Published: 16/05/2002, Volume II2, No. 5805 Page 21

All true, but on the ground it sometimes feels different, as it did to those MPs who piled in behind Romsey's LibDem member, Sandra Gidley, to air their concerns about cancer treatment in the South East. The Indy on Sunday also ran a piece about the West Midlands hospital where Tony Blair got an ear-bashing from Sharon Storer during the 2001 election campaign. The hard-pressed cancer ward is being modernised, it seems, but not until next year.

Cancer was on my mind, because I had just visited a friend in hospital grappling with the Big C. There had been a non-hospital slip over diagnosis, but now he reported being wonderfully cared for, and he looked much better than I had feared.

It makes you think. As it had Mrs Gidley, a pharmacist by trade who later told me she had had a lot of attention from the drug companies since announcing her debate - I am used to dealing with drug reps and can spot bull.

Some of the people who now approach me are an advanced form of drug rep.

On this occasion, the main thrust of her complaint seemed to boil down to funding. Is the extra£750m a year earmarked for cancer by 2004 actually getting through or being siphoned off to pay off trust debts, as the Commons science and technology committee claimed? How do NICE approvals impact on other drug budgets?

How do trusts in the South East attract key staff? She cited shortages of radiographers, highly trained graduates paid less than chicken pluckers in a region where property prices are sky-high? Her colleague and party health spokesman, Dr Evan Harris, suggested that the private sector had snatched up a lot of NHS-trained radiographers.

Perhaps they should pay a levy so that there will be a level playing field when it comes to bidding for NHS contracts, Dr Harris said.

Needless to say that excellent point got no answer from Ms Cooper, who is married to Ed Balls, Chancellor Brown's chief lieutenant.

Ed and Gordon were, as I hear it, only reluctantly persuaded to open up provision of UK healthcare (as distinct from its monopoly funding by the Treasury) to competition.

Mrs Gidley tells me that affluent areas like hers get under-funded because poorer areas have priority, though they do have affluent illness problems. She cites breast cancer and mental ill-health among the young. Ms Cooper did her best. Radiography training, for instance, is 62 per cent up, and set to double.

But the Gidley question which caught my eye ( and Dr Harris's) was the government's twoweek wait policy for urgent GP cancer referrals to see a specialist: is it a sensible use of resources since 95 per cent of referrals ( the MP's figure) are given the all-clear.

A lot of resources are going into processing people who have nothing wrong with them. Once those with a problem have been identified, it is taking three months to treat them.We ought to relax the two-week rule but bring the 13-week wait down to a month maximum, she told me.

Dr Harris wants ministers to ensure that such delays are also monitored in the interest of evidence-based medicine.

Otherwise people will suspect that they are seeking to to disguise long waiting times.

Mrs Gidley's speech raised one other sensitive point - the tendancy of hard-pressed GPs to dismiss cancer fears among the young because the odds of, say, breast cancer, are low.

Low, but not impossible.

Snappy Snaps has just given me photos of a chum who lost a testicle at 30. No two-week wait there; he was under the knife within hours. That was 20 years ago.

He looks very well.