Right to Live

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 4th May 1988.

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Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath 3:31 pm, 4th May 1988

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that where two consultants employed within the National Health Service declare that a patient's life will be in grave danger or seriously impaired unless admitted and treated in hospital it shall be the duty of the appropriate Regional Health Authority to immediately provide for the admission to hospital and for the treatment of the said patient; and to make it an offence not so to provide the necessary hospital admission and treatment. The proposed Bill is concerned with the sanctity of human life—the sanctity of every human life. It seeks to assert in law the ethical proposition that the medical needs of every citizen should be the only criterion for hospital care. In so doing it reverses the existing situation within the NHS where the needs of the patient are secondary to considerations of financial stringency, administrative convenience or Government policy.

It also reverses what I believe to be the uncivilised judgments of the courts that patients who would otherwise die or whose health would be seriously impaired have no right of demand on hospital services because of finite resources. That is not an Act of Parliament passed in this place; it is a judicial precept which I seek to correct.

The need for such an Act of Parliament became apparent in Birmingham when a hospital chairman was instructing consultants not to admit to hospital or to operate upon hole-in-the-heart babies and kidney dialysis patients. That situation still persists in the west midlands, not provoked by direction of hospital chairmen but continued by the imposition of financial rationing. In fact, it is happening all over the country. People are being left to die or to suffer agony while doctors and surgeons are not allowed to work, hospital beds remain empty although they are ready for patients and nursing care is available.

I can give the House some examples from Birmingham and from the west midlands, but I am told that they apply nationwide. At the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, 80 operations per year for heart bypasses and valve replacements are being postponed. Patients are being discharged prematurely from intensive care units, with very serious consequences. For example, four weeks ago a lady, who was discharged from the intensive care unit had to be readmitted, and I am told that she is now suffering from permanent brain damage.

Every morning in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham the five consultants in charge of the intensive care unit meet at 8 o'clock and have to decide which patients to discharge prematurely from their unit so as to make room for other seriously ill patients. That is a scandal. No consultant should be placed in that position. I am told that one patient suffering from cancer of the gullet was prepared four times for an operation and on each occasion the operation was postponed. The cancer is now incurable.

All surgeons in the Queen Elizabeth hospital are, by official decree, forced to down tools for one week in seven while 146 beds remain empty. That is the most massive Government-imposed lock-out we have seen in this country for a long time. Surgeons and nurses are being prevented from working on patients who are desperately ill.

At the Sandwell hospital 32 orthopaedic beds have been closed and elderly patients have been left in great pain. The surgeons cannot work but 32 beds are left empty and operating theatres and nursing staff are available. The reason for that is that the hospital cannot afford the cost of the artificial hip joints. That is unforgivable.

In the central district in Birmingham there is an eight-week waiting list for radiotherapy, which is so vital for cancer patients. The Birmingham Daily News reported this morning that Dr. Alan Bond, one of the specialists at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, has started to tabulate cases that cannot be dealt with in intensive care. In April alone in that one hospital 15 life-saving operations were cancelled—seven open heart operations, two liver transplants, one kidney transplant, two major vascular operations and three major abdominal operations.

It is reported that one patient was kept waiting for two and a half hours for admission to the intensive care unit. During that time the patient had to be ventilated by hand by the anaesthetist using a pumping bag. That is a condemnation of conditions in the NHS in 1988 under this Government.

As I have said, in the central district there is an eight-week waiting list for radiotherapy. In the North Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield Good Hope hospital it takes 75 weeks before an orthopaedic case is even seen by a doctor before they start waiting for treatment. In the West Birmingham Dudley Road hospital, of which I used to be chairman, the closure of services is intended to achieve contemptible savings. For example, there has been a 20 per cent. reduction in physiotherapy treatment in order to save £13,000. The cervical cytology programme, so much the baby of the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, has been severely reduced in order to save £5,000. How contemptible can we be in this day and age?

I am told that the Dudley Road hospital has had to inform the region that it has stopped all cancer therapy until further funds are available. I can disclose to the House that one consultant has told me that things are so bad that a consultant received a letter from a solicitor asking for treatment for his client and when the matter was taken up with the chairman of the regional hospital authority he was told, "I shouldn't worry about that. I have 1,000 letters or more from solicitors acting on behalf of their clients demanding attention in the west midlands area hospitals." Those letters show how people are plumbing the depths of despair when they require serious treatment.

I have to tell the House that we have a new word in the vocabulary of the west midlands. I had not come across it before. The word is "triage". I am told that it comes from the battlefields of Europe. It is now in common currency among doctors in the west midlands. Triage means looking at the wounded and the ill and putting them into three categories: immediate treatment, to be deferred, or not worth treating. That is the atrocious system now being operated in the west midlands. It means in practice that people over 65—pensioners—are put at the bottom of the queue.

We all sympathise with the dilemma facing the consultants; we do not blame them, but we assert in this measure that every citizen, pensioner and child has a right to equal treatment in the Health Service and in law. The triage system is the classic case of the doctors' dilemma which I thought had been outlawed since the time of George Bernard Shaw, but it is now, apparently, hallowed practice in our hospitals.

The purpose of this Bill is to assert that when any patient is desperately ill or suffering serious physical pain, be he parent or grandparent, he is of equal worth under the law. The Bill seeks to assert that every citizen is equal in the sight of God and must therefore be declared to be of equal worth in the National Health Service. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Denis Howell, Mr. Roy Hattersley, Mr. Barrymore John, Mr. Tam Dalyell, Mr. Giles Radice, Mr. Joseph Ashton and Mr. Terry Davis.