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23 Jun 2010 : Column 132WH—continued

Regarding maintenance, the concessionaire is required to maintain both Severn crossings in accordance with the concession agreement. A rigorous schedule of inspections
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is carried out and regular review meetings are held between the concessionaire and the Highways Agency.

A programme of cable inspections on the first Severn bridge began in April 2006 after corrosion was found in the suspension cables of bridges of a similar age and construction in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, significant levels of corrosion were found and a programme of works to tackle the corrosion followed. A full dehumidification system has been installed to address the corrosion. The system, which pumps dry air into the cables to reduce humidity, has been operational since December 2008. Reports show that humidity levels within the main cable are below the target level of 40% relative humidity. In addition, an acoustic monitoring system has been installed to track the rate and location of any further deterioration. A second round of inspections is currently under way to gain a detailed understanding of the level of corrosion and to verify the success of the dehumidification process so far. That work is due for completion later this year.

The corrosion of the main cables is a defect that existed before the letting of the concession and unfortunately-from my point of view-is not covered by the concession agreement. Costs associated with this work will therefore be met by the Government. The programme of mitigation and inspection work carried out so far has cost the Government £15 million, with the second round of inspections costing us a further £4 million.

Reports in the local media-and a letter from a Member of the National Assembly for Wales-suggest that the concessionaire will hand back the crossings in a state of disrepair. The suggestion was made earlier that, once the concession ends, the taxpayer will have to foot the bill. Let me make it clear, the concessionaire is bound by the legal terms of the concession, which it signed, to maintain the crossings to an acceptable standard. When the concession ends, the concessionaire is required to carry out any necessary maintenance and repair works on the crossings prior to handover. That is a legally binding commitment and is what I expect them to do.

Jessica Morden: Does the Minister have an indication of the year in which the concession will end?

Norman Baker: I am coming to that. The concession agreement sets out the requirements for transfer of the crossings to the Secretary of State at the end of the concession period. The concession is currently predicted to end in the first half of 2017, when the sum defined in the 1992 Act will have been collected through tolling. The bridges will then be returned to the Secretary of
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State. However, in order to ensure that tolls do not rise further, there are additional costs that have to be absorbed, both through the VAT increase and the work to ensure that credit cards can be accepted. I am giving the best estimate-it might slip slightly in the light of those two matters, but that is not certain at this stage.

Jonathan Edwards: Will the Minister indicate whether the UK Government are considering offering joint ownership of the bridges after handover to the Welsh Government?

Norman Baker: That matter has not been considered in my short time in office. The hon. Gentleman has raised an issue that I am sure is important to people in Wales and I will ensure that he receives a reply.

Jonathan Evans: The Minister shared with us a figure of £995 million. As I understand it, when we last heard from the Department, the assessment of how much mileage has been made towards that figure was about £682 million. Is the Minister able to update us on the current take, or if not, will he share it later?

Norman Baker: I do not have that precise figure at my fingertips, but if comes to me in the next couple of minutes I will tell Members. If it is not possible to do so before half-past 4, I undertake that all Members present will get a written response.

When the Secretary of State takes over the bridges at the end of the concession, the Government are authorised to continue tolling for a further five years following the handover of the crossings, to enable them to cover their own costs incurred, such as the £19 million that I mentioned in respect of the maintenance of the cables. No decisions have been made regarding the operation of the crossings once the concession ends, and therefore we are open to suggestions as to what might be the appropriate position at that stage.

In answer to the question about turnover at July 1989 prices, the present figure is about £648 million, against the final total of £995 million.

In conclusion, I thank not only the hon. Member for Newport East but Members of all parties who contributed to the debate. I and the Department recognise that this is an important issue for Welsh Members in particular. We are bound by the 1992 Act and the agreements entered into at that stage. Within that relatively tight constraint, I am willing to do what I can to address issues that Members have raised and I hope the House has found that helpful.

4.28 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Accident and Emergency (Westmorland General Hospital)

4.30 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time in an hour, Mr Benton. I wish to express my gratitude for the opportunity to make the case for my local hospital.

The Westmorland general hospital in Kendal sits almost exactly at the geographical centre of the area covered by the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust. It is one of three hospitals serving the area, along with the Royal Lancaster infirmary and the Furness general hospital at Barrow. Westmorland general hospital serves, in Cumbria: the Lake district, the western part of the Yorkshire dales, South Lakeland district and the southern part of the Eden district. In north Lancashire, it serves large swathes of the Lune valley.

For all those areas, Westmorland general is the closest and most accessible hospital. Indeed, it was built in 1992 expressly to serve those communities as a district general hospital. At that time, it provided full accident and emergency services and acute provision. Since 1992, the population of Westmorland general hospital's catchment area has grown significantly in comparison to the populations of the other hospitals at Lancaster and Barrow. However, the past 18 years have seen the steady removal of key services from Westmorland general, culminating in the loss of medical emergency services in August 2008.

Since 2008, anyone suffering a suspected cardiovascular emergency, a heart attack or a stroke in the Westmorland general catchment area has been taken by ambulance to Lancaster or Barrow instead. The majority of local health professionals opposed that decision throughout the consultation process in 2006, as did the overwhelming majority of the local population. I presented a petition to this place, with 27,000 signatures opposing the proposals. There were 7,000 responses to the formal consultation, almost all of which opposed the proposal. Some 6,000 people joined a march in opposition to the cuts and 4,000 of us joined a human chain around the hospital to protest. I am proud to have been involved in all of those actions, as they were a key mark of the strength and vitality of our communities and of the clear awareness of the immense danger that the proposals pose to tens of thousands of residents and visitors. The campaign went on for almost three years, but in August 2008 the medical emergency provision closed.

Trust managers-I would say disingenuously-attempted to convince the previous Labour Administration that the opposition to the proposals was simply a case of an emotional and uninformed public and MP against an informed and clinically astute medical community. I can assure the Minister that that is absolutely not the case-it is, indeed, nonsense. As I have already said, the majority of local medical opinion was opposed to the closure. There were some doctors who supported the closure of emergency services, but there were barely any of those who were not also some sort of trust manager, and therefore sticking to the party line. I am seeking the Minister's help to ensure that safe emergency provision is reinstated for residents and visitors to
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South Lakeland, the lakes, the dales, the northern part of the Lune valley and the southern part of the Eden district.

The resident catchment population for the Westmorland general hospital is 123,973 individuals, rising to 157,513 when one factors in resident visitors. For the Royal Lancaster infirmary, the resident catchment area is 143,500, rising to 161,886 when factoring in resident visitors. For the Furness general hospital catchment area at Barrow, there are 71,800 residents-78,093 when factoring in resident visitors. The catchment populations of Lancaster and Westmorland are roughly identical, with the catchment area of Barrow less than half their size. An additional factor, of course, is the vast number of non-resident visitors in the Westmorland general hospital catchment area visiting the lakes and the dales, who are as likely as anyone else to fall ill and need emergency treatment. That means that, for most of the year, there will be significantly greater numbers of people in the Westmorland catchment area than in that of either of the other hospitals in the trust area, yet Westmorland general is the only one without medical emergency facilities.

The area served by Westmorland general is much more rural and sparsely populated than the rest of the trust area. Barrow has 10.2 people per hectare, Lancaster 2.81, and Westmorland just 0.6. Many parts of my constituency already face vast distances and a significant trek to get to Westmorland general hospital, but to now force people to go all the way to Lancaster or Barrow is a significant threat to patient safety.

If one had a heart attack in Hawkshead, it might take an ambulance half an hour to arrive. The fastest time it would then take to get to Lancaster hospital would be an hour, but it would be more likely to take 90 minutes. The average patient suffering a heart attack would therefore arrive at Lancaster's coronary care unit some two hours after they had dialled 999-if they survived. It would take 37 minutes to get to Kendal, rising to 45 if the traffic was sticky. The same, give or take a minute or two, is true for people who fall ill in Chapel Stile, Elterwater, Grasmere or Coniston. It takes 46 minutes at best-it is more likely to take an hour and a quarter-to get from Ambleside to Lancaster, but less than 20 minutes to get to Kendal.

We all know about the golden hour following a heart attack, during which a patient must be stabilised. After the hour is up, the chances of a patient dying or suffering permanent damage rocket. Anecdotally, I know of a great number of deaths that occurred as a consequence of the decision to close down emergency medical services at Westmorland general hospital. I know, from talking to ambulance service staff, that patients have died in the back of ambulances en route to Barrow or Lancaster, but that they would have survived had they been allowed to be taken to Kendal. Such deaths do not show up in statistics, because no one officially dies in an ambulance-they are only designated dead on arrival. I encourage the Minister to dig as deep as she is able to uncover hard evidence of that through coroners' reports and other similar material.

All acute medical crises have better outcomes the sooner they are treated by a full medical team, a doctor and specialist nurses situated in a fully equipped resuscitation room. It is criminal to reconfigure acute
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services to lengthen the time that dangerously ill people have to wait before receiving life-saving treatment, especially given that Westmorland general hospital had an excellent record of managing the initial stages of heart attacks and other life-threatening acute cardiac emergencies. I invite the Minister to look at the official statistics, which show clearly that timings at Westmorland general for patients receiving vital treatment were significantly and consistently better than at Lancaster or Barrow. Outcomes were also excellent.

It is not the case that Kendal operated at a lower level or standard than the other two hospitals. Cutting-edge coronary care units are equipped to provide angioplasty services, but the nearest such unit to Morecambe bay is in Blackpool, which is well outside the trust area. It is important to spell out that neither Lancaster nor Barrow provide that function. Indeed, although the expertise and the level and standard of service provided by the coronary care units at Lancaster and Barrow are excellent, they are no more advanced and no better in terms of outcomes, patient experience, safety or survival rates than those that were available at Westmorland general hospital in Kendal just 22 months ago.

Expert opinion suggests that, where it is appropriate, a patient should be thrombolysed by a trained paramedic at the scene before being transported to the nearest specialist centre. In order to allay my fears and those of my constituents, the hospitals trust negotiated with the North West Ambulance Service to provide an additional ambulance service for South Lakeland and a number of additional paramedics to compensate for the closure of acute services at Westmorland general. Those promises were kept, but the figures clearly show that the administration of thrombolysis at the scene almost never happens in South Lakeland. Indeed, in the first six months of operation, only four instances of thrombolysis took place outside a hospital in the south lakes. In the other 95% to 99% of cases, the patient is left waiting at least 30 minutes longer for their treatment than they would have when the Westmorland general's coronary care unit was open. I can only speculate why that is so-it may be due to a lack of training or a lack of confidence. A paramedic is now being asked to perform the same function alone in an immensely stressful situation, possibly in the presence of distressed relatives, that only 22 months ago would have been performed by a team of experts and experienced coronary care nurses in a specialist unit. I do not blame the paramedics for not thrombolysing, but I blame the trust management for pretending that this practice could ever have been a safe alternative to a coronary care unit at Westmorland General hospital.

There are additional dangers to patients as a result of this decision. Because more than 90% of ambulances from the south lakes now have to make the journey to Lancaster or Barrow to deliver a patient to hospital, the south lakes ambulances tend to be at least 30 minutes further away from their next emergency call than they used to be. That had to have a dramatic effect on response times, and indeed it has. However, some of this lengthening of response times has been covered by the presence of our outstanding volunteer first responder teams, who will usually get to the scene of an emergency before an ambulance and in some cases more than an hour before an ambulance, thus making it appear that the ambulance service has met its response time target when in reality it has not.

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To illustrate the situation, I will use one example. In December I went on shift with one of Kendal's ambulance crews. We responded to a 999 call from a man in his late 80s who had presented with chest pains. He lived roughly a mile from the Westmorland general hospital in Kendal, which 16 months previously would have been able to receive him and treat him. Instead, we had to drive this patient past the Westmorland general hospital on the A65 and take him down the M6 to Lancaster. The patient was clearly afraid and the paramedics were clearly appalled at having to take a potentially dangerously ill person so much further to receive treatment. His frail wife was left behind in Kendal, with no prospect of being able to visit her husband in the coming days, as she would have been able to do at the nearby Westmorland general hospital. Even with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, it still took us 45 minutes to reach Lancaster's A and E department. The nature of Lancaster's traffic system means that, even when other road users pull over in unison to allow an ambulance to pass, it is barely possible to go above more than 15 or 20 mph as a driver attempts to negotiate the traffic.

We stayed with the patient for more than an hour until he was safely admitted and then we left to return to the ambulance station in Kendal. From getting the 999 call to returning to the base and being once again available for the next emergency call, it had taken almost three hours. If we had been allowed to take the patient to Kendal, we could have been back at the base, out and ready to help the next patient in just half an hour.

Again, I can only speculate as to the motives of the trust management who were behind the closure. At the time, financial motives were cited, although those financial pressures have actually alleviated significantly. Mostly, clinical reasons were put forward for the closure, but those clinical reasons were seriously flawed. The solitary piece of clinical evidence used by the hospital trust and the PCT to justify their decision was the Royal College of Physicians' guidance notes from 2002, which included a recommendation that consultants in acute medical care should not straddle more than one hospital. To follow that guidance to the letter would mean closing acute hospital medical services at either Lancaster or Kendal, so the trust chose to close services at Kendal.

However, the guidance is just that-it is guidance. It is not an edict. Indeed, in an answer to a written question from myself to the former Secretary of State, Patricia Hewitt, it was confirmed that that guidance was only one of a range of considerations that had to be weighed up when trusts were deciding how best to deploy acute medical resources and, crucially, that many trusts, especially in rural areas, had chosen to acknowledge the guidelines but had also chosen to continue to operate the relevant coronary care unit, because of the greater importance of ensuring adequate treatment for patients within the golden hour.

We can look at the example of Fort William hospital, where GPs are recruited to fulfil a cardiac role within the hospital. They are well trained to manage cardiac emergencies, independently if necessary. At Westmorland general hospital, the answer could be to recruit a medical registrar-a grade doctor-and to ensure the presence of such a registrar around the clock with sufficient supporting cardiac-trained nursing staff. The reality is that, before the loss of coronary care services at
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Westmorland general, a consultant would very rarely be present during the acute stages-as is the case with most other coronary care units-and that the senior house officer or registrar would manage just as well as a consultant. One only needs to look at the outstanding performance indicators from the coronary care unit in Kendal until 22 months ago to see that.

As the Minister will be aware, local geographical and territorial politics can often be just as significant as party politics. In our case, the rural catchment area for Westmorland general seems to have been squeezed out by the more urban interests of the two districts either side of us. That is despite our large and often larger population.

I quote what a senior trust representative told Kendal town councillors when the closure proposal was made. He said:

I do not have time to give full details of the flaws in the process that led to the closure of Westmorland's emergency service. Instead, I have chosen to make an outline case for such provision to be returned. In answer to my question about cancer services on 9 June, the Prime Minister made it clear that the present Government do not follow the "one size fits all" mantra of the previous Government that big is always beautiful. I know from his visits and those of the Deputy Prime Minister to Westmorland that they are particularly supportive of our cause.

As someone who lives in the south lakes area and whose family and friends rely on local services, I simply want the safest and most appropriate emergency care for our communities and the hundreds of thousands who visit our communities each year. I ask the Minister to do all that she can to ensure that emergency services are restored to Westmorland general as a matter of urgency.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Benton; we seem to have spent a fair bit of time here today.

I congratulate my colleague the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate. I know that the future of Westmorland general hospital is a matter of long-standing interest and concern to him. He spoke with passion-and some frustration, because he has clearly been fighting a long and hard campaign. As a constituency MP, I have engaged in not dissimilar exercises in connection with a community hospital and a large acute trust hospital. I possibly lost one, but won the other. I know how passionate he must feel-and how passionate his constituents feel, which is demonstrated by the size of the petition that he presented.

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