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Hampshire Ambulance Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:28 am on 24th April 2001.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:28 am, 24th April 2001

I, too, congratulate Sandra Gidley on securing the debate. Like accident and emergency services, ambulance services are a matter of great concern to all our constituents and strike at the heart of the population's confidence in the service provided by the national health service. We must keep our ambulance services under constant scrutiny. Indeed, a couple of months ago, the Minister replied to a debate that focused on ambulance services in London, but in which some wider issues were raised. Some of those issues have been raised again today, and I hope that the Minister has some more general comments to make when she winds up the debate.

Mr. Swayne would have liked to attend the debate but, unfortunately, he is detained by the Special Standing Committee that is considering the Adoption and Children Bill, so I am here instead. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and Mr. Viggers for their lucid and well-informed contributions to the debate.

My right hon. Friend focused on ambulance trusts and their funding, paying particular attention to the Hampshire ambulance trust, in the context of the other pressures on health authorities. We must always remember that the Government, who exhort and set targets, set them by the score. There are other pressures on the limited purses that are the responsibility of the people who determine the funding of the ambulance trusts. Rightly or wrongly, the perception of my right hon. Friend's constituents, like that of my constituents in Surrey and those elsewhere in south-east England, is that funding formulas do not take into account the additional cost pressures on health providers in the relevant areas and that they underestimate the pockets of deprivation in areas that are relatively affluent overall.

I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the issue of community health councils and their important role in scrutinising ambulance services' performance. The Government are committed to the abolition of community health councils--a decision that all the Opposition parties in this Parliament oppose and will continue to fight. The example of CHC involvement in monitoring ambulance services is interesting because it reveals a particular weakness in the Government's proposals to replace CHCs with patients forums.

Under the Government proposal, a patients forum will of course be associated with the Hampshire Ambulance Service NHS trust. However, ambulance trusts cover wide areas--a whole county in Hampshire's case, but even larger areas for some trusts. It is difficult to see how a countywide monitoring body, or one that is multi-countywide, will provide the focused scrutiny that CHCs have been able to give. That is another reason to add to the catalogue of reasons for the Government to reconsider their decision to abolish community health councils.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport for highlighting the difficulties of communication that seem to have occurred during the progress of talks about funding, and, in particular, the merger proposals affecting Hampshire ambulance service. The point is important and it goes to the heart of some of the questions about morale, recruitment and retention.

My hon. Friend also made an important point that I had not heard before, in drawing attention to the effect of the apparently inexorable process of consolidation of hospital services into ever-larger units. That process is driven not just by economics but by the royal colleges' concerns about patient safety and the need for minimum levels of throughput for procedures to maintain safe practices. Such consolidation will affect the need for ambulance services. It is obvious that, as hospital services are provided in ever-larger units and patients must travel increasing distances to use them, ambulance services will have to expand faster than the health service overall.