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1.13 pm

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly on an important subject. I want to raise an issue of which the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) is aware--the

12 Feb 1997 : Column 306

ambulance service in north Pembrokeshire--and to point out that there is significant concern about levels of cover and response times there. That concern has led to a demand for the establishment of an ambulance station in Crymych, and the offer by the local community council to provide the land and the building for such an ambulance station--an offer that should not be lightly dismissed.

I have been in correspondence on that subject with many people, including the Minister. The chief executive of the West Wales Ambulance NHS trust, Mr. Butcher, tells me in a reply to a letter from me that that is a matter not for him but for the health authority, because it is the authority that will have to contract for the continuing cost to the service even though the basic infrastructure--the building--would be provided free, and he says that the health authority would probably say that it could not afford to deliver that service.

We know about the financial problems of the Dyfed Powys health authority. Those issues need to be addressed by the Welsh Office in terms of the funding of the health authority. In view of the lack of movement on that matter, one must ask, how do the health authority, the trust and all concerned propose to ensure that the eight-minute response time for immediately life-threatening conditions recommended in the NHS Executive review on the ambulance service is met? That response time applies to rural and urban areas, in recognition of the fact that there should be equality regarding such an important service.

Mr. Butcher writes that methods other than the establishment of an ambulance station in Crymych might be developed to ensure that the response level requirement is met. He suggests that there should be more co-ordination between the two trusts. Currently, the ad hoc arrangements that exist for co-operation between the West Wales and the Pembrokeshire trusts are very much a one-way affair.

The Cardigan ambulance has made 121 calls in the past eight months in north Pembrokeshire to meet demand there. By contrast, there have been only two calls by the Pembrokeshire ambulance in Ceredigion itself. I understand that that service from Cardigan to north Pembrokeshire imposes significant strains on the service, which can no longer be ignored.

Unless we get an ambulance station in Crymych, the responsible bodies must come together to ensure that the response times that will be required and which should be delivered are delivered in that area. The people of that part of Pembrokeshire are very worried about that.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Gwilym Jones): I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to the points that have been made by the hon. Members for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) and for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis). I hope to be able to give considerable reassurance to people in Pembrokeshire and to those who take a close interest in Pembrokeshire ambulance provision.

I regard ambulance provision as an integral part of health care, vital to our well-being. Especially in recent years, the Pembrokeshire ambulance service, although relatively small, with a staff of slightly more than 60, has proved to be committed to providing the best quality for Pembrokeshire patients. We can see that in many ways, not least in the fact that it has met patients charter standards.

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Last year, the Pembrokeshire ambulance service responded to 95 per cent. of emergency calls within 21 minutes, and more than 50 per cent. within eight minutes. That is a considerable achievement, given the rurality of Pembrokeshire and the unmarked roads in the more sparsely populated areas. I am sure that that is a tribute to the ability and commitment of all who work for Pembrokeshire ambulance, most obviously the drivers but equally everyone else involved.

Here I find myself in full agreement with what the hon. Member for Pembroke said about those working for Pembrokeshire ambulance. The excellent response rate was also achieved despite an 8 per cent. increase in emergency calls over the previous year.

On paramedics, the Pembrokeshire ambulance service has again shown its resourcefulness in meeting our requirement that each front-line ambulance should be manned by at least one fully trained paramedic. Pembrokeshire expects to be able to comply by June this year, and would have done so earlier, but for the ill health of two staff members. The Government firmly believe that getting a fully trained paramedic to the scene of an incident as quickly as possible is the right way to save lives.

Almost 8,000 emergency and urgent patients and about 63,000 other patients were carried by Pembrokeshire ambulance service in 1995-96. The staff deserve the highest commendation that we can offer them.

The hon. Member for Pembroke makes much of what he calls the threat for the second time. He indulges in wild exaggeration, which is typical of someone who prefers to live in the realm of conspiracy theories. Inevitably, the reality is entirely different from what he claims.

I have been impressed by the various organisations and individuals who have taken an interest in the proper question of ambulance provision in Pembrokeshire. I have read all the letters, and it is appropriate to refer to them.

The clerks of Haverfordwest town council, Neyland town council, Havens community council, Fishguard and Goodwick town council, Milford Haven town council, Pembroke town council, Redbaxton community council, Burton community council, Llangwm Hook community council and Narberth town council all felt it necessary to write to me. Mr. H. E. Baker of St. Florence, Tenby has written, as has, not surprisingly, Mrs. Val Sanders, the agent of the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservative and Unionist Association.

Later today, I will be meeting Mr. O. J. Williams, who is bringing a representative of Pembrokeshire ambulance service to see me. I will be in Crymych next week at the invitation of Mr. Robert Buckland to see the situation there at first hand. Some hon. Members may not know that Mr. O. J. Williams is the prospective Conservative candidate for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire, and Mr. Robert Buckland is the prospective Conservative candidate for Preselli and Pembrokeshire.

That is the distinguished list of people and organisations who have made representations on the matter, which I have carefully noted. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Pembroke has asked me four questions on the matter--three last May and one in January--and the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) has written to me twice on the subject of ambulances in Pembrokeshire.

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The hon. Member for Pembroke gave the game away in his concluding remarks, when he referred to the last general election and the coming general election. He has suddenly woken up to the matter of Pembrokeshire ambulance service, because of the activities of O. J. Williams and Robert Buckland. It is another example of a nervous Labour Member of Parliament in a very marginal seat who has decreasing confidence in the possibility of his being in the next House of Commons.

I must tell both hon. Gentlemen that any proposals to reconfigure overall ambulance provision are matters for the ambulance trusts and those involved with ambulance operations in the case of Pembrokeshire, in conjunction with their respective commissioners--health authorities and hospital NHS trusts.

I have not asked for an expression of interest to change the shape of ambulance trusts anywhere in Wales, or set any timetable for its submission. I am surprised by the fears expressed about a review being undertaken by the Welsh Ambulance Policy and Advisory Group to determine how ambulance provision can be improved. Indeed, I would be more worried if NHS trusts were not constantly looking for improvements, particularly when the most important priority is the constant pursuit of higher standards for patients through quicker response times for the most urgent cases.

The group's review involves and is supported by all Welsh ambulance operations, including Pembrokeshire's. The group intends to maintain good communications with representatives of health authorities and other NHS trusts. I and the Welsh Office health department have made it clear that, in the interests of improvements always being considered, the work being undertaken by the group is welcomed.

I emphasise, however, that that work has not been requested by me or by any other or previous Minister in the Welsh Office; nor is the group's work being paid for by the Welsh Office.

Mr. Ainger: In the original WAPAG document produced last summer, only one choice is offered--three trusts covering the whole of Wales. The second document, dated December, giving a project overview, states:

How can the Minister deny that?

Mr. Jones: I have just told the hon. Gentleman, as I said to him in answer to the question that he asked in January, that such work is always welcome. I would be disappointed if health professionals in Wales were not giving serious consideration to ways in which provision could be improved, in relation to ambulances or any other activity of the NHS.

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