Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision to close the children's ward at Victoria hospital, Romford, in February of last year, without consultation and notice and on the pretext that the closure was temporary, was an abuse of the present procedure? Is he aware that that ward is still closed 21 months later and that it was an attempt to undermine the viability of the hospital as a whole?
If there is disagreement locally and any question of a permanent closure, the matter would come to my right hon. Friend for decision. I am well aware of my hon. Friend's anxieties about the Victoria hospital. There are consultations taking place at present and we should wait and see how they develop.
Is it not true, however, that a number of area health authorities are seeking to use temporary closures to evade completely the responsibility of consultation? Is he aware that in this way they avoid the need to consult the community health council and to refer the decision to the Minister if the CHC disagrees with the closure?
I am not aware that any health authority is abusing the temporary closure procedure in that way. However, the guidelines may need clarification and we are looking into that. The temporary closure has no fixed time limit. Providing the authority genuinely intends to reopen a hospital, the closure is regarded as temporary.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, without any public consultation, the Kingston and Richmond area health authority announced the temporary closure of St. Mary's hospital, Hampton? Will he do all in his power to encourage the authority to keep that hospital open in the long term?
The essence of temporary closure is that urgent action is taken because of an immediate need. A health authority cannot, therefore, go through the whole process of consultation.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his right hon. Friend's letter to the chairman of the North-West Thames regional health authority of 28 August last has been interpreted by many community health councils throughout the country as an attempt to exclude them from a large part of their consultative role in hospital and health service changes? Will he give the House an undertaking that that letter is meant to apply only to temporary closures and small units?
I should be glad to discuss that letter with my right hon. Friend, but I am interested that the right hon. Friend should ask such a question. He is clearly ignoring the fact that the Labour Government closed 280 hospitals in England, and that on 31 March this year there were a further 31 in the pipeline for closure, making 311 in all.