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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to Radio Gloucestershire for alerting me to a matter concerning the merger of the Gloucestershire, Avon and Wiltshire ambulance services, which was put out to consultation by the Government and put to consultants by the strategic health authority. I am told that there is to be a meeting tomorrow morning in the Forest of Dean. This will be the first public meeting to review the consultants' recommendation that a full-blown merger should take place. That recommendation is causing great anxiety to my constituents and to the people of Gloucestershire.
I wish that that were true. It was quite clear from the tone of the Minister's reply to my debate, and from my meeting with the chief executive of the Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire strategic health authority, that the Government and the SHA had already embarked on a course of action that would lead to a full-blown merger of the three ambulance trusts.
I believe that this exercise is all about improving the efficiency of the Avon ambulance trust in particular. Gloucestershire is a two-star trust; the Avon and Wiltshire trusts have no stars at all. I believe that this is about trying to bring those two services up to the standard of the Gloucestershire service. At the end of his speech, the Minister also said:
That is particularly stupid because, 18 months ago, the Government initiated a project involving a tri-service site in Quedgeley, just outside Gloucester. This involved having the police, the fire service and the ambulance service all on the same site, at a cost of £6.3 million. If this proposal goes through, that site is likely to be scrapped. So £6.3 million of public money will have been completely wasted. This follows the Government's decision to regionalise the fire service; we already know that the fire service is being taken away from the site.
26 May 2005 : Column 952
I should like to illustrate the fact that my constituents feel that this proposal is putting their lives at risk. I know that we are always urged not to use pejorative language in the Chamber, but I believe that my constituents' lives could well be put at risk by the proposal. In the short time available to me, I should like to quote a report from The Citizen in Gloucester.
"Fran Stevenson's three-year-old son, Zak, woke up with a bad chest on a snowy Saturday morning. By the afternoon he had developed a wheeze which got increasingly worse. Mrs Stevenson, of Woodedge Road, Lower Milkwall, said: 'I began to get worried at about 5pm, and probably a bit more worried because it was a Saturday.' Mrs Stevenson phoned Coleford Health Centre"
"and was put through to the out-of-hours service. She explained Zak's symptoms, asked if she could talk it over with a doctor and was told one would ring back within the hour. 'But when it got to 7.15pm, I was torn between ringing 999 or ringing the out-of-hours service again,' she said. 'I rang the out-of-hours service and sat Zak next to me so they could hear him breathe. Once they heard him breath they put us through to 999.'
Mrs Stevenson was stunned by the swift arrival of the ambulance within 10 minutes. 'They were just superb and incredibly professional,' she said. 'They came into my home and helped Zak get dressed so we could get him to hospital.' It was a dark and snowy night and 10 minutes into the journey the ambulance got into difficulties. 'We were sliding, the ambulance wasn't able to move forward,' explained Mrs Stevenson. 'I could hear them talking about not being able to get up Cinderford Hill.'
The ambulance service was not able to get hold of a four-wheel drive so another ambulance was sent. But while they were waiting for it to arrive, the Stevensons were shown more kindness by a Good Samaritan. Local off-duty GP Dr Raj Bhageerutty,"
"who was on his way to have dinner with his wife, stopped and came on board the ambulance. 'He said he would stay with us and make sure Zak got to hospital. He was very kind,' said Mrs Stevenson. 'When the second ambulance crew took over, we soon started skidding so a gritter truck which had been out salting the roads went in front of us and we were able to get into GRH"
"'They did everything possible to make us feel reassured, they were wonderful,' she said. Zak stayed in GRH for two days after doctors said they thought he had an underlying viral infection which may have been made worse by an allergic reaction."
If the merger takes place, the organisation will be based in Bristol. It will look after 2.2 million people, rather than 500,000 people at present. I do not believe that the same local knowledge will be employed. There is also a further fear that if the number of ambulances in rural areas is cut and a paramedic in a car is sent instead, that will not be the same as a full team of ambulance drivers arriving to help somebody with a possible cardiac arrest and able to help them in difficult circumstances.
"It is one of the country's leaders in some of the new treatments. For example, in pre-hospital thrombolysis treatment, modern IT enables the electronic kit to be attached to somebody's body and the information to be transmitted to a specialist sitting in a hospital, who can then see exactly what phase the heart is in and administer the drug at precisely the right time. That saves lives.
Running down the ambulance service makes no sense. Apart from the pre-hospital thrombolysis initiative, the Gloucestershire ambulance service is one of the most innovative in the country in forming partnerships with other first-responder groups, such as the fire brigade. Indeed, the protocol with the St. John Ambulance brigade was so good that that brigade is now using it nationally.[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 9 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 444WH.]
There is a further twist in the argument. We are having great difficulty in Gloucestershire with the out-of-hours service at night and at weekends. I have already had a constituency case in which somebody has died because they have not been admitted to hospital in time. There is no doubt that given the problems with the out-of-hours and weekend service, more and more people will rely on a swift and efficient ambulance service. I believe that the only reason for this merger is financial. That is an appalling way to run our national health service. My constituents want to be reassured that at some of the most difficult times that we may unfortunately have to face we can get an ambulance fast and efficiently. The drivers and ambulances in Gloucestershire currently provide that service, and there is great and deep unease about the Government's proposals.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. It has been a debate of two halves. In the first half, we heard a series of maiden speeches from new Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, and indeed from a new Scottish National party Member, which were of the highest quality. We will all take away from the debate the view that the House will be all the richer for the people who have arrived to serve in it during this Parliament. In the second half of the debate, the contributions from Government Members have been sparse, with a hint of filler in the afternoon's proceedings. One interesting feature of proceedings since our return after the election is that, day after day and in debate after debate, the Government Benches have been empty. The Government have not had enough speakers to keep the debate going. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said at the start of his speech that he had hoped to make a contribution during the debate on the Queen's Speech, but had been unable to do so. He clearly missed the two days when the debate finished early and collapsed because of a lack of Government Members who wished to speak. If he had been here, he would have had more than enough time to contribute to the debate.
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