Cancer patients would have a legal right to treatment within two months under plans set out by the Liberal Democrats.
Sir Ed Davey used his leader’s speech at the close of the party’s annual autumn conference in Bournemouth to set out a five-year cancer plan aimed at boosting survival rates in England.
Existing NHS targets state that those with urgent referrals should start treatment within two months, but more than 72,000 people – around two in five patients – have waited longer in the past year, with the target unmet since 2015.
The Telegraph understands that under the Liberal Democrat plans, patients who do not start treatment within the timeframe will be able to contact the Health Ombudsman and will also be given the option of suing the Government.
In a highly personal speech, Sir Ed drew on his experiences of losing both of his parents to cancer when he was young – adding that his family’s story “isn’t unique”.
“This very day, across the UK, a thousand people will hear that fateful diagnosis,” he said. “A thousand people, choking back tears as they try to process what it means for them.
“Far too many people are still waiting far too long for a diagnosis, or to start treatment after being diagnosed.”
Claiming that “voting Conservative is bad for your health”, Sir Ed attacked the Government’s decision to abandon a 10-year plan to tackle cancer backlogs, calling the scheme “yet another casualty of all the Conservative chaos”.
“I fervently hope we can build a consensus across politics to make cancer a top priority in the next Parliament,” he added.
“For Liberal Democrat MPs, it will be a top priority. And that’s why today I am announcing our new and ambitious plan to end unacceptable cancer delays and boost survival rates.”
Other cancer pledges unveiled by the Liberal Democrats on Tuesday included an increase in the number of radiotherapy machines and halving the time for new treatments to reach patients by investing in the medicine regulator.
New legislation modelled on a US law signed by Barack Obama would also be introduced, requiring ministers to coordinate and ensure additional research funding into cancers with the lowest survival rates, including brain, lung and liver cancer.
Some clinicians have questioned the effectiveness of recent changes to cancer targets. Last month Professor Pat Price, the chairman of cancer charity Radiotherapy UK, said “failure is failure however you manage it”, while others have warned targets could have a distorting effect.
A number of other Liberal Democrat policy proposals announced in recent days have been related to healthcare, including plans to introduce mental health MOTs and to establish a Royal College for Social Care to tackle the issue of recruitment.
In his speech, Sir Ed also promised to “smash [the Blue Wall] for good”, as he referred back to seats in the Tory heartlands of Shropshire, Somerset and Devon that the party has seized in recent by-election triumphs.
His remarks came ahead of the next electoral contest in Mid Bedfordshire sparked by the departure of Nadine Dorries, the former Tory culture secretary.
The Liberal Democrats say they feel confident that their local candidate, Emma Holland-Lindsey, will win the by-election next month, though recent polling suggests it is a very tight race.
During the four-day conference – the first to be held in person for four years – the party has sought to portray itself as a formidable electoral force in the wake following its by-election wins.
However, the leadership faced embarrassment on Monday when its attempt to abolish a national house-building target of 380,000 homes was voted down by activists.
The party’s stance on Brexit has also come under scrutiny, with Sir Ed failing seven times to say whether it wanted to rejoin the European Union in the long run.
He also insisted voters on the doorstep are no longer talking about Brexit. But Layla Moran, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, used a fringe event to tell members “we want to rejoin”.%n