Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dalyell: I can confirm what the Minister has said. I attended the recent seminar at Canning house, which he will know well from the days before he was a Minister. When I asked about the reefs report, the Mexican ambassador, Mr. Ornate, confirmed the value of joint projects in the Caribbean, so it is not only the Government who say that such co-operation is good, but the Mexican ambassador speaking on behalf of the Latin American ambassadors.

Mr. Foulkes: I accept what my hon. Friend says. Other Governments are increasingly concerned about the matter. Canning house provides an excellent forum for such discussions.

My hon. Friend would agree that the basis of planning is knowledge, and the "Reefs at Risk" report makes it clear that it is based on indications of potential threat. My Department is engaged, with a number of international and national organisations, in developing a better understanding of the relationship, which we have been

1 Jul 1998 : Column 328

discussing, between protection of the coral reef and coastal environment and the eradication of poverty in coastal communities.

Assessment of change in reefs is the first step, and we have funded the development of cost-effective methods to assess the quality of coral reefs, and provided support to, for example, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla to map their coral reefs. We were able to help the Government of the Maldives to identify the effect on their reef fisheries of coral rock mining, and subsequently to develop a management system to accelerate the recovery rate of the ruined reef.

Our current programme of support to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO includes funding and expertise to develop a regional component of the global coral reef monitoring network, which will implement a coral reef monitoring plan in south Asia. That has produced immediate benefits in defining the extent and impact of recent damage to coral in the Indian ocean because of high sea temperatures. We have also helped the Government of Anguilla to assess the impact of tropical storms on their coral reefs and supported research to assess the potential impact of global warming on coral reefs.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the UK Government have been giving a great deal of help. He has been very effective in bringing the matter to the top of the ministerial agenda in the UK.

Mr. Dalyell: I agree that the Government have been effective, but the $64 million question is how one protects coral reefs against the depredation--that is not too strong a word--of trawlers from certain countries. That begs the question whether military force can be deployed in the form of fishery protection. I do not ask for an answer to that question in an Adjournment debate, but I hope at least that the Government will discuss with UNESCO and other international authorities how the policing is to take place. In particular, I hope that they will discuss with the Americans the critical issue of the British Indian ocean territories' coral reefs and whether there should be some coral reef fishery protection operating out of Diego Garcia.

Mr. Foulkes: I shall deal directly with that question. Until 1996, the territories' Administration chartered a fisheries patrol vessel during the tuna fishing season, and only from November 1996 to February 1998 was there continuous coverage. The local Administration considered that that was not a cost-effective solution to inshore fishery protection, and the vessel was withdrawn at the end of its charter, which is what my hon. Friend was alluding to. The territories' Administration now intend to have a patrol vessel in place for the start of the next tuna fishing season in November 1998, and in the longer term, they hope to be able to purchase a vessel to ensure all-year-round cover. The Administration are actively considering how best to take that forward.

I hesitate to venture on to the subject of naval protection, which my hon. Friend mentioned, but no doubt he will be able to raise it with some of my colleagues. I hope that he will be reassured by what I have already said about the fisheries protection vessel.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Darwin initiative, which is managed by my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The Darwin

1 Jul 1998 : Column 329

initiative for the survival of species is a Government-funded initiative that supports the efforts of British institutions to safeguard the world's biodiversity. Since the initiative commenced, about 5 per cent. of its funds--a substantial proportion--have been invested in six projects focused on coral reefs in Belize, Egypt, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Mozambique and St. Lucia. A particularly welcome project has been helping schools in the Caribbean to implement coral reef protection policies. I know that my hon. Friend was once a teacher on a cruise ship, so he will be aware of the importance of education on that matter.

The Government also actively enforce the protection given by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to more than 250 species of corals used in the ornament and jewellery trades. In 1995 and 1996, customs seized more than 2,500 pieces of coral that were being imported without the necessary permits.

My hon. Friend will also welcome the fact that when the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and I attended the CARICOM conference at Nassau in February, we announced a British Government-sponsored regional workshop to consider the protection of marine biodiversity in the Caribbean region. We shall co-host that with the Government of Jamaica. The meeting will be held at the end of October at Montego Bay, which the "Reefs at Risk" report identifies as having some seriously degraded reefs. That will, we hope, concentrate the minds of the delegates at the workshop.

Mr. Dalyell: I should like to register the appreciation for the work of customs of those who are most concerned with this issue. Asking customs officers to identify coral reef is a pretty tall order, but they have done an excellent job.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that his comment will be passed on to those concerned.

My hon. Friend mentioned overseas territories. We take seriously our responsibility to our overseas territories, and I am glad that we have been able to rename them, because overseas territories is a much more appropriate term than dependent territories. Our objective is to promote sustainable development. That requires that economic development proposals are appraised for their potential interactions with the environment.

Proposed developments in the Turks and Caicos Islands such as the East Caicos development project--which my hon. Friend mentioned--and the Grand Turk harbour

1 Jul 1998 : Column 330

development, are to be subjected to full environmental impact assessment before approval. Those assessments are to be carried out by consultants acceptable to the appropriate Government Department of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Similarly, the proposed development at Sombrero Island in Anguilla, to which my hon. Friend referred, is currently being subjected to a full environmental impact appraisal by an environmental consultancy firm, ICF Kaiser. UK Government officials have worked with ICF Kaiser to define the scope of the environmental assessment for that development, and the report will be a significant factor in deciding whether to allow the development to go ahead next year. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

Given the dependence of some of the UK overseas territories on the quality and health of their coral reefs, the Government recognise that such assessments are important, and we shall offer support wherever possible. However, recent correspondence with staff at the World Conservation Monitoring Centre has suggested that the coral reefs in British overseas territories are in comparatively good condition, and we welcome that independent statement from such an authoritative source.

We greatly welcome my hon. Friend's initiative in raising the matter today. I was particularly pleased that he paid such a warm tribute to many of the members of staff of the Department, who do much to understand the issue and brief Ministers on it. The Government recognise the important role that coral reefs can and should continue to play in sustainable development. It is important not only to monitor what is happening but to develop--with the participation of local communities and using partnerships between Government, business and civil society--effective ways of managing and sustaining the goods and services that derive from coral reefs around the world. I assure the House and my hon. Friend that the British Government will, with the considerable expertise that is available in UK, continue to play a leading role.

I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured not only on his specific points that I have dealt with, but on the general matter of our deep concern about the report. We are looking at the implications and taking serious account of it. We shall deal with all the points that arise from it.

Mr. Dalyell: Unlike my 14 Adjournment debates on Lockerbie, I should like to put it on record that I am extremely satisfied with the content and tone of my hon. Friend's reply.

Mr. Foulkes: I cannot comment on any other subject, but I thank my hon. Friend for his generous commendation.

1 Jul 1998 : Column 331

Oxted and Limpsfield Hospital

1.29 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House a matter that has, for some years, been the subject of grave and almost continuous concern to the people of Oxted and the surrounding area. In doing so, I am acutely aware that I am touching on issues that have divided and continue to divide the local community, health care professionals and the district council.

Let me say at once that I have not come here today with a ready-made solution to the various problems, nor am I here to carry the flag for any particular group or faction. However, I should like to thank the many people who have taken the trouble to keep me informed of developments: the health authority; the community health council; the trust; the GPs in Oxted and elsewhere; Mr. Josh Cosnett of the Save Oxted Hospital action group, who has tirelessly advanced the cause supported by many petitions; Mr. Graeme Waller; Councillor Gordon Keymer; the Rev. Guy Bennett; and others to whom the future of this vital local resource is paramount.

I make no apology for having no tailor-made remedy of my own. I have brought the matter to the House today to enable the Minister, who has more cause than most to realise that being in government is not all fun, to set out clearly and unequivocally his position and that of the Government, so that we can achieve a rapid and satisfactory outcome to a set of problems that have persisted for too long.

Let me start with a statement on which, I hope, all can agree. Oxted and Limpsfield (War Memorial) hospital, although originally sited elsewhere, was opened in its present position in 1939, and building work was completed shortly after the second world war. It was funded by public appeal. The hospital has thus served the community of Oxted and the surrounding area for nearly 60 years, providing both out-patient services and in-patient care. Not surprisingly, it has come to be regarded as a jewel in the Oxted crown. My own family has had cause to use the out-patient services, and many friends have passed through its doors or stayed overnight through the years.

The sad modern history of the hospital began about five years ago, when East Surrey Healthcare NHS trust announced that the building was in a poor--indeed, terminal--state of repair. I know that some people dispute that, but most accept it as a working proposition. A suggestion that the hospital should close and its services be relocated to the nearest accident and emergency hospital in Redhill gave rise to public outcry.

In the face of that, the trust was forced to reconsider. It came forward with a hospital redevelopment proposal, using the existing site and an adjacent one and providing 20 NHS beds. That was to be funded partly by the NHS and partly by the development of housing on the hospital grounds. That appeared to be good news, but that is the point at which trouble started and things began to go badly wrong.

After months of preparation and NHS expenses running to hundreds of thousands of pounds, the local authority, Tandridge district council, first insisted that the new housing should include additional affordable homes,

1 Jul 1998 : Column 332

and then refused planning consent on grounds of excessive density. To that frankly perverse act, we owe much of the trouble that has ensued.

Various attempts were made to recast the proposals in a form acceptable to the local authority, but they came to nothing. There was even a march through the streets of Oxted--the only march I have attended in my constituency, and possibly the only one that has ever taken place there--under the banner "Save Oxted Hospital". It is ironic that the march was also attended by several councillors who had actively participated in the demise of the original redevelopment scheme.

In March 1997, the health authority issued a consultation paper, which, after minor alteration, formed the basis of a proposal published in June 1997. It envisaged the building of a new out-patient hospital on the existing site to include therapies and an X-ray unit; and 10 NHS beds would be provided in a private nursing home. The proposal was rejected by the CHC on a number of grounds, not least that it envisaged a reduction in the number of beds from 20 to 10. Although there is disagreement in the community about where the beds should be located, there is a strong feeling that halving the number of local beds is not acceptable. The 20 beds currently available are in great demand, for both geriatric and recuperative care.

Despite the CHC's objection, on 9 September the Minister wrote to me announcing his decision to close the hospital, and to endorse the health authority's proposal. Thus, Oxted joined the list of 25 war memorial hospitals currently threatened with closure. I understand that that is to be the subject of a mass lobby next week, and recently the issue was eloquently raised in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior).

The Minister added two provisos in his letter: first, that the 10 beds being removed from Oxted could realistically be provided in East Surrey hospital; and, secondly, that a suitable private sector partner could be found for the proposed nursing home development. The Minister will be aware that, earlier on, a possible private nursing home partner had dropped out. A deadline was set for March 1998, which was later extended, at the CHC's request, to May, primarily to accommodate discussions with a potential private sector benefactor. The second deadline has now passed: no new private sector nursing home provider has appeared, and continued bed blocking in East Surrey hospital casts doubt over whether the extra demand for beds there can be met.

Meanwhile, there have been several developments that are important to the context in which the struggle to maintain a hospital in Oxted is taking place. In no particular order, they are as follows. The East Surrey Healthcare NHS trust has merged with the Crawley Horsham NHS trust; the consequences of the merger are still being absorbed, and a new chief executive has been appointed to manage the combined trust. A new chairman will shortly take up position in the health authority.

A primary care group is being set up to embrace a huge area, from Limpsfield in the east to Reigate in the west. That is giving rise to extra bureaucracy, and it means that any decision affecting provision in Oxted must now be seen explicitly in the light of its implications for other parts of the area--for example, it is obviously important that developments at Oxted do not entail no developments in Horley.

1 Jul 1998 : Column 333

In addition, to no one's surprise, we are told that the financial position of the health authority has deteriorated since March 1997, which is clearly unhelpful; and that the merged East Surrey and Crawley trust has a deficit of £4 million, which is hardly a propitious context in which to be considering a major investment in Oxted. I understand that that might no longer be a problem, as the latest news is that responsibility for community health care in the Oxted area is to be transferred to a trust in Croydon. However, I am told that that trust, too, has recently suffered a cut in funding. While all that turmoil is going on, nothing has been achieved to address the problems in Oxted, where, understandably, staff recruitment has become more difficult, and general frustration has mounted.

I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify certain specific questions. First--I realise that this is something of a fast ball, so perhaps he can write to me--is it true that the financial model used by the health authority to date to assess the cost of providing beds at Oxted assumes that the running costs will be the same as those in the hi-tech accident and emergency hospital at Redhill? If so, is it not rather unusual, and does the Minister believe that it is appropriate?

Secondly, does the Minister accept the view of local GPs and others, that a minimum of 20 beds is required to meet the current and growing future need of people in the locality? Thirdly, how do matters now stand between the NHS and the local private benefactor, who has reportedly promised a substantial sum towards the provision and maintenance of extra beds in Oxted? What is the Government's position on other offers of private funding from the local community for rebuilding the hospital?

Fourthly, what progress has been made towards satisfying the two provisos set out in the hon. Gentleman's letter of 9 September? Fifthly, what will happen if those cannot be met, given that the chief executive of the health authority is reported to have said on 9 March:

Sixthly, what will happen if the district council blocks the sale of the land necessary for the building of the nursing home? What powers have the Government to get their way, assuming that there is no change in direction? As I understand it, the district authority at present intends to block the sale of that land.

Mrs. Marlow of South Thames national health service executive has written that the Minister now regards the matter as one of local interest. I ask him not to wash his hands of the issue, but to work to ensure a successful outcome, based on the Secretary of State's words:

The Minister's actions over Oxted and Limpsfield war memorial hospital will be a test of that commitment.

Bearing in mind the story on the front page of The Times today, which tells us that a children's ward in Greater Manchester has been reprieved from closure on the eve of a visit from the Secretary of State, would the hon. Gentleman extend to his right hon. Friend a cordial invitation to visit Oxted hospital at his earliest convenience?

1 Jul 1998 : Column 334

Next Section

IndexHome Page