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Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.




    That Mr. Alastair Goodlad and Mr. Archy Kirkwood be appointed members of the House of Commons Commission under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978.--[Mr. Dowd.]



    That Mr. Denzil Davies and Dr. Lewis Moonie be discharged from the Public Accounts Commission and that Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. William O'Brien, Mr. Robert Sheldon, Mr. Andrew Tyrie, and Mr. Alan Williams be appointed other members of the Public Accounts Commission under Section 2(1)(c) of the National Audit Act 1983.--[Mr. Dowd.]

6 Jun 1997 : Column 768

Bed Blocking (Essex)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

2.30 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): The issue of bed blocking is of importance not only to my constituents and to the county of Essex, but to the country as a whole, and I hope that I will be able to deploy a number of arguments and elicit solutions from the new Government. Before getting into my argument, it would be churlish of me not to welcome the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to his position. He and I have nothing in common politically and will disagree completely on political matters, but that does not prevent me from wishing him well and hoping that he is a great success.

Like many other hon. Members, I received a letter from the new Secretary of State in which he described the responsibilities of the five new Ministers, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. I am told that the Government are committed to doing all they can to promote public health. On that, there can be no disagreement--that is what the previous Government did for 18 years. We are told that the new Government will end the internal market in the NHS and will reduce waiting lists. My colleagues and I will watch carefully during this Parliament to see exactly what happens to waiting lists.

The first thing that surprises me is that, for the first time in my 14 years here, we have three Ministers of State. Why was that felt necessary, at extra cost to the public purse? Were not the previous Government criticised on many financial matters concerning the health service?

We also find that an overwhelming number of those Ministers come from London. I am a Londoner, and I am proud to be a Londoner, but anyone who knows anything about the health service will understand that many of the controversies in the service have concerned London issues, such as the city's hospitals. I hope that colleagues throughout the country will reflect on the appointment of so many Ministers in the Department of Health who represent London constituencies. Perhaps I am being harsh, but we will judge them by their actions. On both counts, I have put down initial markers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Paul Boateng): Get on with it, David.

Mr. Amess: I will not accept orders from the new Minister and I will deploy my arguments in my own way.

There is a huge divide between the Conservative party and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties on the management of the national health service, but I am very proud of the achievements of the previous Government during their 18 years in office. Anyone who wants to judge the success of the health service should look at the increased life expectancy of women and men. [Interruption.] The Minister gasps, but I think that that is very important. Women and men are living longer, and are not dying from diseases that people used to die from. Many new treatments are available. Babies can be saved at an earlier stage, as early as 22 and a half weeks--but unfortunately the majority of hon. Members do not recognise that fact when it comes to abortion.

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By and large, the general public are much healthier than ever. As hon. Members go round schools, they can see that the children are much taller and healthier. Do the previous Government deserve the credit for that? I do not know, but I know that in the 14 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament we have heard constant criticism from Labour and the Liberal Democrats about the health service.

Civil servants supply briefs to Ministers--it was not so long ago that we had a debate on bed blocking and we do not have the time in this debate to refer to what was said then--but I hope that, when I have pointed the finger at one or two areas, the Minister, who may point the finger back at one or two other areas, will consider what my constituents and many others are concerned about.

My constituency ranks 31st out of 659 in the number of senior citizens. I got that statistic from Age Concern. We have an ever-increasing aging population. There are many private nursing homes in my constituency--almost into three figures--and in the past few months I have tried to visit as many of them as possible. They are homes in the real sense of the word. They are not institutions and do not have the general atmosphere of a hospital, which obviously deals with a large number of people. I salute the women and men who run those homes.

When Essex county council was controlled by the Conservative party, we delivered care in the community and looked after the elderly people to the best of our ability, but all that changed when control changed hands. After the elections on 1 May, the Conservative party became the biggest group; before that, the Liberal party was the largest, followed by the Labour party.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): The other way round.

Mr. Amess: Yes, the other way round: the Labour party was just ahead of the Liberal party and they shared power. As I understand it, that is still the situation, but, because Southend and Thurrock will leave Essex county council when they become unitary authorities next spring, the county council will become Conservative-controlled again, without an election. I hope that we will return to the Conservative policy on elderly people.

My constituents love their relatives. We could argue about whether everyone should or can look after their relatives in their own homes--those are profound arguments--but the fact is that many people are concerned about the circumstances of their aunts, uncles and other relatives.

A serious situation exists in Southend, West, in Essex and in the country, known as bed blocking, which is, quite simply, people who should be in residential or nursing homes occupying beds in hospitals. If it is all about money, let us have some answers from the Minister. In 1979, the national health service was on its knees. We need not go on about that this afternoon, but it was in a terrible state, as was our economy.

No one could possibly claim that the state of the national health service and the British economy in any way mirrors what it was in 1979. The economy is far healthier, although unfortunately today we have heard the damaging news that interest rates have been put up by a further 0.25 per cent. Many people will be distressed about that.

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The leader of the Conservatives on Essex county council wrote to me about the latest figures on bed blocking. He enclosed a cutting about which I know the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) will be concerned because it deals with the problem in Colchester. The Evening Gazette of 27 May says:

The Conservative group's opinion is that, because of the policy of the Liberal and Labour parties over the past four years, there is a 50 per cent. over-provision of care home beds in the county. They have continued to fill publicly owned homes rather than biting the bullet and dealing with the situation.

I have to confess that I no longer understand the Labour party. I do not understand what the British people decided to do on 1 May. The things that the leader of the Labour party said when he and I were first elected, and what he has said today seem to be completely different messages. If private capital and private nursing homes are no longer a problem for the Labour party, why are they still a problem for Essex county council? A huge capacity is not being used and we have the terrible situation of bed blocking.

County-owned homes are £200 a week more expensive than homes that can be provided in the independent sector. In even the best case, the cost is more than £50 a week extra in public homes. That is a huge difference. Over the past four years, Essex county council has bled the capital programme dry. It has spent £6 million on refurbishments.

A home in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark) received a £330,000 quotation to upgrade its property by means of lease transfer. The developer would then have had the income from the beds that the county would have purchased, usually over a period of 21 years. Instead of taking that route, the council carried out a refurbishment that cost in the region of £1.5 million. That is an absolute disgrace. I could go on and on and on about the money that is being wasted by the Labour and Liberal parties on Essex county council.

I do not want the Minister to deploy any arguments about capping and the way in which funds have been used in respect of Essex county council. Frankly, the council has the money to fund the elderly people. According to the latest information that I have from the hospital, 62 beds are blocked in Southend hospital with another three pending; 90 per cent. of those cases are awaiting funding from social services for long-term care or community-care packages. Half the surgical ward is blocked with medically fit people awaiting discharge, and new intake has been completely stopped. By September, it is expected that three wards will be blocked.

The Minister has the opportunity to put right all the things that he and his colleagues perceived that we Conservatives had been doing wrong. Of course, as the Labour and Liberal parties are in bed together locally, no doubt they will be able to persuade each other to release these much-needed funds.

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People are waiting for care even though more than 600 bed vacancies are listed in the south of the county. Approximately 380 of those beds are in Southend. I warmly pay tribute to the sterling work of the South Essex Care Homes Association. I have met many of its members, and its homes are of a very high quality. I have spoken to many of the relatives who are delighted with the care and attention that patients receive.

There is unfair competition between in-house and independent homes. The cost to the private payer is £370 a week, whereas the contract price for the private and voluntary sector in Southend is £233 a week. The county council is the provider, the purchaser, the paymaster--under the reorganisation of the health team--the contract organiser, the inspector and the regulator. The South Essex Care Homes Association thinks that that is unsatisfactory.

I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State's White Paper, which tackled those problems. I hope that the Minister, when he reads himself into his new brief, will reflect on whether he and his colleagues agree with any of the points made in that document.

I could raise many important issues, but I am a fair individual and I believe in splitting the time between the Government and the Opposition to allow the Minister to respond to all the points raised. I said at the outset that the Minister and I would not agree on anything politically, but I ask him to consider certain matters.

Last week, I visited many of the 26 people in Runwell hospital who are in psychiatric wards. I pay tribute to Mrs. Sheila Taylor, the chairman of the trust, who has done an excellent job. I have met many members of staff and many of the patients. Beds are being blocked in two areas. In contrast to that are the vacancies in the beautiful homes in my constituency. Many of those people could go into those homes: staff are available and the quality of care is first class. I am not saying anything against Runwell hospital or Southend hospital, where the staff do a magnificent job. The homes run a different operation from the hospitals.

I want to know from the Minister what I should say to relatives who write to me. Do I say that the new Government think that the problem is due to a lack of funds and is the fault of the previous Conservative Government? I am sure that the Minister does not intend to say that; I simply suggest that I cannot tell them that. Can I tell them that the new Government recognise that there is a problem, that Rome was not built in a day and that, as we have entered the promised land, anything and everything is possible? There may be changes to the arrangements that Essex county council has entered into for the homes in their ownership and private homes.

Those people's life spans may be limited. Their relatives believe that for them every day is precious. They have no time for Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians to argue with one another. I ask for some straight speaking, which I know I will get from the Minister. Can the problem be solved fairly quickly, or is it intractable because of the changing pattern of the United Kingdom population? All I ask is that the Minister does his best to give some hope to the loved ones of the people in those hospitals--hope that they will be transferred elsewhere as soon as possible.

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