Campaigner of the Week: Thangam Debbonaire MP
Thangam Debbonaire MP explains why she’ll “be badgering as many people as possible” in her campaign for a fund to cover the travel costs of childhood cancer treatment
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West and chair of the APPG on Children, Teenagers & Young Adults with Cancer.
Every year, 4,000 children and young people under 25 are diagnosed with cancer. “And the travel costs hit straight away…” Debbonaire explains, “The average family in this situation are travelling an extra 440 miles a month. And then a small number [8%] are travelling over 1000”. Debbonaire’s campaign is for the government to create a travel fund of £5m, accessible to every family with a child or young person diagnosed with cancer, providing £1,000 towards their travel costs. “It’s a small quite niche policy, but with massive impact”.
Childhood cancer is an issue Debbonaire knows well: her nephew had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer mostly affecting children and young adults under 20. “Childhood cancer is so devastating and so brutal,” she tells me, voice breaking slightly, “I just don’t want families to have to worry about what they’re putting in their car.”
Childhood cancers are thankfully rare, she explains. Consequently, however, the specialist clinics tend to be further away from patients, and appointments are more frequent. Public transport is a no-go for most patients because of infection risks. Car maintenance, petrol and parking all create extra costs; as Debbonaire puts it, “You can’t just drive up to hospital, throw the child out of the car and say, ‘I’ll be back in 20 minutes when I’ve found a parking space’.”
“[These are] things you wouldn’t think about until you had a child with cancer in your family, which is how I know about it.”
Travel is just part of the financial cost of a childhood cancer diagnosis. One parent is likely to have to give up work or go part time, and other costs such as additional heating at home can quickly accumulate, with only some covered by carer’s allowance or benefits. Additionally, young people with cancer often end up managing treatment alongside education and student finance, or leaving work and facing universal credit waiting times.
While Debbonaire is working more broadly on cancer costs, this campaign has a specific ask: “This is about essentials, which is getting the child to hospital for their treatment.”
The APPG first recommended a travel fund in July 2018, and since then Debbonaire and her colleagues have been asking written questions, holding debates and lobbying ministers. She recently raised it in Business Questions and wrote to the prime minister ahead of the Queen’s Speech, as well as linking in with colleagues working on hospital parking charges.
“I’ll be badgering as many people as possible… Every MP at some point will have a child in their constituency who is really going to struggle with this. And it will possibly only be one or two… but because it’s rare it makes this a fixable problem.” You can also expect to see Debbonaire raising the issue in DWP questions as well as Health and Social Care over the next few months (“I don’t mind where the money comes from,” she laughs). Additionally, Debbonaire is considering what provisions exist for children with other rare diseases and chronic conditions
And getting it in her own party’s manifesto? “From conversations with colleagues, there’s a lot of sympathy. But I’d like it in every party’s manifesto. What I’d really like is that whatever party wins at the general election that this can be implemented.”
There is enough worry with a childhood cancer diagnosis, unimaginable to most, Debbonaire emotes. “The state can’t take away that all that worry, it’s never going to be able to. But I want parents not to have to worry about the cost.”