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13 Jan 2000 : Column 528

NHS (West Surrey)

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

7.27 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I am grateful to the Speaker for choosing for debate the subject of the health service in west Surrey, just as I am to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) and to my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), whose constituents are as affected as mine are by the intolerable crisis that is threatening our region.

West Surrey is often described--it is so again in the latest documents from our health authority--as the healthiest and wealthiest part of Britain. Why then do we have a hospital with the longest accident and emergency admission times of any hospital in the country? If we are the healthiest and wealthiest, why do we have a health authority with the most people waiting up to 18 months, with many critical cases almost going over that period as I speak?

In west Surrey, we pay the highest taxes per head of any part of the UK, yet we have the lowest health spending per head of any part of the UK. We are not asking for special treatment, but we deserve a fair deal for the people whom we represent.

As I speak, the chief executive of West Surrey health authority is meeting doctors and nurses at the local hospital in Guildford to explain the latest round of cuts that are being imposed on our service as a result of the Government's attitude up to now and of the cuts that they are imposing on our finances. That cannot be due to wastefulness or inefficiency, because we have some of the United Kingdom's most efficient hospitals. Figures released last week by the NHS executive showed that both Frimley Park and the Royal Surrey were among the country's most efficient hospitals.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): My hon. Friend has just mentioned Frimley Park hospital, which is in my own constituency. Does he agree that primary care groups in the West Surrey health area have particular concerns in addition to the ones that he has been describing? Will he confirm that he has met the chairman of the Camberley primary care group, Dr. Geoff Roberts--to whom I have spoken--who is particularly concerned that his pleas to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health to resist cuts--particularly a £500,000 cut--in local child health services have fallen on deaf ears?

Will my hon. Friend also confirm that there is particular concern that the number of district nurses is about to be cut, and that another £150,000 will be cut from district nursing? As they are the very people who deal with terminally ill cancer patients and administer influenza vaccinations, is that not of particular concern?

Mr. St. Aubyn: My hon. Friend has made the case extremely well. Dr. Roberts, many other doctors and nurses, and many of our constituents have been writing to west Surrey Members about the depth of their concern at the crisis we are facing.

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We have outstanding staff and management in our local health service. They do an incredible job, but they are being asked to do it under impossible conditions. We have an accident and emergency unit serving a catchment area around Guildford of 250,000 people, but it is now under threat of closure. In the past two years, a quarter of the beds in our local health system have been scrapped. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said, in the next 12 months, 16 of our full-time-equivalent nurse posts in the community will be taken away from us.

Recently, a vital study revealed how Croydon was affected by similar cuts, and made it clear that such cuts only store up more problems for the future, as carers at home realise that they cannot cope and ask that their family member be admitted to hospital instead.

In some cases, people waiting for critical heart tests have been asked to wait too long. X-rays for cancer used to be brought back immediately, but there is now a wait of up to two months, while patients develop complications. Physiotherapy--a preventive medicine--was always immediately available, but there is now an eight-week wait before it can be given. Although the situation is unsustainable, demand has been stable. The number of emergency admissions at the Royal Surrey has risen by only 3 per cent. in the past two years.

On a typical day at the Royal Surrey County hospital, nine or 10 elective cases are cancelled, many of whom have reached the 18-month maximum wait or are urgent cancer cases. Before the Christmas flu outbreak, I was given access to internal papers describing one typical day. On 2 December, 18 cases--10 cancer cases and eight long-waiters--were to be admitted for elective surgery, but only nine beds were available. So six long waiters and three cancer cases had to be sent home--in direct contravention of all the aspirations that Conservative Members always had for the NHS, and which we thought that we shared with Labour Members.

Does the Minister think that the patients who were sent home on that day were--according to her formula, which tells the Government that we are asking for too much in our area--part of the excess health demand in west Surrey? Is she happy that the Government are sending away 18-month and cancer cases--which the previous Government decided to pay for, although the formula told us that we should not? We felt that it was more important to listen to Surrey's doctors than to a formula devised, 10 years ago, by professors in York.

We know how the previous Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), skewed the formula even further against our area. Nine years ago, Gateshead and Guildford had similar per capita funding. Now Gateshead is funded at 30 per cent. more than Guildford. I do not resent for one moment the benefits that that is producing for the people of Gateshead--one of the poorest areas of our country. I am however asking the Minister and the Government to recognise that, in the fast lane of Britain's economy, we have our own health pressures and our own health needs which must be seen to.

The overspending, as it was called, that we have lost in Surrey over the past four years amounts to £8 million a year. It came to more than that in some years. We broke even in one year--1998-99--but that was the year when waiting lists got ever longer and we simply stored up more

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trouble for the future. Our case is that the £8 million so-called overspend reflects the true level of demand in our area. We need an immediate adjustment to the Government's figures to reflect the real needs of the people whom we represent.

Yesterday in the House, the Prime Minister accused the Conservatives of hatching a policy that means that

I have a letter from a constituent whose wife waited so long for her cataract operations that she went blind in both eyes. That is when he was forced, with no insurance policy, to go private and have the operation done for her. That is how the Government are forcing people in our area to go private.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I can strongly confirm what my hon. Friend is saying. When a woman has to wait four months and two cancellations before vaginal cancer is detected, when someone has to wait almost 18 months for a hysterectomy, when we find that the out-patient wait just to see an orthopaedic consultant has gone from three or four months to nine months, when people are waiting in casualty not for 24 hours, but for three, four or even five days, local people ask what the message is. If the Government are forcing people to go privately by stealth, let them at least have the courage to say so. People are facing a sharply deteriorating service. They are frightened for themselves. Professionals are in despair. Things have gone far enough. It is time the Government listened and realised the damage that is being inflicted on people throughout our area.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reminding us that people are being forced to go private and it is the old, the sick and the very poor who bear the brunt of the Government's policies because they have no alternative. At least when we had a policy of encouraging private care we did it through a tax incentive, which this Government took away. We warned at the time that that would create the greatest pressure in the areas of greatest take-up. That is what has happened in west Surrey in the past two years.

Our local health authority is still saying that at every opportunity local specialists should encourage people to use the private sector. Item 5 of the latest NHS document states:

That is the Government's answer to the health problems of west Surrey--they are telling people that they can all afford to go private. Not all our constituents can afford it, however.

We provided an incentive to expand the private sector. This Government are providing a penalty. Tragically, in some cases it is a death penalty. Andy Williams was 29 years old when he developed a serious heart complaint. His specialist at the Royal Surrey hospital wrote to me to say that two years ago it would have been diagnosed within three months. Because the waiting times

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for that diagnosis have gone up to nearly a year, Andy died before he could be dealt with. His parents live in South Africa. His father wrote to me to say:

    "fortunately in Durban our medical set up at the present time is still very good. The cardiologists here with rooms at a hospital have access to this equipment, and this facility is available to all."

Truly, in west Surrey, as in some other parts of the country, we have sunk to a third-world service for our constituents.

I could cite many other cases. Many people have written to my colleagues and me. The Government's desire to achieve their targets for waiting lists has resulted in a long list of people who have suffered, some of whom are no longer with us.

That is why I have three key demands for the Minister. First, will she make it clear that the Government will safeguard the future of the present accident and emergency units at Frimley Park and the Royal Surrey in Guildford, as well as the excellent new facility at St. Peter's, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge? That would relieve a great deal of anxiety about the effects of such a closure.

Secondly, is she prepared to waive the £18 million so-called deficit from the time of the previous Government, when we recognised the need for health care in Surrey based on what the doctors were telling us, rather than on the formula? How can it be right that patients this year should pay a penalty--in the form of having to repay that money--just because previous patients were properly looked after under a Conservative Government?

Thirdly, out of the many extra pots of money that the Government have given themselves to make discretionary payments, will the Minister authorise the money that we need to get our real waiting lists and waiting times in line? She may be aware that a new admissions unit at a budget cost of £250,000 is due to be opened in the next few weeks. We very much hope that she will be the first Minister this Parliament to visit the Royal Surrey and our health region and hear what is going on. When she does so, will she make sure that the new unit does not have to close at the beginning of the next financial year, as according to the latest document from the health authority, absolutely no money is available to fund it?

Allan Willett, chairman of the South East of England development agency, confirmed to me again today that that organisation recognises the vital importance of a proper health service to keeping our local economy thriving and attracting inward investment. We ask the Minister to act not just in the interests of our constituents, but so that we can continue to pay our very large share for the services that are required up and down the country through the taxes that we pay. If Surrey is to continue to be the powerhouse of the British economy, we must have the support services that we need to maintain ourselves under the pressures that that creates.

Ten years ago, the previous Government introduced a new allocation of funds favouring Labour areas at the expense of Conservative ones. We are asking the present Government to be equally bipartisan and to recognise that the effects of that formula have gone too far and need to be reined in. In the interests of justice, fairness and the reputation of the Minister and the Government, I ask her to listen.

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