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Hampshire Ambulance Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 24th April 2001.

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Photo of Dr Peter Brand Dr Peter Brand Liberal Democrat, Isle of Wight 10:18 am, 24th April 2001

I congratulate Sandra Gidley on initiating the debate. We all expect the ambulance service to be in place; we value it when we need it, but forget about it for the rest of the time. That is a tremendous mistake. As a practising doctor who does the odd bit of emergency cover, I am always more relieved than even the patient to have the support of a professional ambulance crew. The service has developed its role over the past 20 or 30 years in an amazing way and has a fantastic standard of training. As has been highlighted in the debate, extra stress is being put on the professionalism of a group of people who want to deliver a good service--I do not know a single ambulance man or ambulance woman who is not dedicated to that task.

Some of the organisational problems suffered by Hampshire may affect the services on the Isle of Wight. Having made a more general point about the conditions under which we expect ambulance personnel to work, I would also argue that those personnel are undervalued. It is partly a matter of wages, but it is also a matter of working conditions.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) mentioned the strange practice of putting ambulance personnel on standby in car parks. I would like to know whether that has made a difference to response time and the survival rates of patients. It certainly makes an enormous difference to the way in which ambulance personnel are valued. Proposals to close the ambulance station in Ryde--the second largest town in my constituency--and to base the ambulance personnel in a car park somewhere on the downs cannot be right for the working conditions for those involved.

I would also urge the Government to reconsider the ambulance services' request for better and more appropriate protective clothing. Luckily, the risk of involvement in stabbing incidents is not high in Hampshire, but difficulties can arise where there is alcohol and disruption. If individual ambulance personnel would like the protection of lightweight, protective clothing, it should be made available. Financial considerations should not interfere with that.

Much was said about the loss of local knowledge among ambulance personnel. I would like to touch on that, because we have had experience of what happens when one tries to be efficient and amalgamate services to create a larger unit. We have seen it in the case of NHS Direct--it takes about 10 minutes to get through to the service, another 10 minutes to set out the story and then it often takes another 10 minutes to find the appropriate person to deal with the patient's problem. Unfortunately, quite frequently the message that comes back from NHS Direct via the ambulance service to the doctor on call is incomplete. On two occasions, NHS Direct has not passed on to me telephone contact numbers for patients. It is essential to have a way of communicating with people. Such failures create duplication and delay.

In our region, we also have experienced the centralisation of the police control room at Netley. As far as the Isle of Wight is concerned, it has been a disaster. People are not sure whether they should be dialling 999 or getting in touch with the police control room. Those working in the police control room take an enormous amount of time to pick up the phone, and they often say, "This is not an emergency for us, ring your local police station tomorrow," not knowing that that local police station is not manned, and leaving people to deal with an answerphone. I would not want that sort of pattern to be repeated in the health service.

There is evidence that, when organisations get bigger, although that may result in efficient systems that can be tracked, people get lost in them. Before decisions are made on regional amalgamations, especially in respect of the ambulance personnel control room, I hope that the Minister will wait to see what the Audit Commission says about NHS Direct, to see whether that kind of regional structure is the most appropriate. She should also speak to those who are experiencing the effects of centralisation in the police control service.