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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1159—continued

Future of Mater and Whiteabbey Hospitals

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

7.3 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable importance to my constituents. The debate surrounding the future of the two hospitals in my constituency and the range of services that they provide arises from the document, XDeveloping Better Services: Modernising Hospitals and Reforming Structures", which was published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety earlier this year. That document contains the proposals of the previous Minister responsible for health in Northern Ireland on hospital services and the reform of organisational structures for health and personal social services in the Province.

I want to deal particularly with the proposal outlined in paragraph 4.19 of the report that Whiteabbey and Mater hospitals will be developed as local hospitals. Previously, the constituency of north Belfast, with its various needs, difficulties and challenges, had two hospitals providing a range of services. They provided acute services and addressed severe health and social and economic needs. This proposal means that we will be left without any such provision. I acknowledge that there is clearly a need for decisions to be made in this area, and that the Minister, in a speech yesterday in the Province, said that he would announce decisions and address those issues. That does need to happen. Decisions need to be made about the location of hospitals and the administrative and management structures for health and personal social services.

Change in itself is not a problem. The problem comes when change does not meet the health needs of the local community, does not lead to efficiencies and greater effectiveness and ignores what is happening and what is needed on the ground. One of my concerns, which is shared by many of my constituents, is that the report, particularly in relation to the Mater, appears to focus more on the needs of professional standards, training and practice and less on the patients, the community and people's needs. It is essential that what happens in relation to the Mater and Whiteabbey be in the best interests of the people and communities of north Belfast, and in the best interests of addressing social care needs and the health of the community. No other agenda should drive the proposals.

There is no doubt that the proposals, as set out by the previous Minister, will have a severe impact on the local community. They will lead to the loss of a range of key acute and emergency services and the loss of many local job opportunities in an area of severe unemployment. They will dent morale considerably at a time when it is recognised that north Belfast requires attention at the highest level of Government, not least by the setting up of the community action unit, as a result of the community action project, which addresses a range of issues in north Belfast. To remove the Mater hospital with its acute and emergency provisions and a wide range of other services would denude the constituency of a major facility that is supported across the political spectrum and across the community. That would leave a gaping hole in north Belfast.

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I want to set out the positive context of some of the things that are happening in health and personal social services in north Belfast. On Monday, I had the great honour and privilege of attending the launch of three new healthy living centres in Duncairn gardens, in which cross-community groups and people from a wide spectrum across the community divide are coming together to provide £2 million worth of investment in north Belfast. The north and west Belfast health action zone has been established. Proposals are coming forward from the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust on new health and well-being centres.

All that will be undermined if the Government say that they will downgrade the Mater and Whiteabbey to the status of local hospitals. The proposals are not logical, they follow no previous consistent argument, and the proposals in relation to the Mater hospital were a bolt out of the blue. No Government proposal or document had indicated that that was the thinking, and it did not follow from the conclusion of the Hayes report. The acute hospital review group suggested no such way forward; indeed, it suggested the retention of acute and emergency services at the Mater and a partnership with Whiteabbey hospital.

Seventeen out of the 20 wards in north Belfast are among the 25 per cent. most health-deprived wards in Northern Ireland. The Mater hospital is situated in Crumlin, the most socially and economically deprived ward in the whole of Northern Ireland. Ten out of the 20 north Belfast wards are in the 25 per cent. of wards in Northern Ireland with the highest ratio for cancer. There is clear evidence to suggest that that is linked to the high level and incidence of social and economic deprivation. We have a major problem with suicide rates, particularly among men. Mental health is another severe problem and we have some of the worst levels of drug and substance abuse anywhere in the Province or, indeed, in the United Kingdom. When we take all that into account, it is unthinkable that the Government should continue with the proposals set out in the document XDeveloping Better Services". I urge the Minister to examine those proposals and to reject them and, instead, to decide to retain the Mater and Whiteabbey hospitals in their current form.

It should also be noted that the Mater is the biggest single employer in Northern Ireland, with 1,000 employees, many of whom live in north Belfast, an area that does not have many major employers. The civil disturbances, the trouble and the violence have had disproportionate effect on the greater Shankhill and north Belfast area and the Mater hospital has throughout provided a dedicated and magnificent service to the people there. The accident and emergency ward is one of the busiest and biggest in Northern Ireland and it has demonstrated that it is meeting a terrible need in that part of the city.

In my previous role as the Northern Ireland Minister for Social Development, I played a part in setting up the community action unit. I know that the Minister has taken over responsibility for that, and is dedicated to it. It has targeted social need, which means concentrating Government resources on the areas of greatest need, and is carrying out the key objective set out in the document XInvesting in Health".

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Given all the problems in north Belfast, to suggest that workers could simply relocate to other hospitals does not take into account the problems that people have with access. People in north Belfast do not have as much access to private transport as people do in other areas, and there are also problems in getting through parts of north Belfast. As we know, there are severe community segregation problems. It is not an answer to say that people can go elsewhere. People from all communities and backgrounds feel safe in the Mater. I urge the Minister not to deprive the people of Belfast of that facility.

I referred earlier to the cross-community and all-party support for the views that I am expressing. Belfast city council has unanimously supported the same view and in the last debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly before suspension all parties across the board unanimously supported the retention of these services. The support did not come just from the representatives from north Belfast but from those from elsewhere.

A strong and vigorous local community campaign has been under way. Tens of thousands of signatures have been gathered, and the campaign has actively engaged the community. From greater Shankhill through to all the other parts of north Belfast, the response has been magnificent. It has come from the trade unions, professional bodies and the North Belfast Partnership Board, which is representative of nationalist and Unionist communities. They have all thrown their full weight behind the campaign for the retention of the Mater and of acute and emergency services throughout Northern Ireland. People are appalled at the suggestion that the proud traditions of the Mater could be lost and that services could be taken from the people of north Belfast.

I recently toured the hospital and looked at the magnificent facilities in the new McAuley building. It was built at a cost of £17 million, and not a penny of it came from public money. To think that that investment could be set aside and that the hospital could be downgraded would involve a terrible misuse of the money that went to provide the people of the area with the services to which they are entitled.

In terms of financial targets, activity and capacity, the Mater has met its targets, is increasing its capacity and its service performance compares well with any hospital of a similar nature anywhere in the Province. The Minister has been grappling with the problem of waiting lists in Northern Ireland. It is incredible to think that such a proposal will not have an adverse effect on Belfast waiting lists. He will have seen some of the evidence adduced by the Mater Hospital Trust, which shows that waiting lists would increase.

Some people have suggested that it might be a good idea to turn the hospital into a local hospital, but given the services that will be lost, the word Xlocal" needs to be explained. Let us consider what will happen if the proposals are implemented. We will lose accident and emergency services, intensive care, intensive general medicine, the in-patient cardiology and coronary care unit, in-patient diabetic services, in-patient respiratory medicine, in-patient general surgery, in-patient gynaecology and the laboratory and anaesthetic services. Other services will also go. That is not acceptable.

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The report suggests ways to develop better services, such as the hospital taking on rehabilitation beds, intermediate care and step-down beds. I cannot understand how those services could be provided if all the other services have gone. Who on earth will provide the back-up in an emergency or when someone needs intensive care if there are no doctors, medical staff or beds? It has also been suggested that maternity services can stay, but if everything that is needed to have a maternity unit in situ is removed, then the report is simply paying lip service to that idea.

For many decades, the Mater hospital has provided an environment for the training and teaching of nurses and medical staff. That proud tradition will go if the proposals are implemented. Paragraph 4.35 of the report says that the Mater

but that is not feasible if the range of services that I outline disappear.

It is clear that the proposals run counter to the suggestions of Dr. Hayes's acute hospital review group. He suggested a partnership between Whiteabbey and the Mater. That idea has disappeared. He suggested that acute services be retained for the foreseeable future. Indeed, he opposes the idea of a transitional phase that leads to the establishment of a local hospital. He referred to a regional service located in the Mater. That idea seems to have disappeared too.

The health and social care needs of the local community must be a priority. The people of north Belfast and the Newtonabbey area, which are served by Whiteabbey hospital, deserve better. I accept that there are issues that the Minister must address for Northern Ireland, but the proposals run counter to the general thrust of Government policy on north Belfast given the amount of attention, resources and efforts that are focused there to deal with deep underlying social, economic and political problems.

It is wrong to rip from the heart of a community a hospital that has served everyone. It has the support of the entire community—nationalist and Unionist, Protestant and Catholic. Indeed, nationalists, Unionists, Protestants and Catholics all work in it. The idea that it should be run down and that the investment and years of proud tradition should be cast aside without a consistent argument to support the proposition up to now cannot be allowed to stand. I know that the Minister has taken the trouble to speak to people about the proposal and that he is interested in the issue. I urge him to reconsider and to discard the proposals in the report.

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