Health Care, Hackney

Part of Orders of the Day — Clause 37 – in the House of Commons at 11:18 pm on 6th November 1989.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington 11:18 pm, 6th November 1989

I wish to address the problems of the Health Service, specifically those in Hackney. The crisis faced by the Health Service is multi-dimensional. I do not intend to deal with every aspect, but I cannot let time pass without referring to the imminent and horrifying possibility, for those interested in patient care, of the Army being used as strike-breakers in an ambulance workers' dispute in which the ambulance workers have at no time threatened emergency care or services.

I wish to deal with three aspects of health care in Hackney: first, the cuts in the level of provision; secondly, the horror of free market principles being applied to the Health Service; and, thirdly, the future of St. Bartholemew's hospital. We hear a lot from the Government about their notion of themselves as the custodians of our Health Service. We have heard the Prime Minister say that the Health Service is safe in the Government's hands. We in Hackney are not aware of this. All that we have seen in the past is a series of savage cuts in the level of provision.

In the past few years in my part of London we have seen not one, but six, hospitals close down. We have lost the Mothers' hospital, most of the provision on the site of the Hackney hospital, the German hospital, St. Leonard's hospital and the Metropolitan hospital.

When the Mothers', Hackney and the German hospitals were closed, we were promised compensatory provisions at the new Homerton hospital. The promise of a new hospital dates back to 1976, and, although phase 1 was built, phase 2 has been delayed for almost a decade. The consequence is that a small group of some of the most pathetic patients—the elderly, the mentally ill and the psychogeriatric patients—remain in what is left of the site of the old Hackney hospital.

I challenge the Minister to visit that site, which is now almost wholly evacuated. It is like a ghost hospital. The buildings are more than 100 years old and they are a fire risk, yet it is there that some of the most pathetic and deprived clients of the Health Service are forced to live out their days. The conditions have been described by consultants as both unpleasant and inappropriate. Despite the superhuman efforts and dedication of the staff, many of my constituents—vulnerable, elderly and psychiatrically ill patients—are being forced to linger on in a derelict, virtually slum environment.

It appears that phase 2 of the Homerton hospital, which would save those psychiatrically ill patients from such conditions, may be postponed indefinitely. That shows a shocking lack of good faith by the health authority. Therefore, I have raised this matter this evening for one main reason—to urge a swift commitment from the appropriate authorities to end the years of delay and forthwith to set in train the building of phase 2. Hundreds and hundreds of pathetically ill, elderly and psychiatric patients are waiting for an answer to the problem.

There have been cuts in provision and the closure of local hospitals without any compensatory new facilities. Further cuts in provision have occurred because the health authorities are very short of money, through no fault of their own, because of the consequences of inflation, under-funded wage settlements, increasingly complex cases and the increasing price of drugs.

As a consequence of that under-funding and the shortage of money, the City and Hackney are suffering a series of bed closures. St. Bartholomew's hospital has a capacity for 850 beds, but it is funded for only 600 and currently it is virtually half empty. It is a flagship hospital —the oldest hospital in London—that has marvellous, purpose-built wards for cancer, geriatric and psychiatric patients, but they are mothballed and empty. If that is the operation of the free market, it is the economics of the madhouse. Week in and week out I receive letters from my constituents who for years wait in pain for surgery while Bart's is half empty because of the Government's refusal to make the funds available to enable the hospital to utilise all its beds.

During the past few weeks there has been an announcement that, because of chronic under-funding, 75 beds at Bart's are to be closed, 100 agency nurses are to go, cleaning and catering jobs are to be cut, and offices are to be cleaned only once a fortnight. General practitioners are complaining locally that it is far more difficult now to get acutely ill patients into hospital. Patients arrive and have to wait six hours for a bed. Bart's however, has been forced to stop using 75 beds.

How can the Government say that the Health Service is safe in their hands? Bart's is famed for its health care throughout the world. It is full of doctors, student doctors, nurses and ancillary workers who wish only to serve the public, and there is the poor community of Hackney with its pressing needs. I repeat the question: how can the Government say that the Health Service is safe in their hands? As a result of their failure to make the correct level of funding available, Bart's is having to close beds and mothball wards. The part of east London which I represent has had to face real cuts in provision.

A new and grotesque concept that the caring Clarke, the Secretary of State for Health, has presented to the Health Service is called acute sector productivity. What does that term mean? It is one of many euphemisms that have been presented to us over the years for cuts in provision. This so-called productivity means more patients using the same number of beds with the same number of staff, or fewer staff. Patient throughput might make sense in terms of a production line in industry, but when it is applied to health care it is grotesque and leads to real suffering.

One of my constituents, Mrs. Mann, lives on the Woodberry Down estate. She is 88 years of age and registered as blind. She has been treated for Parkinson's disease. She has high blood pressure and a heart condition. In June, she was admitted to the Whittington hospital. After a stay of about one month she was discharged because her bed was needed. Within 24 hours of discharge she was found collapsed on the floor of her flat. She was taken to the Homerton hospital the same evening but sent home again because no bed was available. In the end, because of the direct intervention of her GP, she was readmitted to the Whittington hospital, but only for three days. Once more, she was discharged. All that happened in the name of increased throughput. On Friday 8 September, when she was discharged, she found herself sitting in a chair day and night because she was unable to get herself in and out of bed. Eventually her home help became so concerned that she called the GP, who diagnosed a chest infection and hypothermia.

Ministers seem not to understand that increased patient throughput leads inevitably to an increased level of readmission. That is the result of patients being sent home far too early. In Hackney, there is poor housing and social services are overstretched. There is insufficient support for those who were hospital patients. A consultant at Bart's has said: Consultants are already cutting corners in order to get patients out of hospital, in many cases before they are ready to cope in their home circumstances. What sort of political and managerial philosophy lies behind the treatment of my constituent, Mrs. Mann? I believe that it stems from a balance sheet. It is based on figures and ignores patient care and the social and economic realities that face many of those who are dependent on the Health Service. It seems to me that the philosophy of the so-called "caring Mr. Clarke" will downgrade the traditional, solicitous in-patient care to the status of a hokey-cokey hospital service—in, out, in, out, shake them all about.

The notion that money can be saved in the Health Service by increasing throughput—particularly when applied to hospitals serving the kind of deprived constituency that I represent℄although it may lead to increased patient throughput in the short term, will lead to increased patient misery in the medium term, along with a decrease in service and care, and a decline in the high standards that we have come to expect from our Health Service.

I want to talk about the future of St. Bartholomew's hospital, because it is a subject of great concern to the people of Hackney. They look to Bart's as the major teaching hospital with Hackney in its catchment area. Bart's is the oldest hospital in London: it was founded in 1123, and founded with a mission—I quote from the original draft℄to minister to the necessities of the poor gathered together in that place and to be a house for the care of the sick poor". What will the proposal for Bart's, the Homerton and the other hospital in the district to opt out as a self-governing trust mean to the necessities of the poor, and the care of the sick poor? I believe—and the people of Hackney believe—that it will inevitably mean that the needs and demands of the working class people in the vicinity of Bart's will be neglected in the drive for profit and profitable specialties.

We hear of plans involving sponsorship from Marks and Spencer and, for the first time, private wards at Bart's. That is an extraordinary falling-off from the original idealism of more than 800 years ago, and I suspect that St. Bartholomew is turning in his grave as our thoroughly modern Ministers, with their free-market slide rules, slowly demean a still great hospital to the production-line numbers game of a battery-hen factory.

The plan for Bart's—to open it up to private medicine so that it can minister to the yuppies of the City—can, I believe, be achieved only at the expense of health care for the immediate community. If that is not the case—if Ministers are convinced that for such a hospital to opt out will mean no dropping-off in service, and possibly even an improvement—I challenge them to allow the local community to have a say in whether their local teaching hospital should be allowed to opt out. I suspect that they will not be allowed it, for at no point in the documentation issued on the matter are local people or patients given any say in whether their hospitals opt out.

The future of Bart's, that great old teaching hospital —that great old centre of learning, teaching and care, in the words of its founders, "for the sick poor"—is, I feel, a paradigm for the future of the Health Service. The market is to be all; the local community and patients are not to be allowed a say. It will all be reduced to the managerial philosophy of the accountant, of the balance sheet, of making the figures match.

We know from talking to consultants, doctors, nurses and ancillary workers at Bart's that, although the majority have been prepared to declare an interest in the proposal, that majority also feel that they have no option. If they had a free choice, they undoubtedly would not choose to opt out.

Inner London, particularly my district of Hackney in east London, will face a Health Service crisis at Christmas. If we have a severe winter and a rise in the number of people using the accident and emergency unit, the number of bed closures will mean that we shall be unable to cope. Due to the Government's and balance sheet manipulation, due to their failure to fulfil promises about new build in the district, and, above all, due to their mindless espousal of market forces as opposed to the humanitarian and caring impulses of the founders of hospitals such as Bart's, the people of Hackney are facing a health care crisis as never before.

I challenge the Minister to dispute that fact. I challenge him to say that he will make money available so that Bart's can fill its beds instead of being obliged to have closed wards. I challenge him to say that he will make money available so that Bart's will be able to make good the 100 or so agency nurses that it has had to get rid of. Above all, I challenge the Minister to say that the Government will make a reality of their boast about the National Health Service and that they will face up to the real meaning of market place ethics when they are applied to health care.

I challenge the Government to commit themselves to making available money for the building of phase 2 of the Homerton hospital. Finally, I challenge them to admit here what the founders of Bart's knew 800 years ago: that when it comes to the care of the sick, when it comes to the needs of the sick poor, when it comes to waiting upon the sick with diligence the ethics and thinking of the market place have no real place. Even at this late hour and at this late stage, I challenge the Government to reconsider their far-reaching proposals for the Health Service, to think about the damage that they are wreaking, and to reflect upon the health care crisis that is facing the inner cities.