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1.33 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart): I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) on securing tonight's debate about the future of Farnham and Haslemere hospitals. I hope that she will not mind my mentioning that the Prime Minister's constituency is Sedgefield.

My ministerial colleagues and I are fully aware of the concerns about health services in West Surrey. Indeed, we have debated them in the House on many occasions. The historical context is clear, but it is obviously not one that the right hon. Lady seems ready to accept. I shall deal with that a little later.

I admit to being surprised to read the title of tonight's debate on the Order Paper. As the right hon. Lady knows, and as she mentioned in some detail, current proposals on the future of Farnham and Haslemere hospitals are subject to full, public, statutory consultation. That is set out in West Surrey health authority's "Sustainable NHS Strategy" consultation document. Consultation commenced in May of this year, and will not close until September. The usual consultation period is three months; in the case of West Surrey, it will be almost four months.

The right hon. Lady knows perfectly well that if, following consultation, the local community health council objects to the health authority's final proposals, the matters will be referred to Ministers. Until then, we must remain impartial and not be seen to be influencing any decision. We must not, and I will not, prejudge the outcome of any local consultation.

At times, I find it tiring that some Members of the House constantly run down local services and refuse to accept any form of change, but it is encouraging that others take the time to acknowledge progress. The right hon. Lady said that change is necessary. However, it is interesting that there were no substantial or contentious changes in West Surrey between 1989 and 1995. On the

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consultation, it is important to put it on record that we want local people to have an input on shaping services in the area.

Mrs. Bottomley: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Stuart: May I please continue?

That is why I established an independent advisory panel made up of a cross-section of local people that will help to advise the health authority on the future strategic direction of NHS services in the area.

Mrs. Bottomley: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Stuart: Just for once, I would like the case on West Surrey to be listened to. It would be helpful if we both listened.

Mrs. Bottomley: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Stuart: This is the one and only time that I shall give way.

Mrs. Bottomley: The Minister should be better prepared. There have been major changes at Farnham and Haslemere and maternity services and surgery were lost at both hospitals. On both occasions, I tried to lead the local community to accept those substantial changes and there have been many other alterations, including similar ones at Milford. The assurance was given that community beds would be retained. The Minister's remarks are not accurate.

Ms Stuart: I will not revisit old ground. I want to put on record the coherent, rational case and I should be grateful if, just for once, it was listened to.

As I have said many times, we inherited a health service that spent more locally than it was allocated. Even our generous funding increases--West Surrey health authority received £401 million for this year, which is a cash increase of some £30.7 million--were not enough to enable the health authority to meet its statutory duty to balance its books on a recurring basis. I put it on record that the funding per weighted head in West Surrey is £706. The national average is £688. For County Durham, the figure is £674. Although base funding per head in West Surrey is £633, weighted funding is above the national average. That must be accepted. This is not a matter of debate, but a matter of fact.

The health authority has stated that the aims of phase 2 are to achieve stability and to ensure that services in the area build on best practice and are fit for the 21st century. The services are about providing more care closer to people's homes, in either expanded health centres or local care centres. The intention is that the new primary care trusts will provide or co-ordinate all primary, community and a range of other services for local people. Local people will have access to modern, up-to-date facilities and be treated with the latest technology. The health authority plans a network of care to prevent unnecessary admissions to hospital and to ensure that patients are discharged as soon as their treatment is completed.

Positive progress has been made in West Surrey, despite the problems of neglect that we inherited. We cannot ignore the fact that the NHS had too few doctors

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and too few nurses. Three quarters of accident and emergency departments needed modernisation. The NHS was crying out for the biggest building programme in its history, but was stuck with a party content to spend funds on consultancy fees rather than construction fees. NHS debts, which were being built up year on year, amounted to £450 million. The right hon. Lady's own health authority, West Surrey, managed to build up a deficit of £18 million. Average real-terms growth over the full 18 years of Conservative government amounted to just 3 per cent.

After 18 years of neglect, we have started to put that right with the largest hospital building programme in the history of the NHS. There are 5,000 more nurse training places and more than 10,000 extra qualified nurses already working in the NHS. The number of doctors has risen by nearly 5,000. By 2005, we will have increased the number of medical school places by more than 1,000--the biggest increase in a generation.

I could go on. However, all this seems to have passed by the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey. We have heard again how, according to the Opposition, the Government are failing people in West Surrey, but that is not the case. Four million pounds has been invested in health-care facilities and community hospital services, £300,000 has been invested to open a 16-bed medical admissions unit at Royal Surrey County hospital, and Frimley Park hospital has received £525,000 for new X-ray and information technology equipment.

As part of our £20 million boost for revolutionary on-the-spot booking systems, both Ashford and St Peter's and Frimley Park, in conjunction with local primary care groups, have been chosen for pilot projects. Doctors will now be able to book dates for operations at times that suit patients. Two new primary-care walk-in centres have opened, serving Weybridge and Woking. These are new services, responding to the needs of the population and to changed life styles.

Surrey Hampshire Borders NHS trust is to receive a brand new trailer to further improve its breast screening services, and replacement ultrasound facilities have been provided. NHS Direct has proved a huge success. The right hon. Lady has described it as peripheral and frivolous, but nearly 12,000 people have called it in West Surrey. The calls were taken by Surrey Oaklands NHS trust.

Again, I could go on, but I sometimes fear that that serves no purpose. My son once said to me, "The fact that I can hear does not mean I am listening." I sometimes feel much the same here.

The positive steps that I have described show not only that West Surrey is able to offer its community modern services, but that the Government are prepared to match their plans for the NHS with extra investment in local services. Those services have been improved only thanks to the Government's commitment to modernising the NHS--a commitment that the Conservative party did its best to destroy.

I strongly believe that, in West Surrey and across the service, there are the courage and conviction to make changes--to face up to the needs of the population but also to respond to technological changes and changes in the way in which services are delivered. It is a tragedy that the only people who do not have the same courage are Opposition Members.

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Let me say a little more about the independent panel. It is important to us for local consensus to be achieved: that is why the normal consultation process is supplemented by the panel's work. In some areas, I have seen it working to reach a genuine local consensus involving all stakeholders from different parties. I know that in West Surrey other political parties are engaging in constructive debates, asking what the best option is when choices must be made. That is what we are trying to achieve, and I am sorry that the right hon. Lady does not agree with me.

We have presented a coherent strategy to address the problems that have been allowed to build up. We are not prepared to let any authority fail to meet its statutory duty to live within its means. Modernisation means a

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reconfiguration of services, but always in the interests of the local population. The fact that we disagree with others does not mean that we are wrong. We are consulting local people, and have shown our commitment by investing extra funds.

I know that I keep returning to this, but the weighted per-head figure in the right hon. Lady's area is £706, which is well above the national average. Any accusation that we are starving the area of funds simply does not make sense.

I hope that all the politicians in the area will engage in constructive dialogue--I know that some already do--and will have the courage to face up to what change means.

Question put and agreed to.

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