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3.10 pm

Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford): It would be impossible to discuss the modernisation of the national health service in London without first talking about why we need to modernise. I shall talk about acute services, because that is where I gained the little knowledge that I have on this subject. I shall talk particularly about Oldchurch hospital in Romford.

I have campaigned to save Oldchurch hospital services for at least the past 10 years, on and off. Before that, I tried, with others, to save Rush Green hospital in Romford, but the previous Government sanctioned its closure and the land was sold off. That land would have been the ideal site for a new hospital for the people of Barking, Dagenham and Havering. We suggested that at the time, but no one listened, and that opportunity has now gone.

When I tell the House that we campaigned to keep the accident and emergency department at Oldchurch, I must expound on that a little because it was a splendid campaign. We did not have the resources--the people or the financial resources--of the Bart's campaign, but we cared as passionately about our hospital and we certainly made a great deal of fuss. Every Saturday for about two years, we had a stall in Romford market. We took thousands of postcards to the regional health authority. We held candlelight vigils, and circled the hospital with

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about 700 people linking hands. We visited one regional health authority with our arms in slings--which was a bit embarrassing when the tea lady insisted on helping us with our cups of tea.

Our campaign, supported by the local press, touched every family in our community. We even had a mascot, which bore a striking resemblance to the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), the then Secretary of State for Health. It was made on the guy principle, although of course it was a gal. She went everywhere with us--on the stall, up to London in a wheelchair, on candlelight vigils. The trouble was that she was stuffed with paper and her legs just grew and grew. In the end, to get her into a car, we had to wrap her legs around her neck. She was in a sorry state--like the national health service under the previous Conservative Government.

Certainly Oldchurch hospital, with an uncertain future hanging over it, was also in a sorry state; no money was spent on it and little maintenance was carried out.

Ms Perham: I should like to pay tribute to the campaign for Oldchurch hospital with which my hon. Friend was involved over many years in the constituency that she serves with such distinction. Does she agree that it is important for us to achieve effective co-ordination and planning of hospital services throughout London, so that the viability of existing hospitals, such as King George hospital in my constituency--which most of my constituents use--is not at risk?

Mrs. Gordon: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; I shall deal with that point later in my speech.

At the time of the campaign, I was a member of the community health council when we were invited to see the cockroaches in the nurses' home--not a very edifying sight. By 1997, the staff of the hospital were demoralised and everything was in limbo. However, the campaigners did not give up because we knew that we were right.

During the general election campaign, I never promised that we could save the Oldchurch services, but I did say that the only chance was a change of Government, and so it has proved. Early on, the Labour Government set in train the review of London's health services. The Turnberg report confirmed what members of our campaign group had always known--that the general hospital should be at the heart of the community at Oldchurch and that, furthermore, we should have a new hospital.

We now await the decision to go ahead with the project and, yes, I am impatient about it, but I have already waited 10 years and am prepared to wait a bit longer, because I know that we have a good scheme. However, I have to say that I am waiting for the decision with everything crossed and that gets a bit uncomfortable, so I do hope that it will be announced shortly.

In the meantime, the buildings are old and old-fashioned. The staff are working their socks off to provide a first-class service in third-class buildings. I was therefore extremely pleased when the Government awarded £748,000 to improve the accident and emergency service until the new hospital is built. I have always believed that a minor injuries unit should be part of any accident and emergency department, and I am glad that that is one of the uses being made of the money. It always

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made sense to me; I thought that keeping people with minor injuries at the back of the accident and emergency queue was daft, and that it would be best to treat them quickly, so that they could go home rather than hang around for hours waiting for minor treatment.

The hospital will also improve the children's accident and emergency services, providing an additional treatment area. It is important that young children should not have to suffer the distressing sights in adult A and E departments. There will also be an out-of-hours primary care service, where patients can get advice or treatment from a GP. There will also be an observation area with six beds, which, we hope, will speed up ambulance turnaround and free up trolleys in the A and E department. When in place, those Government-funded strategies will transfer to the new hospital, because they are mainly about new ways of working and not so much about bricks and mortar. They will greatly improve the services given to the 90,000 patients who attend Oldchurch A and E department each year.

The staff have been involved in developing those ideas, just as they have been involved in working up the plan for the new hospital. Their input will be invaluable in ensuring that the new hospital will really meet the needs of its population in the new millennium. In the meantime, the Government money will help to ensure that patients get the best possible care.

I have highlighted one hospital and one modernisation scheme, but the most exciting aspect of the changes that are taking place is that, from Turnberg onwards, we are considering London as a whole and planning service provision across the whole capital. A few years ago, we saw the horrible spectacle of hospitals poaching patients and competing for contracts. Hospitals were seen as a commercial threat to one another. It was appalling. The new ethos of partnership and co-operation instead of competition will bring great benefits for Londoners using our hospitals and for all those marvellous people who work in them.

3.18 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) and to hear about the campaign that she has undertaken over the years. Later in my contribution, I shall touch briefly on some issues that affect local hospitals in my health authority. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate as it enables me to air my concerns and those of some of my constituents regarding the national health service in London.

I begin by paying tribute to all those who work in London's health service--the doctors, nurses, midwives, health workers, support staff, managers and members of the ambulance service. They succeed in delivering a remarkable service, despite the many constraints and problems that they face.

That the national health service has a unique place in the public's affections is in large measure thanks to those who work in it. The NHS in London provides a service to the 7 million people who live in the London area, to the 1 million who work here and to those who come specifically to London for treatment. London is also a major centre of academic excellence and research, which contributes to health care both nationally and internationally.

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The NHS celebrated its 50th birthday last year and, like most 50-year-olds, it has witnessed many changes since its birth in 1948. It now faces new challenges and new problems. Changes in demographics and technology have fuelled ever-rising expectations; for example, people now live an average of two years longer than they did in 1979. Increased longevity, combined with changes in public expectations of what the health service can and should do for them, ensures that the demand for health care continues to outstrip supply. Since its inception, the service has faced that basic, inescapable fact.

We must question the idea that once, long ago and lost in the mists of time, there was a golden era of the NHS, when everything ran perfectly and there were no problems. My first memory of Hillingdon hospital, Uxbridge dates back more than 30 years, when, as a schoolboy, I arrived at the accident and emergency unit with a broken wrist one Saturday lunchtime. More than eight hours later, I finally saw the consultant and the wrist was set. Such delays were by no means unknown in those days, but expectations were not so high then.

Today, the existence of those expectations and the ever-accelerating and extremely welcome advances in medical knowledge and treatments drive the need for modernisation of the NHS, because the NHS must do more, for more people, as cost-effectively as possible. That might lie behind the Government's welcome damascene conversion to the virtues of the private finance initiative. Any private-public partnership that can ease the pressures on the NHS is to be welcomed. Twenty-five of the 31 new hospitals that the Government plan to build are to be financed through the PFI--an ambitious programme that could go ahead only with private sector involvement.

Any new money is also to be welcomed, even though the Government's tendency to announce and reannounce the same sums at different times and places, while good for spin doctoring, has the effect of misleading the public and greatly irritating NHS professionals. The hyperbole that characterised Labour policy on health when the party was in opposition--the public were told during the election campaign that they had 14 days to save the NHS--has now been seen through. Last winter's cash crisis, to which an increasingly disconcerted Secretary of State admitted, combined with the waiting lists fiasco, which was a problem entirely of the Government's own making, started to test the public's patience.

It is true that the London trusts have achieved greater reductions in waiting lists than trusts in other parts of the country, and I am pleased to say that the Hillingdon hospital NHS trust has a good record on waiting lists. However, the drive to reduce waiting lists is a fundamental distortion of clinical priorities. None the less, that remains a totem pole for the Government: having spent a long time constructing it while in opposition, they are slavishly determined to continue to dance around it. Conservative Members argue that waiting times are more important than lists: how long one has to wait matters more than how many people are waiting ahead of one.

I was interested in a table that recently appeared in The Observer, in which the Hillingdon trust came top. Apparently, the trust issues the fewest anti-depressant drugs, although I have yet to ascertain from the chief executive the reason behind that statistic. As a great believer in looking on the bright side, I think that it is because we in Hillingdon and Uxbridge are inherently

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happy with our lot--as we should be, living in a pleasant suburb located somewhere near our great capital city, yet having access to some therapeutic countryside and green areas, which we guard ferociously. However, I recognise that many are not as fortunate as we are, and that there are parts of the borough whose residents might not recognise my description of the area. Those people must be a priority for the NHS in London.

I should like to draw attention to the problems that Hillingdon hospital encounters in the recruitment and, more important, the retention of nurses. However, I should be churlish not to welcome the introduction of NHS Direct, as west London has been in the vanguard of that innovative service. I wish it well; I hope that its progress will be carefully monitored and that improvements, if and when needed, will be implemented swiftly. I shall not refer in any detail to the Government's plans for the NHS set out in the Health Bill. We debated it earlier this month, and the Conservatives' opposition to it has been made clear. We think that the Bill will make the NHS more inflexible and more bureaucratic rather than help to modernise it.

Instead of repeating my objections to the Bill, I shall turn my attention to some specific problems associated with Hillingdon and the surrounding area. Some of the hospitals that I shall mention are located not in my constituency, but in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), whose work in respect of these problems has been assiduous. I am sure that, if he has an opportunity to speak in the debate, he will flesh out the argument. Many people in my constituency feel strongly about these matters.

Without wanting to bore the House too much with my personal experience of Mount Vernon hospital in Northwood, or threatening to show any scars to back up my tales, I have to say that my association with that hospital goes back a long way. My experience usually accrued in the now-defunct accident and emergency department, where injuries sustained on the sports field were treated.

It might appear to be inconceivable and to require an act of faith to believe that I was at any time regarded as being athletic, but I assure the House that I have photographic proof. I have occasionally wondered when the decline in my athletic prowess occurred and, as I sat watching the Secretary of State today, I came to a sudden realisation. At a formative time in my life, when I was a young and impressionable student from Uxbridge, I resided in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. Watching him stroke his beard today, I realised that, subconsciously and rather worryingly, I must have adopted him as a somewhat dubious role model.

The problems involving Mount Vernon hospital and the neighbouring Harefield hospital, Uxbridge are serious. There is a proposal to move the burns and plastics unit to either Northwick Park hospital, Harrow, or Hemel Hempstead general hospital. That has raised serious questions about the viability of the regional cancer centre at Mount Vernon, which works closely with the burns unit in its regular work and on general research. The cancer centre, the well-thought-of Gray laboratory and the plastics and burns unit have an excellent track record on breaking barriers in research and patient care.

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The Secretary of State knows of local concerns about the implications for the future of the hospital without the burns and plastics unit. Thirty-seven local organisations, two community health councils and more than 80,000 local people have signalled their desire to keep the unit open and ensure the hospital's future. I pay tribute--I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood will speak about the subject in more detail if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--to those groups, particularly Community Voice and its chairman, Mike Turner, and to the hard work of my constituent Mrs. Constance Evans, who, despite being in a great deal of pain, has been tireless in her efforts to bring these matters to the attention of all those concerned. Those people and many others cannot be ignored; it is, after all, their national health service.

An expert advisory group has been considering various options for the future. However, real concerns have been expressed about the group's objectivity and its seeming unwillingness to consider all the possibilities. I hope that the interrelationship between the plastic and burns unit and the cancer centre will be a paramount consideration. It is difficult to see how the unit's closure will mean anything other than a deterioration of local provision and a threat to a much-valued facility. Relatively modest additional capital funding would be required to modernise Mount Vernon's facilities.

In addition to the threat to Mount Vernon hospital, the fate of the internationally renowned Harefield hospital hangs in the balance. It is the largest transplant centre in the world. Thousands of operations are performed there, and doctors from 60 countries complete their training at the hospital and then take their skills back to their countries. Under the leadership of Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, Harefield has become a world centre for lung and heart transplants.

The Government have said they recognise both the unique nature of Harefield and the fact that the interaction of science, research, teaching and services is its enormous strength. The Government also acknowledge that, if the Harefield team were split up, it would be very difficult to reassemble. I was heartened to hear the Secretary of State's earlier remarks about Harefield. I have drawn the attention of the House to the fate of both of those hospitals because of deep public concern. There is widespread local anger about the threats to their survival.

As I have said, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and neighbouring constituency Members from both sides of the House have campaigned assiduously for the retention and modernisation of both hospitals. I raise my voice--as I have done in the past--in support of that objective. I am deeply concerned that not only are the wishes of local people being ignored, but the whole process is being conducted in a far from transparent manner. Many fundamental issues should be considered, and I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that the interests of the people of west London are prioritised above the demands and desires of bureaucracy and short-termism.

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