David Taylor: MP who fought to improve primary health care for cancer patients

Somehow or another, visiting Parliamentary colleagues have a sixth sense about the relationship between their host Member of Parliament and those whom he or she represents. In 2003, in my capacity as Father of the House of Commons, I was invited by the England Central Woodlands Project to open one of their new forest developments, part of which was in the North-West Leicestershire constituency. David Taylor met me on site, and it immediately became apparent that he had an excellent rapport with both his constituents and the local and national forestry community. Quite simply, he was not only respected, but loved – yes it is possible for a politician to be loved – by local people of many different party allegiances. As he drove me in his car back to London it was confirmed to me what a serious and thoughtful socialist he was.

He was one of those politicians who pursued issues indefatigably. The Forest project was greatly helped by Taylor when on 14 April 1999 he asked at Prime Minister's Questions, when John Prescott was standing in for Tony Blair, "Is he aware that the first new national forest for several centuries, covering 200 square miles and several parliamentary constituencies, has been an astonishing success, but that for it to be genuinely environmentally sustainable, passenger rail services need to be returned to the National Forest line between Leicester and Burton? Can My Right Honourable friend confirm that the integrated transport strategy was designed to encourage just such projects? When he visits the area, will he reassure the 90,000 people who live there that the government cavalry can ride to the rescue of the scheme, which is legally becoming becalmed in a quagmire created by privatisation?" Taylor relentlessly pursued this and many other concerns on the Select Committee for the Environment and Transport, of which he was a long-term and most valuable member.

Taylor was born the son of a civil servant – he was always concerned about the right of civil servants to confront ministers with unpalatable facts without injury to their careers – and a mother who had her own little shop and acted as the village postmistress. During the recent controversies in Parliament he could be rightly termed "the leading champion of the sub-postmasters".

After attending Ashby-de-la-Zouch Boy's Grammar School, to whose teachers he would constantly pay tribute, Taylor went to Leicester Polytechnic and then to Lanchester Polytechnic (which later became Coventry University) to study chartered public finance and accountancy. He improved his qualifications with a BA in Maths and Computing in 1974 from the Open University; throughout his public life Taylor was an assiduous supporter of the cause of Open University students.

He began work as an accountant with Leicestershire County Council in 1977 and soon became their computer manager. He was one of comparatively few MPs who really understood the nuts and bolts of the potential of the computer age. Immersed in the affairs of the local government officers' union Nalgo (now Unison) from 1985 to 1997, he served as their auditor.

In 1992 he was selected for the marginal seat of Leicestershire NW, held by David Ashby, a prominent barrister and member of Lloyds. Taylor lost, Ashby scoring 28,379 votes to Taylor's 27,400 with 6,353 going to Jeremy Beckett, a local guest house and restaurant proprietor for the Liberals.

In retrospect, this was a huge pity, in my opinion. Had Taylor won, he would have had five years in opposition and his sheer hard work and seriousness of purpose in asking sensible parliamentary questions would surely have won him a place in the ministerial team in 1997. In that year Taylor converted a loss into a Labour gain, beating Robert Goodwill by 29,332 votes to 18,115, a swing to Labour of 13.8 per cent, one of the highest of the 1997 election. (There were controversial circumstances in which his opponent Ashby had stood down from parliament).

I vividly remember, on the evening of 17 February 2000, after a contentious vote on defence matters on a three-line whip, lingering behind as the throng was emptying out of the chamber for the adjournment debate, intending to leave when there was less pushing and shoving. Normally, adjournment debates are attended only by the MP raising the subject, the minister answering and a bored government whip having to sit on the front bench. On this occasion I became hooked and didn't leave because Taylor was initiating a discussion on primary care of cancer patients, and it became clear to me that he knew a great deal about the subject.

He pointed out that one in three people in the United Kingdom will contract cancer in his or her lifetime and one in four will die from it, compared to five per cent of all deaths at the beginning of the century. The factors driving the increase in cancer-related deaths included both better control of infectious diseases, and aging of the population, as two-thirds of all cancers occur in the over-60s.

What made me stay in the chamber was the way that Taylor had obviously talked to the experts thoroughly and in depth. He quoted Dr Nick Summerton, an authority on primary-care diagnostics, who told him that the general practitioner's most fundamental role for many patients is being able to act appropriately when they attend with a symptom that concerns them. In a review of complaints about GPs received by the Medical Defence Union, failure or delay in diagnosis accounted for 28 per cent of the notifications in 1998; the most frequent clinical condition associated with diagnostic failure or delay was missed malignancy. Over the years Taylor went on to be in the forefront of the campaign to make it government policy to have as a priority the early detection of cancer.

The central task for GPs has traditionally been to avoid overreaction to low-risk situations. Taylor was in favour of treating GPs fairly: if we expected them to refer more low-risk patients to specialists in the hope of detecting a limited number of early cancers, the taxpayers had to foot the bill. If, conversely, GPs were urged not to overload limited or expensive hospital facilities, we must not blame them too readily for missed cancers that could be a consequence of more restricted diagnostic strategies. It was characteristic of Taylor that he always saw two sides of an argument and that in matters of political policy there was no such thing, to use a phrase which was one of his favourites, as "a free dinner". He was a very realistic politician.

Another area that he believed had to be addressed was effective, evidence-based education for GPs and nurses, a prerequisite to allow them to implement existing knowledge in all practices. He had been in contact with Dr Arthur Hibble, who led for the Royal College of General Practitioners on cancer, describing the role of primary care in the patient's cancer journey as aiming to highlight risk prevention, including issues such as diet, tobacco and occupation, and to diagnose cancer early. Primary care had to include continuing care of the person, and their families and carers. There had to be recognition of recurrence, and finally palliative and terminal care at home.

Taylor was all the more effective on such issues precisely because he was not a doctor. Politicians who pursue their own experience are somehow not quite as effective as those who make themselves expert in a subject which is not their professional base. Taylor knew from talking at length to Drs Orest Mulka and Pawan Randev at the Measham medical practice in Derbyshire, and from listening to stories from patients and carers, that the way in which cancer sufferers throughout the country are cared for in the community is very variable, with excellent care in one area accompanying the unacceptable in another. The proportion of cancer patients being examined at home varied from 13 per cent in some areas to over 50 per cent in others. A good MP will use the expertise in his constituency to back up his campaign in Parliament; the knowledge that Taylor gained from the Measham practice was an example of his style of bringing in local information and drawing national conclusions from it.

I agreed strongly with the minister at that time, the Under-Secretary for Health, Yvette Cooper, formerly of The Independent, that in choosing to debate the role of primary care in the treatment of cancer, Taylor should be congratulated on his timely choice of topic. As she put it, he really did contribute to the government's development of cancer services across the whole spectrum.

Although Taylor's principal interests were medical and environmental, he had a serious interest in foreign policy and agonised whether to support the government over the invasion of Iraq, and he was one of those who voted against Blair in both February and March 2003, thereby extinguishing any hope that he may have had for ministerial preferment. He was a man of principle.

Tam Dalyell

David Leslie Taylor, local government official and politician, born Leicestershire 22 Aug 1946; educated Ashby de la Zouch Boy's Grammar School, Leicester Polytechnic, Lanchester Polytechnic, Open University; accountant and computer manager, Leicestershire County Council, 1977- 97; councillor, North-West Leicestershire District Council 1981-87, 1992-95; contested Leicestershire NW, 1992, MP for Leicestershire NW, 1997-; member of Select Committee on the Environment, chairman's panel, 2002-; married 1969 Pamela Caunt (four daughters, and one son deceased); died Burton-upon-Trent, Derbyshire 26 December 2009.

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