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Dr. Lewis rose—

John Bercow: I realise that I am expressing myself in my characteristically modest and understated terms, for which I make no apology before giving way to my hon. Friend.

Dr. Lewis: I am sorry to intervene again on my hon. Friend, but there seems to be a parallel here with some of the sharp practices carried out in the New Forest and Romsey area in an attempt to close much-loved community hospitals. My hon. Friend might bear in mind the fact that when statutory consultations are abused in this way, the process of judicial review is always possible. If the person undertaking the review happens to be someone eligible for legal aid, the trust may find itself facing much larger and more irrecoverable legal bills than any possible short-term saving that resulted from the initial closure of a unit. I just mention that by the by.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his advice, which might well come in handy in the weeks and months ahead. As far as I am concerned, this is but the start of the campaign to preserve this unit.

The Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust issued an annual report last year, which—sickeningly, from my point of view—carried on its front cover the slogan, "Specialising in Excellence". That should not be a slogan, a pious hope or a rhetorical statement of good intent for a honeyed future; it should, first and foremost, reflect the reality on the ground, current practice and existing achievement. In that context, it should reflect the medical and educational priorities of a proud parent trust. But it does not. On the strength of a one-year deficit, in the face of a continuing parliamentary inquiry into relevant matters, and with scarcely a finger lifted to promote the unit, Mr. Andrew Way and his trust board colleagues are seriously, in all conscience I am advised, proposing the closure of a unit which has done so much to help some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our society, and which could do so much more in the future.

If Mr. Way and his colleagues believe that the only way in which they can achieve overall financial balance—not within the unit but within the trust as a whole—is by picking on the most vulnerable children in the community, I honestly suggest that they should be told to clear their desks and pursue employment opportunities elsewhere. I appeal to the Minister, who I think is a compassionate, decent and humanitarian figure, to agree with me that there should at the least be a stay of execution in this case.
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I ask the Minister from the bottom of my heart to instruct—yes, I use that word—the trust to do two things. First, it should write to all LEAs, to relevant GPs, to speech and language therapists, to educational psychologists, to paediatricians and possibly to others, on whom we can agree if he accepts the principle, to inform them of the services of the unit, its success rate and the advisability in many cases of a referral to it.

Secondly, I urge the Minister to instruct the trust board to look seriously, not with a pathetic, dismissive one-paragraph consideration, at the possibility of moving the unit from Ealing to central London in Gray's Inn road, thereby not only making internal cost savings through location within the hospital but opening up the potential of a much wider area from which applications and referrals can come, not least the eastern part of London. That is a sensible proposition and it ought, among others, to be examined.

The Minister will have noted that I have not launched some excoriating attack on the Government's inclusion policy. Inclusion can work for a significant, a large number of children. It is, with appropriate help and support, the right course. If I accept that, which seems to me simply to reflect the reality of the evidence, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that, for a significant and vulnerable minority of children, inclusion does not and cannot work. Those children need additional help. There is nowhere that better provides it for children with severe speech and language impairments than the Nuffield speech and language unit. It must survive; I will fight to preserve it. I hope that I will be joined by the Minister and others.

6.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Liam Byrne): I start by sincerely congratulating the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate this evening. I have long been a student of his contributions to the House. In this debate, as in many others, the House owes him a debt of gratitude for the compassionate and intelligent way in which he has aired this issue. I ought also to congratulate him on his recent accolade of Opposition politician of the year. His contribution this evening has underlined exactly why that accolade was well deserved.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I have prepared remarks which I would like to rehearse in a moment or two. The hon. Gentleman has brought a lot of information to the House tonight which, if I may, I would like to reflect on. I will share with him the brief that I have this evening. There are a number of points on which I will need to make further inquiries in the light of what he has said this evening because it presents a different picture from the one that I have been given.

May I apologise for my private secretary's remarks last week? Of course, this is a proper matter for me to consider, and it is absolutely right that the hon. Gentleman should make a contribution this evening.

I put on record my congratulations and thanks to the NHS staff at the Nuffield speech and language and unit for the standard of service that they have provided, as the hon. Gentleman said, since 1971. The unit has indeed changed the lives of many people in and around London. I shall not detain the hon. Gentleman long, as I wish to consider what action to take after tonight's
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debate. However, two points of context highlight the reason why he is right to bring this debate to the Floor of the House. First, we are in the middle of a process of transforming the NHS. Secondly, as part of that modernisation, we must continue to work to transform the life chances of all children. There is a substantial basis on which to build in Ealing and the parts of the capital served by the NHS trust, and much of that progress has been made possible by extra investment. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman voted on successive Finance Acts, as I did not obtain that information before I came to the Chamber, but he will welcome the fact that there are 590 extra consultants in the North Central London strategic health authority area; 2,200 extra nurses; 170 more health care assistants; and, pertinent to this debate, over 100 extra speech and language therapy staff. As a result, waiting lists have come down, which he will welcome. More than 4,000 people waited six months for hospital in-patient treatment in 1997, but that figure has fallen to zero as of February. Of course, that is not enough.

Mr. Bone: The Minister said that no one has waited more than six months for an NHS operation, but that is incorrect according to the Department of Health website, which says that 74 people are waiting for an operation.

Mr. Byrne: I would be delighted to check whether that is correct. My information applies to the position as of February, but I will check it against the information on the web, which applies to the position as of December.

Further investment needs to be made in the NHS, which is why spending will rise to £92 billion in the next year or two. That is important, as there is still a great deal to do to modernise health services, given our aspirations to transform children's life chances. About a year ago, we published the national service framework for children, young people and maternity services, which was celebrated around the world as a benchmark providing specifications on the services that children should receive. It is not something of which the Government alone should be proud—it is something of which many people up and down the country can be proud, because it benefited from a wide-ranging input from organisations that have done a great deal to change children's lives. In the next 10 years, our ambition is to ensure that children with special needs, young people and their families should experience services that are based on their assessed needs; promote social inclusion; and, wherever possible, enable them to live ordinary lives. That ambition is shared across the House, but we admit that we have not quite fulfilled it.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that primary care trusts were the main commissioners of services provided by Nuffield—a point that has been superbly illustrated this evening? Many PCTs are in debt and many of them, including my own PCT, are unable to purchase such services. Many local education authorities, PCTs and other bodies believe that they are carrying out the Government's wishes and their agenda of inclusion, even though that has not been voiced by the Government, by not purchasing services from specialised units.
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