Vote 11. National Health Service, Scotland

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th March 1959.

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Photo of Mr George Lawson Mr George Lawson , Motherwell 12:00 am, 12th March 1959

I should like to turn again to this question of the additional £17,000 provided for the purchase of ambulances and ambulance equipment.

When I put a Question to the Secretary of State for Scotland on 23rd February, asking— which English and which Scottish firms were invited to tender for contracts for new ambulance service vehicles"— I expected information about the firms which had been asked to tender. I did not expect that I should be given a reason for there being no invitation to tender at all to the Scottish firms. Indeed, I was rather surprised to find such a strong statement—a damning statement, I would say—made in answer to my Question. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) has already read the statement, but I feel that it would do no harm to repeat it. The Secretary of State said: The Joint Central Committee for the Scottish Ambulance Service advised me that it was urgently necessary to provide additional vehicles to avoid a breakdown of the Service during the winter."—[OFFICTAL REPORT, 23rd February, 1959; Vol. 600, c. 119.] Because of the great urgency, there was no time at all to invite the Scottish firm which has for years been supplying these vehicles to tender.

It is rather astonishing that we should be told that the Scottish ambulance service was apparently on the verge of breakdown during the winter—a damning statement indeed—and in order to try to understand how this came to be, I have looked back over the Estimates since 1951–52. I find that there appears to have been a more or less regular Estimate for this kind of work—the provi- Sion of ambulances and the equipment for the vehicles—and that a regular £70.000 was provided each year.

In fact, in 1952–53 the Estimate was £85,000, but—and it is rather significant, and may throw some light on why this position was allowed to arise—I notice that whereas the Estimate was £85,000, apparently, in that year only £35,000 was spent. That was a year in which there were efforts to reduce expenditure, but the result of that reduction in expenditure in 1952–53 was to push up the expenditure in the following year to £140,000. Since that time—and this seems, to my mind, to be the beginning of the explanation of the present position—in 1956–57, the expenditure was reduced from £70.000 to £50,000, and in 1957–58 the estimated expenditure was down to £8,000.

From what I can judge, only £5,000 was spent in that year. It seems to me that what 'has happened here is that there has been an almost complete cessation of the ordering of ambulances. That seems to be what has happened over the past few years. If we take it that in 1957–58 only £5,000 was spent on ambulances and equipment, as compared with what seems to have been a regular figure of £70,000, it would appear that nothing at all was spent on the actual purchase of vehicles in that year.

The Estimate for 1958–59 was again very much down on what seems to have been the normal Estimate. It was, in fact, only £39,000. It is the supplementation of that £39,000 by an additional £17.000 with which we are concerned tonight. It seems to me, looking at this matter as I think we are bound to look at it, that there has been an effort so to reduce expenditure on the purchase of ambulances and ambulance equipment that we have been pushed into a position in which in this winter the condition of the fleet was such that, to avoid a breakdown, there had to be this hurried, or what seems to have been a very hurried, ordering of these vehicles. It is very serious and most reprehensible that such an important part of the Service should have been allowed to run down over two years in this way.

There are one or two related questions which I should also like to put to the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I appreciate that this is not his department but I know that he will make an effort to reply. If I am wrong, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will correct me, but I was lead to believe that the placing of these orders in 1958, in respect of which the supplementation of £17,000 is partly to be paid, was not by the Scottish Office but by the Ministry of Supply.

I understand that a Ministry of Supply official visited Scotland, inspected the ambulance fleet and apparently made models or copies of certain Scottish ambulance vehicles. The Scottish ambulance vehicle differs from the English because in Scotland there are high tenement buildings with spiral stairways, with the result that the type of stretcher used has to be such as can be much more easily manoeuvred than the type used in England. I understand that it follows that because of the shape of the stretcher the shape of the typical Scottish ambulance is different from that of the English ambulance.

I am told that the Ministry of Supply official who made drawings or prepared models of the Scottish ambulance took his drawings to an English firm which provided the ambulances in 1958. We are told that the position was so urgent that there was no time to do otherwise than ask an English firm to supply these ambulances. That is absolutely disputed by the Scottish firms which in the past have provided these ambulances. They say that they could have met the demand for the main bodies more quickly than it was in fact met.

Is it true that the orders for these ambulances were not placed by the Scottish Office? I should have thought that the Scottish Office normally placed these orders. It is said that the orders were placed by the Ministry of Supply official with an English firm or firms without the Scottish firms being asked to tender. That is certainly true.

I do not wish to appear nationalistic and I do not argue that everything used in Scotland should be made in Scotland. Far from it, for Scotland exports as well as imports. But in a matter of this kind, when there has been a regular meeting of Scottish needs on the basis of what is a small industry, it is very unfortunate if a Ministry of Supply official apparently has the power to bypass the Scottish Office and place orders almost on the basis of his own judgment in this way. This is a bad thing. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will tell me if I am not correct, but if the facts are as I have described them, I hope he will assure me that this will not happen in the future.

We are being asked to grant an additional £8,000 for the provision of the midwifery service, mainly to meet the cost of additional staff. Recently I received a deputation of midwives from my constituency. I had not known that they were as much concerned as they are. I thought midwives seemed to think more of service than of themselves and were happy in their job. Apparently, however, there is a strong feeling of grievance among midwives, certainly among those who came to see me.

As a result of their visit I read the report of the Adjournment debate on 23rd January which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King). I was surprised to learn that, although there were more than enough women coming forward for training as midwives, and although there were more than enough who qualified, the service could not grow because of the numbers who left it. Apparently this was due to the conditions under which they work. For example, the midwife is highly qualified and her job must be one of the most vital in this country, since she is engaged in delivering children and looking after the mothers. I was surprised to find that the pay ranges from £10 a week to a maximum of £12 4s., which is below the national average.

I know that it is not in order here to argue about increases in wages, but I should like to know whether the conditions described by my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen, when speaking of midwives in England and Wales, also exist in Scotland. If they do, how far does the Joint Under-Secretary think that £8,000 will go towards remedying the deficiencies?