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10.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (

Ms Rosie Winterton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate, which reflects her long-standing interest in health provision in her local community. I know that she has expressed the views of other hon. Friends in the area.

As my hon. Friend knows, I visited the Mersey regional ambulance service recently and, like her, I was impressed by meeting some of the front-line staff who are clearly dedicated and enthusiastic about participating in some of the new ways of working. Mersey regional ambulance service was the first regional ambulance services to be created in the United Kingdom and one of the first to undergo a review by the Commission for Health Improvement. That took place in October 2002, and the trust gained one-star status in 2002 and again in 2003.

Since the CHI review, the trust agreed and published in March a comprehensive action plan that spans two years and deals with the comments and recommendations in the report. Not only the trust board but the strategic health authority monitors progress.

As for the organisational development of the trust, the roles and responsibilities of the executive directors have changed in the last financial year to improve management performance throughout the organisation. The trust has also been refocused, covering seven areas rather than three to reflect changes in the NHS and the local health community. A locality manager has been appointed in each area, which has improved clinical supervision.

My hon. Friend mentioned concerns about the trust's performance. I certainly know of occasions on which the 75 per cent. target for category A life-threatening calls has not been met. In August, for example, the figure was

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72.9 per cent. There was, however, a significant increase in the number of 999 calls during that month, mostly owing to the heat wave. The increase in activity is a general trend experienced by the trust. Between April and November 2002, the number of 999 calls was 120,576. During that period in 2003, the number increased by 8,174, or 6.7 per cent.

Like other one and two-star NHS trusts in the Cheshire and Merseyside strategic health authority, as part of the local health economy's commissioning plan, this month the Mersey regional ambulance service submitted an action plan to the central commissioning group representing the 15 primary care trusts in Cheshire and Merseyside. The individual action plans formed a part of a process to improve overall performance. The trust and the commissioning group continue to work together to establish whether any further action is needed to ensure that the trust meets an 80 per cent. target from April 2004. Last month, the 75 per cent. target was exceeded, with a figure of 79.23 per cent.

My hon. Friend referred to events that took place over the weekend of 1 and 2 November. Between 6.45 pm on Saturday and 8 pm on Sunday, Warrington hospital's accident and emergency department was forced to divert blue-light ambulance admissions. The temporary diversion from the hospital put pressure on other hospitals, and on the ambulance service. The impact on other hospitals was relatively minor, but the effect on the ambulance service was much more obvious.

Ambulances were diverted on occasion as far afield as Stoke and Manchester, outside the Cheshire and Merseyside area. The diversion meant that ambulances took longer to return to the area and respond to other calls, which had an adverse effect on the performance of the ambulance service. Moreover, the number of calls received over that weekend was much greater than usual: there were approximately 500 extra calls.

My hon. Friend is obviously concerned about the process of dealing with emergency calls. As she said, 999 calls are initially routed through British Telecom, whose performance target is the answering of 95 per cent. of calls within five seconds. Those calls are then passed to the appropriate emergency service.

If BT experiences a consistent delay in the answer of calls, it will contact the service to check whether there is a problem. Over the weekend that we are referring to, the trust received calls from BT to check their status. However, even though those calls were received, it was not necessary for BT to divert calls for Mersey regional ambulance service to other ambulance services. I take on board the points that my hon. Friend made about the log, and perhaps we can come back to that if we can have further information from her on that particular issue.

In terms of BT having difficulties in contacting the trust, which resulted in e-mail correspondence, I know that the e-mail my hon. Friend referred to was received by the trust in October. That is the only formal contact in the last six months, and a BT liaison manager felt it necessary to raise with the trust the handling of its emergency calls. The purpose of the e-mail was obviously to arrange a meeting to discuss what improvements could be made.

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Helen Jones: The e-mail says:

it names the people he has been in contact with—

That does not appear to me to be simply one contact. It says clearly that things had been going on for several months.

Ms Winterton: The contact to which I am referring would be what is considered a formal contact—that is, one requesting a meeting.

As we have said, there has been an increase in the number of calls. As a result, in mid-September the trust identified a number of measures that would concentrate investment on more staff, better systems and improved ways of working. There is a series of ways in which the trust is looking at that matter. In view of the time, I will not go over those individually, but, to give an example, in terms of recruiting more staff, the first 11 of 22 posts identified as being needed will start on 1 December. Also, a bank scheme is being considered to allow staff from elsewhere in the trust to take calls in the emergency control room.

In addition, a meeting between representatives of the trust and BT took place on 10 November at which emergency call handling and the trust's action plan were discussed. My hon. Friend knows that in our shifting the balance of power policy we give local people the power and resources to commission services that best meet the needs of the local population. It is the role of the strategic health authority to manage the national health service locally and to provide the link between the Department of Health and the NHS. However, I assure my hon. Friend that strategic health authority monitoring and support arrangements are also in place within the Department.

On where we go from here, I understand that a meeting has been arranged between local MPs, the Mersey regional ambulance service and the strategic health authority. I hope that its outcome will be clarity about the action plans that are in place to improve the trust's performance. However, I fully accept that my hon. Friend has raised a number of points tonight that she might wish to pursue further and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), will be more than happy to meet local MPs to discuss any further concerns that arise, perhaps following on from that meeting.

I hope that I have also been able to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North that measures are in place to improve performance. On top of that, if she still feels that there are concerns that she wishes to raise, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility for public health, will be more than happy to sit down to discuss them to see whether further measures need to be taken.

Question put and agreed to.

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