Orders of the Day — Victoria Hospital, Romford

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 30 July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford 1:31, 30 July 1982

The history of the matter that I raise today is a sorry story. As one would expect from a hospital called "Victoria", it was opened nearly 100 years ago in celebration of Queen Victoria's golden jubilee on land donated by a public benefactor, William Mashiter. The hospital was funded by public appeal in the tradition of public spirit and generosity that can be seen today in the money that has been raised and the enthusiasm generated for this hospital under threat.

The hospital was further extended as a memorial to King Edward VII in 1912, and in 1939 the foundation stone of a three-storey building was laid by Lady Neave. Throughout years of service to the community, the hospital has gained nothing but praise, yet it is now proposed to close the hospital as a surgical unit and to transfer the acute in-patient services elsewhere. Most people find that astonishing. The people of Romford provided the hospital by public subscription. They regard it as "their" hospital and, having seen it taken over by the National Health Service in 1948, they now see the work it does threatened with closing.

As their Member of Parliament, I welcome the opportunity of this Adjournment debate on the last day before the Summer Recess to express their outrage and disbelief at the proposals. It is the second time that I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House. I do so because of its importance to Romford. The first occasion was on 23 May 1979, when I took the earliest possible chance of seeking Government support for the retention of the hospital. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may remember that he was present then but in a different capacity.

The then Minister for Health, now my hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs, responded to the debate by assuring the House that there was a continuing place for the small local hospital where there is a useful and satisfactory role for it."—[Official Report, 23 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 1193.] There can be no doubt about the Government's commitment to small hospitals. Within a fortnight of her historic election as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend said in the debate on the Address on 15 May 1979: I have great sympathy with the cause of small local hospitals."—[Official Report, 15 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 81.] On 24 May 1979, in answer to a question from me about the Victoria hospital, 91 years to the day since it was opened by Mr. J. Theobald, MP, who I presume must have been one of my predecessors, the Prime Minister said: we approach the question of small hospitals with considerable sympathy."—[Official Report, 24 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 1226.] Later that same year the Minister for Health told the Conservative conference: I can assure you that no closure of a small unit or hospital will be agreed by us unless we are certain that it is unavoidable and in the best interests of the patients … We must not have false economies. We must not close down small hospitals which are deficient yet vital to the local community. True to his word, during his three years of office, the then Minister for Health was able to save several small hospitals. It was only his personal intervention last summer, following a visit, that averted the closure of the Victoria and allowed this year's reprieve. I hope that his successor, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health, will take the same view, will have equal success and will be able to find a way to save Victoria hospital. The hopes of many thousands of people now rest upon his decision.

The value of the surgical unit cannot be disputed. About 2,000 operations are carried out there each year. They are, in the slightly chilling jargon of the medical profession, elective cold surgery—minor operations such as ruptures which are for conditions not of the greatest gravity but painful, disabling and inconvenient.

In all my 13 years' association with Romford, eight years as its Member of Parliament and before that for five years as its parliamentary candidate, I have never heard a single complaint about the hospital, only warm appreciation. Patients come by appointment, make a rapid recovery in the restful surroundings of the cottage hospital and resume their active life with the minimum of delay.

The advantages of a small hospital are evident everywhere. Its human scale is comfortingly intimate, the staff are attentive and intensely loyal, there is little noise at night and sleep is not disturbed by emergency admissions, and the homely atmosphere and attractive garden encourage recuperation.

Why should anyone in his right mind want to close this unit? The answer is that the district health authority and its predecessors have the embarrassment of a spare ward and operating theatre in the district general hospital on which they have unwisely spent an unnecessary amount of public money in recent years and which they desperately need to justify. To that end the district health authority is prepared to discard the proven public asset, Victoria hospital, against almost total opposition from the community that it is there to serve.

The debate is too short to go into all the details of the complex and unhappy history of this matter. As my hon. and learned Friend has kindly agreed to receive a small deputation led by me, with representatives of the nursing and medical staff as well as the general public, before he makes a final decision, it would be more appropriate for me to present our detailed case then.

However, I should like to make one general point which the Government should study as a matter of wider interest; that is whether present procedures ensure democracy in the National Health Service. The division of opinion on this issue can be summarised as: "for" the proposal to close the Victoria hospital as we have known it for almost 100 years—the regional health authority, the district health authority and the community health council, all appointed, unelected bodies that are not directly accountable to the public; "against" the proposal—the Member of Parliament, the Member of the European Parliament, the member of the Greater London Council, and the borough council, all of whom are elected representatives of the public and accountable to them, and 45,000 members of the public themselves who put their signatures to a petition of protest which I presented to my hon. Friend last summer.

Whose view should prevail? Whose Health Service is it, anyway? The defection of the community health council has been a particular disillusionment. From my experience, I cannot now confidently support its continuance. Originally, the Havering and Barking community health councils were foremost in opposition to the proposal. They organised a crowded town meeting over which they invited me to preside and from which many were turned away, and they set up an action committee to fight the closure.

Later, the CHCs were quietly taken on one side by the area health authority and threatened with the prospect of never getting the child assessment unit and the psychogeriatric unit which they badly wanted, and which are part of the proposals for the re-use of the Victoria, unless they agreed to the closure of the surgical unit. Overnight they did a complete turnabout, disowned their own action committee and proceeded to rewrite their part in the history of the matter in a way equalled only by Soviet historians covering up the enormities of the post-revolutionary Stalinist regime. To explain their volte-face they suggested that the area health authority had changed its policy and that the original proposal was not only to close the Victoria as a surgical unit but to dispose of the buildings as well. That was never the case.

The first proposals, like the second proposals and now the third proposals, were all for re-use, including, to start with, the proposal that part of the hospital should be used for offices for health administrators, an idea so outrageous that the area health authority quickly recoiled from the public anger that it aroused and dropped it in favour of more beneficial uses.

If there is any postgraduate student who wishes to research the struggle between bureaucracy and the public, he could not choose a more revealing case study than this one. He would be able to examine how a hospital which, at the maximum, had 101 beds has gradually had the life snuffed out of it until it now has only 32 beds, how the most recent reduction of 16 beds was the closure of the children's ward in February 1978 at short notice, without consultation and within about 72 hours, how the authority was able to do that because it called it a "temporary" closure, and how it is still closed today, four and a half years later.

That student would be able to study how the same authorities who profess concern for underused assets could leave the resultant empty wards to gather dust for years on end and let the grass grow knee-high in substantial grounds, undeveloped and at prime residential value. He could even calculate how many hundreds of thousands of pounds such stewardship has cost the taxpaying public in wasted opportunity and avoidable expenditure elsewhere.

It would be better to look to the future. There could be positive, alternative plans to include the continuation of the surgical unit at Victoria hospital and there should be. It is clear that if the service is transferred to another ward at Oldchurch hospital, which has seven fewer beds, presumably mixed, and which is vulnerable to the prior claims of accidents and emergencies, hospital waiting lists will lengthen and many members of the public will be inconvenienced and kept off work longer than necessary. Alternative uses could certainly be found for the space at Oldchurch. Already, where previously it was said that two upgraded wards would remain empty, there is now only one. The site is overcrowded and other specialties are in need of expanded facilities. The claimed saving of £40,000 revenue a year is not a small sum, but it is a minor matter compared with the millions spent in the district and in these terms, sufficiently marginal to be capable of presentation to suit the case, without challenge from amateur outsiders.

The Minister will appreciate that the general public has no specialist resources with which to combat such plans, with which it can test the validity of the financial calculations or explore the possibility of alternative strategies. I hope that the Minister's expert staff can come up with a more acceptable alternative. Neither of the proposed new uses for the Victoria hospital is ideal. The district health authority acknowledges that the psycho-geriatric unit would be better located in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham next door, and to place the child assessment unit at the Victoria hospital rather than in association with a district general hospital is contrary to the recommendation of the Court report and Government policy. There would certainly be space for one of those services if surgery were continued, and the possibility of extra development in the future, given the will.

As long as the district health authority remains dogged in its defence of the original mistaken decision, other constructive alternatives will be stifled, if not stillborn. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Health and Social Security will be able to liberate the debate and find a solution that puts patients and public first.