Hospital Funding

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 9:17 pm, 19th December 1990

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for choosing this subject for debate. I welcome the opportunity to debate the funding crisis in the NHS and to press on the Minister the demand that is being made throughout Britain and on both sides of the House for beds that have been closed to be opened and for an end to the cancellation of operations and out-patients' appointments. Special action is also needed to meet the crisis in London.

I could give hundreds of examples. My hon. Friend has given examples from her constituency and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) gave examples from his constituency in Wales. I mention King's College hospital in my constituency. The Minister knows about that because I saw him about it in the summer with an all-party delegation of south London Members of Parliament, and I have had occasion to talk to him about it again this week and last week.

I visited the accident and emergency department of King's College hospital last Wednesday. I went there after receiving desperate phone calls from patients, staff and the community health centre. I witnessed a horrifying scene at one of London's greatest and finest teaching hospitals. I found at one of our centres of excellence a situation not unlike that which might be encountered in Romania. Its accident and emergency department was crowded, with 17 patients lying on trolleys, side by side, with not even a gap between them. They had been there all night and although doctors had said that those people needed to be admitted, it could not be done because the financial crisis affecting our entire hospital service meant that in Camberwell health authority in the summer more than 100 beds were closed—one in 10, including those in the emergency admission wards.

The Government responded not by providing extra money but by threatening doctors who admit patients other than from accident and emergency departments with disciplinary action. It is not as though the patients in question can simply be transferred to other south London hospitals. We all know that the situation at St. Thomas's and at Guy's is no better. I understand that there are plans to close two more operating theatres at Guy's, so that four of its 11 operating theatres will be closed. I understand that more than half the obstetrics and gynaeocology beds will be closed, and that there will be no more cardiac or gynaecology surgery at that hospital after Christmas, except in emergency cases.

It is not just Labour Members who are expressing concern about the situation—although it is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) could not make even a passing reference to the concern felt by his constituents, many of whom remain on waiting lists. However, I shall make sure that the hon. Gentleman's local press receives a copy of the Official Report containing his speech, to see whether his constituents feel that they are being properly represented by their Member of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) warned: Things have got so serious now that there has to be a tranche of cash to get us through the winter. I cannot guarantee West Essex…that, in the next few weeks, if we go on as we are, someone is not going to die on the trolley in an emergency. The same situation exists throughout the country. Last month, Watford general hospital decided that no more emergency operations would be performed there after Christmas. A local general practitioner, Michael Ingrain, reflected the views of many people when he said: Highly trained and highly paid surgeons will have nothing to do, theatres will lie empty, and my patients will just have to sit at home in pain, praying that the Government allows the hospital to re-open its wards. The result of such developments in hospitals across London is the cancellation of out-patient appointments and of non-emergency operations. Those whose operations are cancelled must wait in pain, suffering arid anxiety. Some will suffer irreparable permanent damage to their health. I cite the case of Ivy Stanley, a woman of 78, who needs constant supervision because she suffers from a diabetic eye disease. Her last appointment at Charing Cross hospital with Mr. Knowden was in August. She expected a further appointment yesterday, but received a letter from the district health authority saying that it had been cancelled and that another could not be arranged until 19 April 1991. A laser intervention can make the difference between someone's sight being saved or lost.

The consequence of desperate financial problems is block cancellations, irrespective of whether the outcome is not just pain, suffering and anxiety for the individual concerned but the risk of irreparable damage to his or her health. I hope that the Minister will address those points this evening, and will acknowledge the damage that is done to people's health by the cancellation of out-patient appointments and of operations.

No account is taken of the patient's health, only of the district health authority's bank balance. Everyone in London, perhaps with the exception of the hon. Member for Harrow, West, knows that the situation is desperate. The Department of Health knows it, too. Figures issued yesterday by the Department show that, from April 1989 to April this year, the four Thames regions lost 5 per cent. of their beds—4,311 beds lost in one year. Those figures are devastating. They reflect the picture until April this year. Since April, because of the financial crisis and the action taken to divert deficits, the position has got even worse, and the pace of bed closures has accelerated.

A survey undertaken by The Independent Magazine showed that in 25 of the districts of the four Thames regions, since April this year, a further 1,762 beds have been cut. Patients are anxious and in pain and doctors and nurses are in a permanent state of crisis, as managers are pushed to take more and more drastic action. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope that when the Minister responds he can tell us that there is some hope for people whose operations have been cancelled, and for the doctors and nurses who see that beds have been closed. No Minister with even the remotest commitment to the health service could allow this to continue and seek to justify it.

People in London will judge the Government by their experience of what is happening to their health care, rather than by the quantity of press releases issued by the Department of Health. The Secretary of State must take action to end the crisis in London's hospitals. He should undertake an emergency review of the situation there, and make a statement to the House when we return in the new year. His response cannot be to continue to confine the flame to supposed bad management and to announce new money which is not actually there.

In the past decade we have lost 16 per cent. of hospital beds—71,149 beds have been cut from the national health service between 1979 and 1989. Throughout the country the situation is worsening this year.

I refer the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) to the fact that in central Nottinghamshire, since April, 24 beds have been cut, and in Nottingham between April and November a further 70 beds were cut. It is unfortunate that he did not see fit to mention that in his speech.