Summer Adjournment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 20th July 2017.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 4:19 pm, 20th July 2017

May I, on behalf of all the House, start by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend Kevin Foster on his wedding and wish him a very happy honeymoon, whenever that takes place?

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to raise a few issues that can be crowded out in the ordinary course of busy parliamentary business. In doing so, I will unapologetically focus on Cheltenham, because one thing I have learned over the last two years is that, for all the cynicism about our democratic process, Parliament does, indeed, remain the forum in which we can seek effective redress for our constituents and speak truth to power. We saw that in action with the Government’s welcome decision last week to allocate more frontline funding for our secondary schools, and my hon. Friend Richard Graham and I saw it in the last Parliament, with the passage of legislation to extend the maximum sentence for stalking, following the terrible ordeal of a Cheltenham GP.

I would like to take the opportunity at the outset to congratulate all the students who are receiving awards at the National Star College leavers award ceremony in Gloucestershire. The National Star College, for those who do not know it, is an independent specialist further education college for people with physical disabilities, acquired brain injuries and associated learning difficulties. It is an extraordinary place; no one who visits it can fail to be moved by what is being achieved by staff and students alike.

What I want to talk about specifically today is Cheltenham General Hospital. We in Cheltenham value our hospital greatly. Members might think that that is a truism, but it is particularly the case in a town of 115,000 people. Only this morning, I received a message from a constituent, who referred to Cheltenham General, stating:

“My wife has been admitted there four times in the past two years—three times for surgery—and on each occasion—from the first visit of the paramedics to the A&E staff and on the various wards she has received the most wonderful attention—professional, kind, caring and patient.”

What a wonderful tribute, and it is not unusual. It is echoed by the findings of the recent Care Quality Commission report. Inspectors describe staff as “committed, caring and compassionate”. They also observed “exceptional teamwork”, particularly when a department was under pressure.

However, there is an issue about our night-time A&E. In 2013, Cheltenham General’s A&E service was downgraded. Blue light services were diverted to Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Although night-time A&E notionally remained, and indeed remains, open for GP referrals and walk-ins, the reality is that a major service change took place. The emergency nurse practitioners, who do a magnificent job of holding the fort, do not have doctor support to assist them. That is important, because in the CQC report I referred to a few moments ago, medical and nursing staff raised concerns with inspectors about medical cover at night. To their great credit, consultants regularly work longer hours to support their junior colleagues. The CQC was not convinced that that was sustainable, and nor am I. That is notwithstanding the fact that the care that has been delivered is co-ordinated and multi-discipline.

What needs to be done? There is a clear problem with the recruitment of middle-grade doctors in A&E not just in Cheltenham but across the piece—the trust has made that clear, and the evidence bears it out. That is why I have called for a debate on the issue in this place, and I take the opportunity to raise it now.

Improving incentives for middle-grade A&E doctors is a crucial part of the long-term solution. In the short term, I welcome the fact that the trust is looking closely at providing an urgent care centre at Cheltenham General Hospital—something that was reported in the local paper, the Gloucestershire Echo, in March this year. Only today, we heard my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove extol the virtues of urgent care centres, because they provide urgent care, as the name might suggest, and, crucially, divert patients from accident and emergency—something we all have an interest in. An urgent care centre would see emergency nurse practitioners supported by GPs, which I welcome. However, that will take place only if we as a country increase the pipeline of GPs in our surgeries, and that means addressing the issue of rising GP indemnity—or insurance—premiums, which I have referred to previously.

The key point is that the people of Cheltenham want Cheltenham’s A&E to be preserved and enhanced. I have made that point in the past and I will continue to make it. Some have raised with me a concern about whether the downgrading of night-time A&E was simply the thin end of the wedge that would presage the end of A&E in Cheltenham. After my election in 2015, I met representatives of the trust to make precisely that point and to raise precisely that concern. I was given a clear assurance regarding A&E’s future; there was no suggestion of its demise. That was also the case in the following year, 2016, when I met the then chief executive, who described rumours of A&E closing as “blatant scaremongering” and confirmed:

“What we said to you on 5 June 2015 still stands and the board has not changed its position on A&E at Cheltenham General.”

I welcome that robust commitment to A&E. It must remain in place. Crucially, it must remain in place notwithstanding the recent finding of financial mismanagement at the trust—which, I should stress, predates the appointment of the current chief executive and chairman, who are doing an excellent job in uncovering these problems.

Retaining and enhancing A&E at Cheltenham General must remain a service priority. I say that because the idea that a resident in Battledown, Oakley, Charlton Kings or Charlton Park to the east of Cheltenham can readily get to A&E at Gloucestershire Royal hospital, having to travel all the way down the Golden Valley bypass and the A40 in a big traffic jam, is for the birds. Those of us who live there know that that is not a realistic or optimal solution.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to two constituents of mine, Lynda and Philip Hodder. Mr and Mrs Hodder are the parents-in-law of a young Australian woman who, in June of this year, was, very sadly, killed in Borough Market in the terrorist atrocities. The young woman who was killed was referred to by some as “the angel of London Bridge” because of the way that she sought to aid others who were coming under attack. The dignity, fortitude and courage shown by my constituents has been enormously humbling. It is what has fortified me in making the representations that I have made about how we go about addressing the issue of those who are suspected and even convicted of terrorist offences in this country.

The point that my constituents have made to me, with a power that only people in that position can, is that while of course in a free society we rightly take account of the human rights of all people who come into contact with our criminal justice system—and yes, that must mean people who come into contact with it for terrorism offences—let us never forget that the most fundamental human right of all is the right to life of people who are innocent, decent, hard-working, law-abiding members of our community doing nothing more than going about their business, whether at Borough Market or anywhere else. Their rights must always be put first.

It is a huge privilege to be able to raise the concerns of my constituents in this great place, and to seek redress on their behalf. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to do so. I wish you and all Members of this House a very happy and restful recess.