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11.35 am

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): It is said that politicians develop thick skins, but, in health terms, we often do not think too much about skin. We tend to concentrate on the health of our internal organs, eyes and limbs, but not on our skin--until people suffer burns. People with serious burns need skin grafts or skin transplants. Skin can be taken from other parts of a patient's body, but when a person suffers extensive burns, that is not possible. Other people's skin has to be used. Therefore, it is important that Britain has skin-banking facilities. Skin transplants are permitted under the Human Tissue Act 1961, but we do not have a national skin bank and that is one of the deficiencies of our health service.

We do, however, have one purpose-built skin bank, at Queen Mary's hospital, Roehampton--the Stephen Kirby skin bank. It is the only dedicated establishment in Britain

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where skin can be retrieved, treated and stored. Its very existence is the result of a tragic but remarkable story that is dear to the hearts of people in my part of the country.

In May 1994, Stephen Kirby and his family were taking a camping holiday in France when, in the early hours of one morning, their tent caught fire. Stephen helped his wife and daughter out of their tent but, sadly, his five-year-old son died. In rescuing his family, Stephen suffered 90 per cent. burns, and his daughter 25 per cent. burns. Stephen's wife, Kim, was devastated.

Stephen was taken to the burns unit at Queen Mary's hospital, but his family were told that without skin he would die within three days. At that time, there was no facility to provide a supply of skin, so 12 members of his family and friends donated skin. Skin was removed from their bodies under general anaesthetic, but their recovery was extremely painful. Stephen's eventual death gave them even greater pain.

Stephen's wife Kim decided that something must be done, so, with the help of a family friend, Nick Brighouse, they persuaded the Eastern Daily Press--the daily paper serving our area--to launch an appeal, with a view to establishing the first skin bank in the United Kingdom. That appeal captured the imagination and the hearts of people in Norfolk and north Suffolk and the target of £100,000 was reached in 14 weeks. Schools throughout the area, including the one at which I was teaching at the time, vigorously supported the appeal, and pupils found all sorts of ways of gathering money.

Eventually, £250,000 was raised, and the Stephen Kirby skin bank was opened in March 1986 by Kim Kirby and Simon Weston--who, hon. Members will remember, was the officer who suffered appalling burns during the Falklands war. When he performed the ceremony he said that, had a skin bank existed then, he would have been saved 28 operations.

Today, the skin bank stands as a memorial to the late Stephen Kirby. It is the first purpose-built dedicated skin bank in the country and it stores skin from cadaver donors. No other replacement for skin is as effective as skin itself, which prevents infection and loss of blood, encourages healing, reduces pain and can reduce the length of time spent in hospital. The Stephen Kirby foundation has established a research facility continually to refine and improve methods of storing, processing and using donated skin.

Each year, numerous people sustain burns, many so extensive that those people have not enough of their own skin to replace the burnt skin. Burns units throughout the country must therefore obtain donated skin, and they can do so only from the Stephen Kirby skin bank--although skin is sometimes brought in from Holland and other countries. The Stephen Kirby skin bank is successful: this year there were 40 donors, and the bank is continuing despite the transfer of the burns and plastic surgery units to Chelsea and Westminster hospital under the current trust reconfiguration. The Stephen Kirby unit will remain on the Roehampton site, and the company Smith and Nephew is to use it as a service base for tissue culture work later in the year.

Nevertheless, we do not have a proper skin bank system with nationwide cover. Two developments are needed for that to happen. First, we need more skin. I feel strongly--as do the supporters of the skin bank--that skin should feature on donor cards. The position of the Department of

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Health, as set out in various letters from Ministers in the last and the present Governments, is that it is reluctant to allow that.

A study conducted in 1995 revealed that people were put off the idea by the belief that taking skin from bodies after death would mutilate them. That is not the case. Nick Brighouse, whom I mentioned earlier, suffered a further tragedy when his wife died. He gave me permission to tell the House that, according to her wish, nearly all the skin was removed from her body for use in the skin bank. Having seen her body after the skin had been removed, he said that no one would have any idea that it had been removed. That is the most compelling piece of evidence that the use of skin for donor purposes does not mutilate a deceased person.

I ask the Department to repeat its research, but to include a "priming" question making it clear that the process does not mutilate the body. I believe that those who support the idea of organ donation would then be keen for skin to be included on donor cards.

I understand that the Department plans to improve publicity relating to organ transplants, that a committee has been formed and that a campaign will be launched in the autumn. My friend Mr. Brighouse would welcome the opportunity to be involved in the committee.

Some people fear that, if the idea of skin transplants is taken up with too much enthusiasm, skin will be sold and donors exploited; but that is prohibited by the Human Organ Transplants Act 1989. Our second problem, however, is that there is no national network or national funding for skin transplants. At present, the Stephen Kirby skin bank supplies eight burns units countrywide, in areas as diverse as Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin and London. As the bank's work and produce becomes increasingly recognised, the number of burns units involved is expected to increase. It seems that the present collection of units may be "rationalised" into larger supraregional units, but at present they are having to be fed, and the whole system relies on one hospital trust. I think that it is too much to expect one trust to support a national system.

I want a system of national funding, which would realise the full ambition of Stephen Kirby's widow and friends, and that of the people of East Anglia who supported the cause. The Government have an opportunity to make an innovative advance in the health service at very little extra cost--just a tiny drop of the £21 billion. That would be a credit to the party that founded the national health service.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the House's proceedings on important matters, but this morning I have been trying to table questions to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Table Office is unclear about what title that Minister will use when answering questions after the recess. Will it be "Minister for the Cabinet Office" or "Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster"? I am not sure what the Minister's responsibilities will be.

The Leader of the House is present. I could not ask her this question outside, and I hope that she has heard my point of order. Surely we should know exactly what we can ask the Minister, whose title may well have changed by the time we return after the recess.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair, but no doubt the Leader of the House has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.

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11.45 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I join others in congratulating the Leader of the House on her appointment, and wish her well for the future.

This is my fourth Parliament. During my time here, I have found that this place has been devalued. We all have different perspectives. I listen carefully to the cry of "modernisation", but I feel that, in certain respects, modernisation may be the problem rather than the solution.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) on his splendid speech about Cyprus. He was right to draw our attention to the issues that he mentioned. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). I agreed strongly with what he said about grammar schools. One hon. Member--not a Conservative, sadly--benefited from a grammar school education in my constituency. I was concerned to learn of the arrangements for ballots; we have four splendid grammar schools in Southend, and I hope very much that we will keep them.

I also agreed with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said about roads. One reason why I was not present at 9.35 am is the disgraceful length of time that it has taken for the A12 to be improved between the Leytonstone and Gants Hill roundabouts. The fiasco that originally involved Swampy, or whatever he is called, has now been going on for more than five years, and there has been so much delay that the sign announcing the opening of the new road has been taken away.

I agreed with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said about quarantine measures, and I hope that the Leader of the House will take it on board.

I want to make four points. The first concerns the fire service. All hon. Members praise the fire service, but it seems to have gone unnoticed that there is already a strike in Essex, and there is shortly to be another in Surrey. I am rather concerned about that. No doubt the Leader of the House will say that it is not the Government's business to become involved, but there is growing anxiety about the disruption.

In 1997, the average amount spent on the fire service in England was £25.77 per head. In Essex, we delivered a service on £23.92 per head. In 1997, the 38 Essex control-room staff handled about 40,000 calls, a 50 per cent. increase since 1988. The speech of the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) showed how much we owe the fire service. I am not taking sides in the dispute, but I represent my constituents, and we want an end to it.

The chief fire officer has made five pledges. He has said that there will be no compulsory redundancies; that the number of pumping appliances will not be reduced; that no fire stations will be closed during the year--certainly I will not allow Leigh fire station to close--that minimum standards of fire cover will be unaffected; and that public and firefighter safety will not be adversely affected. The Fire Brigades Union disputes all five points; it is very upset. I do not wish to be political, but there is some confusion in the House. Essex county council is not Conservative controlled: nothing can be done without the agreement of the Labour and Liberal parties. The fire authority has a Labour chairman and a Liberal deputy chairman. The Fire Brigades Union is rather upset by the

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fact that no formal meeting has taken place. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider asking Ministers to assist.

Secondly, I should like to raise a matter that concerns the Minister with responsibility for school standards. We all salute the efforts of teachers and head teachers, but I am becoming increasingly concerned about some practices. Some teachers and head teachers take early retirement on grounds of stress. That is understood, but it is a little surprising that some of them return rather quickly to the classroom. Another extraordinary practice relates to school inspectors. A minority of teachers and head teachers whose schools have been critically inspected seem to retire early and become inspectors. I took the matter to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment who passed it to the chief inspector. He does not necessarily disagree with me, but says that his legal advice is to the effect that a poor teacher or a poor head teacher will not necessarily be a poor inspector.

All hon. Members know about the nightmare that teachers go through when a school is inspected. It can be a traumatic experience and it will not fill teachers with confidence when they realise that some inspectors may have been poor teachers or head teachers. The legal advice is barmy, and perhaps the Leader of the House will have a quiet word with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and ask him to check it. School inspection is a serious matter. Teaching is a vocation, and a school inspector's job should not be a soft option. The House should take the matter more seriously.

My third point relates to pre-school playgroups. Each year hon. Members attend a splendid tea party in the Members' Dining Room. We like to have our photographs taken as we make fools of ourselves drawing matchstick figures. We say that pre-school teachers are marvellous, but that seems to be as far as we go in supporting them. All my children have benefited from pre-school playgroups, but the modern trend towards nursery education pre-empts the role of the pre-school playgroup. The groups are right to be concerned about the way in which they are being undermined. Over the past 37 years, 20 million children have benefited from pre-school playgroups. They do a splendid job. Southend has 87 groups serving 3,500 people; the children are aged two, three and four.

In some respects, the growth of nursery education is destroying the value of pre-school playgroups. The Government made a rather clever announcement at our most recent tea party, but I am not sure that all practitioners were convinced. Do the Government value the work of such groups? There is no doubt that all hon. Members witness the consequences of inadequate parenting, and pre-school playgroups have a valuable role in supporting parents. They introduce young children to activities that will later help them to make a success of their schooling.

My final point for the Leader of the House, who is the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, concerns consumer protection. There are many senior citizens in my constituency, which, in that context, ranks 33rd in Britain. Some people whom I would describe as odd job men are exploiting the slight confusion of some senior citizens who want home improvements. Those elderly

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people are being hoodwinked. I salute an organisation in my constituency that is addressing the problem. Two outstanding gentlemen, one of whom has had nine years experience in the Prison Service, have set up an organisation called the Official Consumer Protection Company to supply a service to homes and businesses and for vehicles. The company is checking on some of those odd job people.

A classic example of one of the company's success stories is that of a local man who was tricked into paying £7,000 in advance for a conservatory. The company to which the money was paid vanished, leaving the job uncompleted. The man is 83 years of age, has suffered a severe stroke and has other health problems. That splendid protection company successfully negotiated with one of its member companies to finish the job free of charge. The Government should encourage such organisations.


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