but complimentary. It spoke of local leadership for improving dementia care still not being in place. It said that most primary care trusts and local authorities were still awaiting guidance from the Department of Health before beginning their baseline reviews of dementia needs and services. The Alzheimer's Society has commented that a third of GPs still lack confidence in diagnosing dementia, and that nurses have so far received no information on the Government's strategy. Indeed, dementia is not included in the nurses' core subjects when they are training. Yet the Labour party, in its 1997 manifesto, spoke of ensuring that the views of pensioners would be heard, and said:

"Everyone is entitled to dignity in retirement."

I conclude by adding my praise of the Alzheimer's Society, Age Concern, Help the Aged and the many other similar charities and organisations that continue to do such sterling work.

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