A report from the House of Commons public accounts committee found overall cancer mortality rates had fallen and waiting times reduced since the NHS Cancer Plan was launched in 2000.
But one-year survival rates remain poor compared with the best European countries and wide variations persist in how cancer services perform.
MPs noted a National Audit Office (NAO) report that showed an eight-fold variation among GP practices in urgent referral of patients to cancer specialists.
The committee called on the DoH to investigate outlier GP practices 'as a matter of urgency' and compare practices' referrals to their use of diagnostic tests.
In 2007, the DoH published its five-year Cancer Reform Strategy to deliver improved patient outcomes.
The report concluded that poor data on cost effectiveness and outcomes means the DoH cannot yet measure the impact of the 2007 strategy on these areas.
Margaret Hodge MP (Lab, Barking), chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: ‘It is very disappointing that, a decade after publication of the NHS Cancer Plan, there is still not enough good quality and timely information on such important aspects of cancer services as the use of chemotherapy and the stage at which patients’ cancers are being diagnosed.’
The department recently launched its 2011 Cancer Strategy, under which GPs will be granted greater access to diagnostic scans under government plans to raise cancer survival rates.
The £750m strategy, 'Improving Outcomes – A Strategy for Cancer', pledges to improve cancer survival rates for England to save an extra 5,000 lives by 2014/15.
The MPs’ report reviewed cancer services in the past decade.
It found that since 2007, improvements have been made in reducing the average length of stay and numbers of patients treated as day cases.
But the report warned early diagnosis still does not occur often enough, and the gap in short term survival rates between England and the best European countries has not been closed.
The report said: ‘There remain wide, unexplained variations in the performance of cancer services and in the types of treatment available across the country.’
It described the gaps in information about cancer services as ‘very disappointing’, in particular data on chemotherapy, follow-up treatment and cancer staging at the time of diagnosis.
MPs wrote: ‘We were surprised that value for money has not been a stronger focus for commissioners, both in securing services to meet the health needs of their local population or in assessing the performance of its suppliers.
‘Few commissioners make best use of the information available and most do not know whether their commissioning is cost-effective.’
They concluded that the improvement of data collection should be a priority for the department, including transparency in the performance of commissioning consortia.
Each year in England, around 255,000 people are diagnosed with cancer and around 130,000 die from the disease. The NHS spent £6.3bn on cancer services in 2008-09.
Care services minister Paul Burstow said: ‘This report shows exactly why we need to update the NHS. It is unacceptable that our cancer survival rates lag way behind our European neighbours, when we spend the equivalent amount on healthcare.’
The coalition government had taken ‘swift action’ to improve cancer survival since May 2010, he said, including plans for a £60 million bowel cancer screening service.
Mr Burstow added: ‘Our plans will ensure patients get the best care at each stage that they need it because we are focussing on survival rates. And we are devolving power to GPs who know better than bureaucrats how to improve care for their patients.’