Crawley Hospital

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th November 1958.

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Photo of Mr Frederick Gough Mr Frederick Gough , Horsham 12:00 am, 25th November 1958

While expressing my gratitude for this opportunity to raise the matter of Crawley Hospital, I do so with a heavy heart, because I do not like criticising a Government which I most wholeheartedly support. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health will be present shortly, and I am sure that he would be the first to support that statement of mine from his experience when he was a Government Whip and responsible for my attendance in this House.

This is not a matter of criticising the Government, but I shall be bringing facts to the attention of the House which seem to show beyond a peradventure that I have been misled by four Ministers. In the comparatively short time that I have been a Member of the House I have formed the opinion that no Minister would purposely or willingly mislead his back-bench supporters. I feel and I believe that what I have to say will bear this out, that the Ministers themselves have been badly misled, and that the matter is so serious that I shall ask my hon. Friend, as I did at Question Time last week, to ask his right hon. Friend to institute a full inquiry.

I appreciate the opportunity to put this matter carefully to the House. As long ago as September, 1954, I was asked by various constituents to press the then Minister, now my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service, to do something about Crawley Hospital which was then, and still is, an old-fashioned cottage hospital designed to serve a small country town with a population of 4,000 or 5,000 people. From that date until now the population of Crawley has increased by 26,000, but the hospital remains in the same state.

On 9th February, 1955, I asked the then Minister a Question to which he replied: … as far as Crawley is concerned there is an £80,000 scheme which would not come into the category of a large scheme. This proposed smaller scheme is for a maternity and outpatients' department."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th February, 1955; Vol. 536, c. 1905.] My right hon. Friend expressed the hope that it would go into the regional board's programme of the South West Metropolitan Regional Board for that or the following year. I must ask my hon. Friend if he has had an opportunity of looking into this, because from that day to this we have heard absolutely nothing more about this £80,000 scheme.

On 14h February, 1955, which was a few days after I asked that Question, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister in reply to a suggestion of mine that he might put up some temporary buildings, and I gave him some figures which I had obtained from a local building contractor to say that he could have produced something reasonable in the nature of £1.500. He turned it down partly because his advice from the Ministry was that the estimate would be nearer £6,000, but, more important, if I may quote a sentence out of his letter, because it was … to meet a temporary need which is likely to be of fairly short duration. I again emphasise that that was on 14th February, 1955, and I would say that from then until today's date can hardly be described as "of fairly short duration." Indeed, my right hon. Friend went on in this letter to say: As matters now stand the regional board attach a very high degree of urgency to the Crawley scheme owing to the poor facilities of the present hospital. I need scarcely add that the poor facilities of the present hospital are poorer by four years and by a very much enhanced population.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to a speech made by Sir Thomas Bennett, who is the Chairman of the Crawley Development Corporation, at its annual general meeting on 19th March, 1955, which was held at Crawley. Referring to the project of new maternity and out-patient facilities, Sir Thomas Bennett had this to say: This scheme is now before the Ministry of Health for financial approval and a decision is expected very shortly. The Board have appointed architects to prepare working drawings in preparation for the letting of a building contract. Sir Thomas Bennett is a professional man of the highest possible quality and also a public servant of the greatest integrity. I am quite convinced that Sir Thomas Bennett would not have made those statements if he had not had some categorical assurance either from the Ministry of Health or from the Board. He did say that architects had been appointed and that the working drawings were being prepared, and I should like to ask my hon. Friend if he will be good enough to state who the architects were, whether, indeed, there were any architects and what has happened to their working drawings.

At this stage, I should tell the House that all these plans had been to enlarge and develop the present hospital on its existing site, which is in a part of Crawley known as West Green. Shortly after that incident, there was a new Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) became the Minister. I sent him a note that I was going to mention his name today. He was kind enough, shortly after he took office, to receive a deputation, which I led and which was very representative of the people of Crawley. That was during the summer of 1956.

At the end of that meeting, he confirmed to us that the scheme was in hand, but he was not prepared to give us any promise as to when it would start, mainly due to the economic situation then existing in the country. He followed this up on 22nd August, 1956, with a letter to me in the second paragraph of which he said: Since I met the deputation the Regional Board have been working on more detailed drawing. I apologise for referring so often to these working drawings and these detailed drawings, but I wish to do so in order that the House may know that we have had one assurance after another that drawings have existed or drawings have been made.

That was on 22nd August, and I received a further letter from my right hon. Friend on the 30th October, 1956, in which he stated to me that complete agreement with the Board had been reached on plans for the first stage and that he was then in a position to go ahead with the working drawings—working drawings which we had been assured by Sir Thomas Bennett had been dealt with a year before. He was then free to go ahead with the working drawings which he pointed out to me in his letter were essential for getting the work up to the tender stage.

He mentioned in his letter that there was one small planning point relating to a boiler and it was necessary to consult the planning authority. While he was in the process of consulting the planning authority we had, unfortunately, another change and a new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn (Mr. Vosper). I immediately got in touch with my right hon. Friend and he was kind enough to send me a letter dated 11th March, 1957, in which he said: As my predecessor explained, all points of design which were at issue between my Department and the Regional Board were settled some time ago. It does take a long time to complete plans for a hospital but work has been going on and a start this year seems possible. That was written on 11th March, 1957— a start this year seems possible. He went on in his letter—and I have no doubt that this was all raised by the trivial point about the boiler, a matter which, as we know, had been put in front of the planning authority—to say that the planning authority, the West Sussex County Council, had raised objections to the proposed site, the West Green site, and wanted the hospital transferred to the other end of the town. He ended his letter by saying: All I can say at the moment is that if the site on which the Board wish to build the hospital is not changed, building is likely to begin this year. I passed the observations about the planning side of it on to the planning authority the West Sussex County Council and I must say that the council bitterly resented the way in which it was put by the Minister. I can only say that that is the way in which it was put to the Minister. I passed on the observations of the West Sussex County Council to my right hon. Friend.

I think that it is as well for the House to hear what those observations were. The county council said: When the master plan for Crawley was settled and approved, the Crawley Hospital site was at the south side of the town at Tilgate. There has never been any question of its being anywhere else until recently. For the Minister to say that there has been a development which might upset his plans for the hospital and to go on to blame it on to the county council for raising objections to the proposed site, which he apparently, in his wisdom, has negotiated with the Regional Board with complete and utter disregard for thee master plan of Crawley, is to endeavour to shift the responsibility for this situation from his Department and the Regional Hospital Board, on to the shoulders of the county council, which is grossly unfair and completely divorced from the facts. I venture to submit that that is absolutely true on the facts. I would point out to the House that the master plan for Crawley was approved by the county planning authority on 30th January, 1950. It was not until 12th November, 1956, that is, nearly seven years later, that the Secretary of the Board sent particulars to the Clerk of the Crawley Urban District Council for redeveloping or. the existing site under Circular 100 procedure.

As can be well imagined, there was then a really first-class rumpus and it ended in the desirability of having a public inquiry. In fact, the local authorities themselves insisted on a public inquiry because they wished the general public to realise and understand where the blame lay for these terrible delays.

That public inquiry took place on 30th April, 1957. It is interesting to observe that at the inquiry the Secretary of the South-West Metropolitan Regional Board said in his statement: The present plans are at a stage which may allow building to commence towards the end of the current financial year. My right hon. Friend considered the Report arising out of the inquiry and eventually decided, on 14th September, 1957, that building was to continue on the existing site, the site which had been chosen all the way along and the site in respect of which we have been told that working drawings were being worked out and completed for several years. According to Sir Thomas Bennett, those working drawings had started two-and-a-half years previously.

We then had a further change, caused by the most unhappy illness of my right hon. Friend the Member for Runcorn. We now have the present Minister. A little bit later, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. R. Thompson) ceased to be a Whip looking after my activities, and became Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. As soon as he was appointed, I got in touch with him. He will remember that I said to him, "We shall very soon have a little bone to pick together". He was kind enough to look into the whole of this question.

My hon. Friend wrote to me on 18th November, 1957, a little over a year ago, and drew my attention to the fact that planning took a long time and that the Department bad had difficulty with the planning authority. I hope that he has taken note of what the planning authority thinks in this respect. He said that the scheme had, of course, to be examined again from the financial angle. He said, I would remind hon. Gentlemen, on 18th October, 1957, that the Board was engaged on working drawings. I wonder if all these working drawings have been filed somewhere. There must be a very big file. I have asked a lot of architects about working drawings, and they say that they are not so essential as some people think.

I say now with great respect that that letter was thirteen months ago, and that I was a little bit disturbed when we heard nothing more. I put a Question on 29th October, 1957, and was told the same thing, that there was preparation of working drawings and that bills of quantities were in progress as a preliminary to inviting tenders. The detailed work was heavy and would take some months. Several months have now gone by.

In November, 1957, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary wrote to me and said: It would have been quite wrong for the Minister to authorise the Board to spend time and money on this detailed work before all the necessary preliminaries had been cleared. Otherwise they may well have had to do the work all over again. My submission is that the Board seems to have done the work not only all over again but about five times over again.

I wrote again after that, on 28th April this year, and again my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary reminded me: The Board estimated nine months to complete the working drawings. We see no reason to quarrel with that estimate. It is curious that there should be that period of gestation of nine months. If we take Sir Thomas Bennett's estimate, we should have had the working drawings by December, 1955. If we take the estimate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, we should have had them about June, 1957. If we take the moment when the draughtsmen got busy from the end of the public inquiry, we should have had them, I calculate, about January, 1958. If I take my hon. Friend's letter of 18th October, we should have had the working drawings by mid-July. This is why—I see that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is rather surprised—I nearly blew up when I received his reply at Question Time last week.

Bearing in mind the obvious difficulties which must occur when there have been no fewer than four Ministers, the fact that we have had an economic crisis and that the Government had to look again at this kind of matter and every other consideration, I nevertheless ask the House to bear in mind the people of Crawley. Whoever is to blame, they are not. They are suffering very much indeed. I feel that my right hon. Friend and his three predecessors have been very badly let down by their advisers. Indeed, I go further and say I cannot think that they have had anything else but completely wrong advice, which has resulted in their being misguided and misled and then misleading myself and everybody else who is interested in this problem.

It seems to me that there is a prima facie case for my right hon. Friend to set up a Departmental inquiry to look into the whole matter, and if there is, as I say there is, culpable negligence, suitable disciplinary action should be taken. Whatever my hon. Friend's answer may be, I once again implore him to get down to this matter. Can he not start on the building without repeating the working drawings, and may we have his assurance that when it starts we can have it done by day and night shifts until the work is completed?