Sussex Maternity Hospital

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th February 1959.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

4.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Luke Teeling Mr Luke Teeling , Brighton, Pavilion

I wish, first of all, to thank my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for coming to the House to answer on behalf of the Ministry, because I know that he has many other things to do. For one thing, he wants to go to his constituency, but I wish to raise a matter which is of urgent importance in my own constituency. I feel sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to clear up a great deal before things go too far in my own area.

I am raising this question of the closing of the Sussex Maternity Hospital, because of an Answer I received from my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister on 26th January, which said: No decision has been taken to close this hospital, nor have I been asked to authorise it. The South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board has prepared proposals for the development of hospital services in this area, which include the proposal to close the Sussex Maternity Hospital and provide more maternity beds at Brighton General Hospital. It is now engaged on consulting local interests about these proposals."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th January, 1959; Vol 598, c. 72.] I do not for one moment criticise the Minister's reply that nothing has been asked of the Ministry. Yet one must presume that the regional bodies and organisations are in the closest touch with the Ministry about what they are doing, have representatives of the Ministry with them and are most unlikely ever to bring forward any such sweeping proposal as this without, if not consulting the Minister, at least consulting lesser people at the Ministry.

I would like the Minister to know the facts as we see them and to discuss this matter with his underlings in order to make sure that this matter does not go very much further. It is true that the Department has not been consulted officially and therefore the Board has no legal authority for stating that the hospital is about to be closed down. On the other hand, that is not what they have actually said to the hospital authorities.

I have some correspondence from the chairman of the hospital management committee in which he refers to these points. He points out how suddenly, without his being even consulted or asked to be present, the hospital management committee was overruled by a senior body and asked the matron at very quick notice to call a meeting of the staff and, at that meeting of the staff, without the matron being informed previously of what was happening, although she had been matron of the hospital for twenty-two years, the staff and she were then told to their horror that the hospital was to be closed down within a year or two. Presumably—and I want this made clear by the Parliamentary Secretary—they had no authority whatsoever to say that. The words they are reported as having used are that The following conclusions were reached: That this hospital should be closed as soon as possible. That referred to the Sussex Maternity Hospital. The statement which they issued to the Press dealing with this point said: Before the present services of the Sussex Maternity Hospital are transferred"— "Before" and not "if" the present services are transferred. It was taken for granted that the hospital would close in a year or two.

To my mind and, indeed, to the minds of the people in the towns of both Brighton and Hove and in the Sussex area, it would be an absolute calamity. The hospital is the oldest maternity hospital in the whole of England. It has existed since 1831 and has a tremendous reputation and connection with the past. As far as we know, the services are completely up to date. There has been no complaint at all about them. The building may be old, and, indeed, definitely needs repair. I shall come back to that in a minute. However, as a maternity hospital this hospital is as far as we know absolutely above all reproach. We feel very strongly that the matron was very badly treated in being completely ignored on the question of closing down.

A number of mothers in the area around Brighton and Hove have formed themselves into a group and they intend to fight this thing very thoroughly. They argue amongst other things that childbirth is not a sickness, not an illness, but a natural happening which should not be linked up with sicknesses in hospitals. They say that it should be dealt with in special maternity centres and maternity hospitals. They are not at all keen on being obliged to go to the Brighton General Hospital. They do not at all want that. That hospital, however good it is, is a converted workhouse, and although the people who go there are very happy at the way they are treated, there are far more mothers who would prefer to be left in a special maternity centre of their own.

There is no doubt that in the whole of our area, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, there is what is now a usual question everywhere, the vital question of beds. There is a great shortage of them. That is admitted. It is believed that the area is about 60 beds short. We are told that amalgamation with the Brighton General Hospital will save money but will not save beds. It will not lead to an increase in the number of beds. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us whether that is accurate. We must have more beds in the area.

As for the spending of money, there is always the argument that by bringing two organisations together there may be economy. In this instance that does not seem to be absolutely true because the nurses have all been told that they will be transferred with the transfer of the hospital. So there will be no saving on the nursing staff except for the matron and assistant matron, who, presumably, will not be needed. Then there will also be this rather severe shortage of beds.

There is a lot of money which has been put by, or, should I say, not spent since the State took over in 1948. The Maternity Hospital Management Committee have continually said when thinking of expenditure, "We will wait till the time when we can have a new hospital." Not, be it noted, an amalgamated hospital, but a new one. All this money should be used for making the treatment yet more up to date and for spending upon building.

Nearby us is Worthing, a town of about 180,000 people. It is growing so fast. There, they will not be able to take in extra people. There is a large number of small towns and villages round about from which the people come to this hospital. It is near the railway station, it is in the centre of the town, and it is very useful for prenatal clinical work, and so on.

We have been told, I believe correctly, that the Ministry regulations that there should be a certain number of beds in proportion to the actual number of people in the district would mean that, having about 287,000 local people, as distinct from others who come in because they like this hospital, we should need about 132 beds. Can we be told whether that is a possibility? But even so that is only a minimum for the use of the local district alone. There are other people who, as I have said, come from outside.

Then there is the whole question of midwifery. This is a well-known midwifery centre, which has been in existence for a very long time. An hon. Member opposite said the other day that the great lack of midwives and the need to train new entrants is one of the biggest problems at the moment. This hospital has sent out its trained nurses and others all over the Dominions in the last 100 to 150 years. During the last war, Australians and Canadians, New Zealanders, and South Africans stationed in the area took an immense interest in helping the hospital. They have endowed wards and beds and spent a great deal of money on it.

The hospital has become in many ways a Commonwealth centre. I do not want to stress too much the historical and sentimental side of this matter but rather the fact that the local people feel that they need to keep their own hospital. The chairman of the management board, Mr. John Chillman, and Dr. Beynon, who is also on the management committee, are both vigorously opposing the suggestion that the hospital should be taken over.

I am told that at Luton a start is about to be made on a maternity unit which will cost about £200,000 and which will have 120 beds. Possibly something of that kind could be done in this case, but it is believed the cost would be a good deal more locally, though it seems that the sum of £4,000 per bed which has been suggested is possibly too high a figure. It is immensely interesting to note that within the last two days about 400 doctors in the area have come together and have passed a resolution which was reported in yesterday's papers. The resolution is from the Committee of the Brighton and Mid-Sussex division of the British Medical Association and states that it regards this move with grave concern.

It suggests that the link up with the Brighton General Hospital is a timid, inadequate and uneconomic suggestion. It adds: We are averse to the closing of the Sussex Maternity Hospital unless this closure is associated with the building of a new maternity unit as the initial step in the creation of a new hospital centre. That is what we should all like to see.

We are fully aware that the buildings would have been pulled down long ago if there had not been a war. After the war those concerned with the hospital had to try to do their best to carry on until something bigger and newer was put up. We want a new Sussex Maternity Hospital, but we do not want it to be linked with an ordinary general hospital w here there are medical cases which might bring about infection and which have nothing to do with maternity, for that is not a sickness.

Incidentally, one of the most serious complaints that I had from mothers who go to Brighton General Hospital—and I find that these complaints are also made elsewhere—is of what happens when some mothers who are brought in lose their babies. They are brought back into the wards where are the other mothers whom they see daily having their own babies brought to them, generally happy and contented. It is tragic that the loss of their own babies should be rubbed in. This is possibly due to the fact that there is a shortage of beds, but something should be done to avoid it.

I come back to the fact that for local people nothing now suggested will improve the position it would be stop gap building. We need the much bigger suggestion which will cost millions but need not be implemented at the moment. All that the 400 doctors ask is that the maternity side should be started, and that effectively and soon. They add, and everybody else agrees, that they have always been told that they must not do anything to improve the conditions in the maternity hospital and elsewhere until the Cranbrook Report on the maternity services has been issued. Why then, these suggestions? Can the Minister tell us when it is likely that the Report will be published?

Although no doubt the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me that the Minister has not yet been approached and that, therefore, the Ministry can do nothing until this has been dealt with locally, will he please make it clear to the local people that nobody has any right to go to the Sussex Maternity Hospital and say that it will be closed down within two years? It need not be closed down in two years' time. There is every possibility that if we show the vital need for a maternity hospital separate from the Brighton General Hospital, it will not be closed. Will the Minister also bear in mind the resentment and the feeling of worry in the district, not only in Brighton and Hove but throughout the surrounding area, that if this happens Brighton will be practically the only biggish town without its own maternity hospital?

Even if the Ministry is slightly like Pontius Pilate in washing its hands, as it were, because no one has approached it yet, I beg my hon. Friend to realise that everyone has approached the Ministry through the Press, so it must know about the position. I beg him, therefore, to use his influence to ensure that this does not go further. It is much too unsettling for the hospital, which has a world-wide reputation and which ought to be allowed to continue in some form or other as a separate entity.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) has given me the opportunity to repeat from this Box what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Health has already said in reply to his Question of 26th January. It is that no decision has been taken either by the Minister or by the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board to close the Sussex Maternity Hospital. Neither has my right hon. and learned Friend been asked by the Board to authorise its closure.

I want to make that absolutely clear at the outset, even if, in the course of my subsequent remarks, I may appear to partake a little of the characteristics of Pontius Pilate, because, naturally, it is difficult for me to comment on proposals which have not yet reached my right hon. and learned Friend.

I understand that the South East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board, which is responsible for planning the hospital services in the area, has reviewed the services of the Brighton and Lewes group of hospitals and has drawn up proposals—proposals only—for future development. One of these is that the Sussex Maternity Hospital should be closed and that more maternity beds should be provided in Brighton General Hospital.

In accordance with normal procedure, the Regional Hospital Board is now engaged in consultations with the local authorities and organisations concerned about these proposals. It has published them in the Press and has sent them to the various interested bodies for their comments. In this way they hope to get the views of all concerned, which would, naturally, include the doctors, on the merits of the proposals before coming to any final decision.

When these local consultations, which, obviously, are of the greatest importance, have been completed, the Regional Board will then have to decide whether it wants to go ahead with its proposals or not. If, after considering local views, it decides that the hospital should be closed, it will put the case to the Minister, who, in his turn, will then have to decide whether or not to authorise the closure.

I wish to emphasise that at the present the Regional Board has put no proposals to the Minister and that the matter is still at the stage of local discussion. That being so, it is difficult for me to enter into the merits of the case one way or the other, but it does not prevent me from saying that I fully appreciate the excellent contribution which the Sussex Maternity Hospital has made to the local maternity services, its great reputation for its work, and what it has done in midwifery training.

I am assured by the Regional Board and the hospital management committee concerned that it is not the case that the staff of the hospital have been given notice. My information is that they were informed of the proposal on 2nd January when it was made plain to them that at that stage it was merely a proposal and that ample warning would be given to them if a decision were taken to close the hospital and that their position would be safeguarded. I want to make that abundantly clear, because if any words of mine this afternoon will help to allay local anxiety in that respect, so much the better.

How the present situation arose I cannot precisely say, but I repeat that no definite decision has been taken in the matter, that there is a whole round of consultation and discussion which has to be completed before my right hon. and learned Friend is even brought into it, and that the hospital cannot be closed, if, indeed, such should be the outcome of the consultations, without his express authority.

My hon. Friend asked me about the Cranbrook Report. He rightly thought that its publication would be an important event and might well have some bearing on the organisation of maternity services in the country as a whole, and, therefore, in the area which he has the honour to represent. I can tell him that we expect to have the Report published very soon.

There is little that I can add to what I have said, but I hope that this short debate, covering a subject on which my hon. Friend's constituents are understandably very sensitive, will have served to clear the air and to make plain the present position with regard to the Sussex Maternity Hospital.

Photo of Mr Luke Teeling Mr Luke Teeling , Brighton, Pavilion

There is also the question of beds. My hon. Friend mentioned that the new hospital which was planned would have more beds. We understand that there will be 60 fewer beds.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

I do not think that I actually referred to a new hospital during my remarks for the very good reason that until the proposals of the Regional Board are before the Minister it is impossible to say by what means additional beds will be provided.

Clearly, the Regional Board is not likely to overlook its responsibilities in that matter, because it is the regional authority, and is under constant pressure to see that an adequate number of beds for every specialty in its region is, in fact, provided. I can assure my hon. Friend that, if and when this matter comes before my right hon. and learned Friend, that aspect of the matter is one to which he will give his closest attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.