Page last updated at 21:31 GMT, Sunday, 11 April 2010 22:31 UK

Labour face apology call over cancer election leaflets

Labour leaflet
The personalised leaflet about cancer was sent to 250,000 women in England

David Cameron has called on the prime minister to apologise for Labour leaflets sent out on cancer policy, calling the tactic "sick".

Leaflets saying the Tories would scrap a Labour guarantee on how quickly patients would see a cancer specialist were sent to 250,000 women last month.

Some recipients said they had cancer, and felt they had been targeted.

But health secretary Andy Burnham said it was "wholly wrong" to suggest Labour had targeted cancer sufferers.

The personalised leaflets said the Tories would scrap a Labour guarantee for suspected breast cancer patients to see a specialist within two weeks of being referred by a GP.

They contained a message from a breast cancer survivor praising Labour's policy.

They were part of a range of campaign literature sent to addresses in England over the past month on issues such as health, crime and education, a party spokesman said.

One woman gives her reaction after receiving the leaflet

But a number of people contacted the BBC to say they had been sent the cards and believed they had been "targeted" as either they or a relative had received treatment for breast cancer.

Phyllis Delik, from Nottinghamshire, told the BBC that she thought the leaflets were in "poor taste" and that they suggested "that if you vote Conservative you are going to wait a long time for cancer treatment".

"To target people over something like cancer, I think it is dreadful," she added.

Several other recipients, who are not cancer sufferers, also criticised the leaflets - one describing them as "offensive".

However, one man who has had treatment for another form of cancer recently said he had received another leaflet on policing and did not believe he had been singled out because of his condition.

Alan Woolley, from London, said the "most important fact" was that his medical care had been "superb".

'Shameful'

Labour has claimed that a range of guarantees on cancer diagnosis and treatment introduced in recent years would be threatened by a Conservative election victory.

The Tories have pledged to increase spending on health in real terms, saying the NHS is their number one priority, but argue some existing targets are counter-productive and should be axed.

In an interview with the Metro newspaper, Mr Cameron attacked the leaflets, saying: 'I think this is just an absolutely appalling way to behave.

"If Gordon Brown has a moral compass he should get it out and have a good look at it and apologise to these people straight away.

"Clearly many of the people who received these leaflets are very angry and very upset by them.

"The first thing that Labour needs to do is withdraw these leaflets and write and apologise to the people who have received them and to pledge not to use these tactics in the future because frankly it's sick."

Earlier, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said he had written to Gordon Brown to ask him to confirm that no confidential information had been used to select the recipients.

It is wholly wrong to suggest that the Labour Party has, or would ever, target cancer sufferers with its leaflets and I totally reject that claim
Health secretary Andy Burnham

He said the leaflets raised "a number of serious questions about who authorised the potential misuse of personal data and who was involved in the production of the cards".

Lib Dem treasury spokesman Vincent Cable said there needed to be an investigation to see if there had been any abuse of data protection laws.

He told the BBC it was perfectly valid for parties to argue with each other over how to improve cancer screening and access to drugs.

But he said it would be "rather disreputable" if cancer sufferers had been knowingly targeted with party political material.

'Throwing insults'

Mr Burnham said in a statement that Labour had not and would never target cancer sufferers, adding: "I totally reject that claim."

He said: "Whilst Labour will guarantee rapid access to cancer specialists and cancer tests, the Conservatives have repeatedly said they would scrap those guarantees, despite all the evidence which shows that they save thousands of lives and will save thousands more lives in the future.

"Rather than throwing insults based on false claims, Andrew Lansley must explain why he and David Cameron would refuse patients this crucial, potentially life-saving guarantee."

Health minister Mike O'Brien told the BBC the party did not have access to personal information.

"We've no ability to know what NHS records say, and it would certainly be wrong for the Department of Health where I'm a minister to allow any political party to have access to those sorts of records," he said.

"What we've done is send leaflets to a variety of people, and some of those may well have cancer...

"People can be assured that Labour had not got its hands on any personal information, we wouldn't be allowed to have that.

"What we wanted to do is make sure people, whether they were cancer patients or not, knew what the truth was."

Ruairi O'Connor, head of health service improvement at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said the parties should be "clearly setting out how they will improve services, rather than focusing on the fear of breast cancer".

"We now look to the leaders' debates for the parties to show how they are going to support breast cancer patients over the next five years," he added.



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