Defence Medical Services

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th January 2000.

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Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport 12:00 am, 24th January 2000

If he will make a statement on the reorganisation of defence medical services. [104542]

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The reorganisation of defence medical services following the strategic defence review is on track. We have established a close partnership with the Department of Health and with the national health service at local level to manage the transition to new arrangements in the Portsmouth area. As I announced on 13 December 1999, the University Hospital Birmingham NHS trust has been selected as the preferred host for the new centre for defence medicine and we are very excited by the prospects for that vital new development.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

Is the Minister aware that this is one problem that the Government cannot wriggle out of by trying to blame somebody else? He who dealt with a shortage of doctors and nurses by closing the one remaining military hospital—Haslar, in my constituency. What will be the cost of developing the new facilities at Birmingham and how do they compare with the cost of building up Haslar, as was planned in defence costs study 15 in 1994? He ought to have those numbers at his fingertips, but if he does not will he write to me in detail?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with his Front-Bench spokesman, who said on the radio this morning: You see it would be fair to blame us for cuts that happened as a result of that study". He went on to say: Oh I think absolutely … beyond any doubt we recognise that those cuts in the Defence Medical Services had gone too far. I therefore think it very appropriate to blame a Government who cut £55 million out of £400 million on defence costs study 15. That led to the situation that we inherited, with the rundown of defence medical services.

Unfortunately, the problem with the medical side is that it takes much longer to train individuals in the medical disciplines in order to repair those cuts. I have been down to our defence hospital unit at Derriford in Plymouth and talked to the staff. There was tremendous enthusiasm in the unit, which is of the same type that we shall have in Portsmouth, precisely because it is getting the sort of work, throughput and training that will enable the staff to undertake their tasks. That is the real experience, not the scare stories that the hon. Gentleman is putting about.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross Labour, Dundee West

The Minister will recall the report of the Select Committee on Defence in the previous Parliament, which highlighted the Conservative Government's appalling cuts in resources, manpower and equipment. What action have this Government taken and can he assure the House that those cuts will be reversed?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

We have already allocated £140 million over four years. It was that which was behind the letter from Admiral Sir John Brigstocke when he said that the situation into which defence medical services had been allowed by the previous Administration to slip had now been recognised at the highest level and that a get well programme was beginning. In addition, there are the other measures to which I have just drawn attention.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

Given the Minister's sympathetic response, and accepting that the defence medical services' problems were inherited from the previous Government, as was amply demonstrated by the Select Committee's report, does he agree that the problems of the defence medical services, of overstretch and of procurement, and the other problems that the armed forces now face, simply demonstrate that the world has moved on from the strategic defence review? Is it not time to revisit that review and to match the Government's aspirations with our defence ability?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

It was as a result of the strategic defence review that we allocated the extra £140 million to defence medical services, moved towards a centre for defence medicine and, driven by the need for medical accreditation from the royal colleges, moved from Haslar into the arrangement with the Portsmouth Hospitals NHS trust. Those developments are starting to work their way through. One problem with the health service is that it takes much longer to train people and see the results of that compared with some other disciplines. That was the particular problem that resulted from the substantial cuts that were acknowledged by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) on the radio this morning.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

May we now come to the nub of the matter? Can the Minister explain to the House how it was, when I asked him what had happened to the £1.5 million allocated for orthopaedic waiting lists, that he said in a written answer last Monday that there had been no cut because there had been no allocation—a point that he repeated to the Select Committee? We then discovered that, as long ago as last December, Admiral Sir John Brigstocke had written confirming that there had been an allocation and a cut of £1.5 million. I for one feel misled. Who is right—the admiral or the Minister?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman is becoming very excited. It would have helped not only him but the listeners and hon. Members if he had read the full answer that I gave on 17 January. I said: Funding to reduce orthopaedic waiting lists … was not removed as part of my Department's efficiency programme as no funds had been allocated … At the beginning of the financial year consideration was given to the possibility of identifying funding to reduce waiting lists, primarily but not exclusively, for orthopaedic treatment. However, this did not prove to be practical, although some additional physiotherapy, provided through a separate initiative, is likely to have affected the numbers on waiting lists overall. The possibility of pursuing action to reduce orthopaedic waiting lists in the next financial year is currently under consideration."— [Official Report, 17 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 284W.] That is absolutely true. I rather wish that the hon. Gentleman, along with some BBC reporters, would not be selective in quoting from such answers.