Blair makes health key issue in appeal to wavering women voters

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will target wavering women voters today, offering healthier diets for children in schools, clearer labelling of food, and smoking bans in pubs.

It is the second day in succession that Labour's election campaign has focused on the women's vote, which polling suggests is undecided. "We are focusing on school gate issues because these are areas where the Tories won't act," said a senior Labour source.

Meanwhile Charles Kennedy will promise to give more freedom for "frontline" NHS staff and will pledge to channel an extra £350m into cutting "hidden waiting lists" for diagnostic tests.

The Liberal Democrat leader will publish a report showing some patients have to wait for more than a year for a scan to detect tumours, cancers and serious heart conditions.

A survey by the Liberal Democrats found that waits for life-saving scans are far longer than believed.

Yesterday the Prime Minister, in his health message, highlighted a pledge that guarantees women with suspected breast cancer will see a consultant within two weeks by 2008.

Melanie Johnson, a Health minister, told of the uncertainty she felt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001.

The Government has already introduced a minimum two-week wait for urgent cancer cases. In future, it will apply to "non-urgent" cases of possible breast cancer. Some hospitals can leave women waiting 17 weeks to see a specialist after being referred by their family doctor.

The medical profession reacted with scepticism to Labour's promise. Professor John Toy, medical director at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the announcement but said the main issue in tackling breast cancer was to get faster treatment.

"It is a good attempt to remove the uncertainty and dilemma for referring GPs," said Mr Toy. "But the really important question is are they going to get their treatment any faster? Waiting lists for radiotherapy are going up rather than down."

A BMA source representing family doctors said: "I am not sure what practical difference this will make. Most GPs already refer women to a consultant within two weeks because they don't have the diagnostic equipment in the surgery to know whether lumps are benign, and many women are anxious to know if they have cancer. They don't differentiate between non-urgent and urgent."

Mr Blair will be flanked by senior women ministers today, including the Children's minister Margaret Hodge and the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, to highlight a pledge to raise spending on school dinners following the popular campaign by the television chef Jamie Oliver. Mr Blair will also highlight plans to bring in tougher rules on food labelling, including declaring salt content and the ban on smoking in pubs serving food, as part of the efforts to reducing smoking around children.

Mr Kennedy will also seek to make progress on health. The Government does not collect waiting times for many diagnostic procedures and Mr Kennedy will claim that in many cases the length of the wait for scans is being hidden by the government.

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