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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): My hon. Friend is making such an overwhelming case that I will ask him briefly to do something slightly unusual in a debate of this sort. Will he put himself in the shoes of the people who are trying to close the unit and say what possible basis they could adduce for its closure in the face of such an overwhelming endorsement of it? It is hard to envisage any such basis from the testimonials that he has eloquently read to the House.

John Bercow: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who will have been a friend of mine for 23 years this October. We have often said that we have only one brain and we have thought it prudent over the years, in the course of our political careers, to share it between us. We each have an uncanny tendency to anticipate the thoughts and prospective pronouncements of the other, but I have to say, in all candour, that if he thinks that I am able to penetrate the inner recesses of the sort of extraordinarily contorted minds that could seriously contemplate a decision of this kind, I am afraid that he is elevating me to a level of intellectual pedigree to which I cannot realistically hope ever to aspire. I can only hazard a guess. The answer is almost certainly money, money and money again. I will return to that point.

So far, I have raised one argument against the closure of the unit; it is a centre of excellence that we ought to foster and support. There are other reasons why it is wrong to propose its closure. It is wrong to do so when the shortage of referrals could prove to be only short term. Yes, there is a downturn, but, last year, someone had to be turned away because the unit was over-subscribed. The trust consultation document helpfully observes that the

Indeed it may. Is it not an extraordinary suggestion that one should close a unit with a proven track record and dramatic future potential simply on the basis of one year, which the trust calmly acknowledges in its document might be the result of statistical fluctuations? The misjudgment is truly breathtaking.

I said that the downturn might be temporary. I put it more strongly than that; it is wrong to close a unit when there is every prospect that there will be an increase in demand for its services in the future and an increase in the number of referrals. Why do I say that? I say it because there is no evidence whatever to suppose that, at any time soon, there will be a reduction in the number of children with severe speech and language disorders. Indeed, I suggest that the evidence probably points in the opposite direction. As a result of the increased survival rates of children who are born prematurely and who suffer significant complications as a result of that, there is every possibility that the number of children with such severe impairments will increase. There is therefore a very real chance of a greater demand for such services and for referrals to the unit in the future.

It is wrong to propose the closure of the unit when there has been virtually no marketing of it by its parent trust, which ought to have some responsibility for
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proudly proclaiming the unit's record, disseminating the evidence and seeking subscription to it. It is wrong to propose the closure of the unit when there is currently a Select Committee inquiry into statementing and other relevant aspects of special educational needs policy that are directly linked to the current plight of the unit.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee. The Committee has taken evidence and will shortly publish its report. In accordance with the conventions of the House, with which the Minister will be familiar, the Government have a responsibility to issue a reply to the report within three months, and can be expected to do so. To propose the closure of the unit when the report has a direct link to the issues at that unit and before this House has had an opportunity to make a judgment seems to me to come fairly close to a contempt of Parliament.

It is wrong to propose the closure of the unit when either cross-subsidy from another part of the activities of the trust or relocation of the unit from Ealing to the central London premises of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital would offer a lifeline to this valued facility. Neither of those options has been other than flimsily considered in the consultation document that the trust has issued.

It is wrong to propose the closure of the unit when, as in the words of one distinguished therapist, there is the likelihood of an irretrievable—I use her words advisedly—loss of knowledge, expertise and good practice, which it has taken many years to accumulate. Finally, it is wrong for the trust to propose the closure of a unit, the running cost of which amounts to 0.2 per cent. of the total turnover last year of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust.

The Minister, for whom I have the highest regard—I feel sure that he has a glittering ministerial career ahead of him—has been listening with his customary courtesy. It is possible that he is thinking to himself, "Well, there's a certain amount in all this, but why is it a matter for me?" I do not wish to be unkind, because I like the Minister, but his private secretary telephoned my office last Thursday to report—I happened not to be there, but she gave the information to my secretary—that the Minister thought that I ought to be aware that a public consultation process was taking place in respect of the Nuffield speech and language unit, so he did not feel that he could say much and therefore that there was not much point in me proceeding with the debate. My response, through my secretary, was to say, "Well, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health—who is, of course, but a Minister—might not have anything to say, but I certainly do", as I hope that I have demonstrated so far this evening.

I want very simply to put two points to the Minister on why this is a proper matter for him. First, it is not local. If the Minister has in the scripted speech—very carefully prepared for him by others to whom I cannot refer in the Chamber—passages that suggest that the local configuration of services should be determined by local people on the strength of a local knowledge of local needs, he should delete those passages. If he is planning to say, "Well, it would be very presumptuous of me to say what should be decided by the trust", I urge him to abandon that argument.
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The cap does not fit, and one of the reasons why there is such widespread, indeed almost pervasive, cynicism in the country about politics and politicians—we all have a duty to counter that cynicism—is that a lot of people think that, irrespective of party, we are all too ready to proclaim our successes, to boast and to invite praise, glory and congratulation, but when a problem arises, it is always someone else's fault; leave the responsibility to A. N. Other. That will not do.

This is not a local matter, local to the Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust or local to Ealing. I have already explained that the unit's services have been extensively used by a range of authorities, predominantly but not exclusively in London, and it is a unique national resource. So there is a relevance for the Government, and they should take a view.

Secondly, the form of the consultation has been profoundly objectionable, and it is a matter with which the Minister should concern himself. You will doubtless be aware, as the fount of all wisdom, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that under section 11 of the Health and Social Care Act 2001, there is a requirement in such circumstances for public consultation exercises to take place. There is an obligation for NHS bodies to ensure that either the recipients of services or their representatives are involved in and consulted on the planning and development of services. I think that it is section 11(2), but if I am mistaken, no doubt the Minister will advise me. Moreover, the provision goes on to explain that, where decisions to change those services are proposed or contemplated, there is a requirement to consult and involve those who will be affected. I am sorry to tell the Minister that, as far I am concerned, the Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust has chronically failed to adhere to the letter or spirit of its legal responsibility.

The trust's chief executive, Mr. Andrew Way, did not want a consultation process to take place, but he eventually agreed, under pressure, that it could. He then went to the Ealing scrutiny panel, for which legislative provision is also made, without telling the parents of children at the unit, to ask for permission to have a much shorter consultation than the 90 days that he would otherwise be obliged to accept. He was, I am pleased to say, turned down and a 90-day consultation, running to the end of June, is now in process. Mr. Way and his colleagues on the trust board have rejected the suggestions of consultees and other supporters of the unit and refuse to issue, even now, a list of the people whom they are consulting. They have decided to stage public consultation meetings on a week day between 3 and 5 o'clock in the afternoon and from 6 o'clock until 8 o'clock in the evening.

I suggest to the House, knowing that hon. Members are not ordinarily cynical, that those times are manifestly inconvenient to working parents and parents of young children. The thought arises in one's mind that Mr. Way and his colleagues might not be disappointed if attendance at those meetings turned out to be small. At the first meeting, the only parent who attended was Dr. Tony Canas who stood up passionately and rigorously for the cause of the unit. I believe that that is an absolute disgrace.

It is also a disgrace that the trust board has so far refused to consult the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists; a body that one might presume
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had some responsibility for potential recipients of the services under discussion. The board has also failed and refused to consult both the Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice and the Association for All Speech Impaired Children. So far, one could be forgiven for thinking that the consultation is a sham, a farce and a disgrace and that Mr. Andrew Way and his cohorts should be ashamed of the truly despicable way in which they have gone about the matter.

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