opinion: POLITICS

I caught a glimpse of the future the other day when Death stalked the corridors of Westminster, preceded by Dementia. Both were accompanied by junior health minister John Hutton. But that, I hasten to explain, was a purely procedural matter.

Virginia Bottomley was responsible for bringing the great unmentionable into the chamber of the Commons: 'Whereas in Victorian times there was much discussion and debate about death, and sex was taboo', in our times it is the other way around, she said.

I couldn't agree more. What I didn't know - but do now thanks to Virginia - is that a body called Cruse, with 154 branches and 6,500 volunteers, provides bereavement counselling to over 110,00 people a year. That is out of 500,000 deaths in Britain each year. Yes, one in 116 of us escapes the Inland Revenue's clutches this way every 12 months.

And the bereaved do need help. They suffer anger, bewilderment, sometimes relief, guilt, greed even, always shock. Having been orphaned very young I should have known this. I did, but we all forget. Unaided, I got over my loss in about 25 years.

What Mrs B was after, of course, was helpful publicity for Cruse's 40th birthday and extra cash from Mr Hutton for worthwhile projects - possibly some of the£14m earmarked for those NHS Direct helplines, which are staffed by less expert telephone counsellors, she mischievously implied.

What the ex-minister got was sympathy, but not much tea. Dammit, Cruse already gets£185,000 a year from Dobbo's coffers. Mr Hutton lavished praise on Cruse, the Samaritans and others, warned against 'medicalising' normal grief and noted (as New Labour ministers must) the economic cost of bereavement - around£800m a year on some estimates.

He also stressed his particular concern with adolescent mental health, where the risk factor is enhanced by bereavement, and underlined the importance of voluntary agencies - 'user-friendly and perhaps more understanding' - rather than GPs and other primary care professionals.

How different, I murmured to myself, to the last Labour government when a lot of nonsense was spouted about 'professionalising' the voluntary services, along with nationalising corner shops.

Coincidentally, Mr Hutton had been night-watchman at the parliamentary wicket the previous evening, taking elegant slow bowling from Dr Vince Cable, the seriously sensible Lib Dem MP for Twickenham. His subject (it is one of his campaigns) was Alzheimer's disease and the Department of Health's unwillingness to authorise the widespread use of Aricept and Exelon, the two best-known drugs for alleviating symptoms in its early stages. They buy time. The MP said that saves money.

Dr Vince (he's an economist, not a medic) insists there is 'an established medical consensus' that these drugs do help, and cites expert papers. He set out the tragic human cost of this cruel disease (evident to anyone who watched BBC TV's heart-rending Malcolm and Barbara: a love story the other evening) and sought assurances that NICE will make it one of its priorities to sort out.

This time there was even less tea with Mr Hutton's sympathy, barely the kind of weak teabag some of us may be buying in France or Italy next month. The two drugs 'achieve modest improvements in memory for some, but by no means all patients'. Side-effects can be dangerous. Other drugs, ranging from vitamin E and gingko biloba from the chemist, to oestrogens and anti- inflammatory agents, also yield 'modest evidence' of help.

A huge trial known as AD2000 is underway in the West Midlands as part of£6m a year's worth of Medical Research Council research into ageing. In combination with greater co-operation between health and social services, the recent carers' strategy (£140m in cash over three years) and other initiatives, it amounts to serious commitment, Mr Hutton suggested.

But there was no promise on NICE and no relenting on consultant prescriptions only. If people 'choose' (weasel word) to pay£70 to£140 a month privately for the drugs, that is a matter for them. Brace yourself for a lot more on this.