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23 Jun 2010 : Column 139WH—continued

I know how important hospital services are to local communities, and how worrying it can be to local people when services are moved. The fact is that change
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has not always been well managed in the NHS. I assure my honourable colleague that the Government are determined to do these things differently, and to get local populations behind changes in the NHS. We believe that the best decisions are local and that change should be driven by local clinicians and not imposed, top-down, by politicians or decided behind closed doors by managers. That is why we introduced an immediate moratorium on new or pending service reconfigurations.

The Secretary of State for Health has made it clear that all proposed service changes must now pass four crucial tests. First, they must have the support of GP commissioners. Secondly, public and patient engagement must be strengthened; that was at the hub of my colleague's words. Thirdly, there must be greater clarity about the clinical evidence base for any proposals-a matter also mentioned by my honourable colleague. Fourthly, proposals must take account of patient choice. As a result, the local NHS will have to make its proposals more transparent to the public, more responsive to the views of the clinical community and more firmly grounded in robust clinical evidence.

In the case brought to the House by my honourable colleague, it means that there may be new opportunities for local debate, with new clinical judgments on how services should operate. However-my colleague will be disappointed to hear me say it-this is not an opportunity to revisit reconfigurations that have already been completed. That simply is not possible. That means that the 2006 review will not be reopened, and that the decision will stand. However, I note my honourable colleague's concerns about valuation and patient safety; the Department of Health has raised them with the primary care trust and the local NHS trust. In case I forget to say so in my concluding remarks, I know that a Health Minister will be happy to meet my honourable colleague.

I understand that following a full public consultation, Cumbria county council's health and well-being overview and scrutiny committee approved the changes; they were not referred to the Secretary of State for review by the independent reconfiguration panel.

Tim Farron: The overview and scrutiny committee did indeed rubber-stamp the proposals, but its process was deemed flawed by an investigation by the independent health commissioner because it did not take any evidence from the non-trust side. It was a completely loaded investigation.

Anne Milton: I thank my honourable colleague for that clarification, and it highlights so well what happens when things cease to have public trust and confidence.

My honourable colleague has made the case for acute services to be reinstated at the Westmorland. The NHS trust tells me that the coronary care unit had to be closed on the grounds that it was no longer sustainable or safe. There is an increasingly difficult balance to be drawn between services that are local and accessible and those that have a significant throughput to ensure that clinical safety is maintained. A service might have been safe in the past, but that does not necessarily mean that it will be safe in the future. I understand that, on average, the service treated only three or four patients a week, and that level of throughput is simply not enough and potentially puts patients at risk.

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Tim Farron: I have two quick things to say. First, will the Minister investigate what evidence there was at the time of the closure for the Westmorland general unit to be deemed less safe than the other two units that we have mentioned at Barrow and Lancaster? Secondly, will she conduct an assessment of the position with regard to the safety of patients now? In other words, what impact has the closure had on the safety of patients or visitors within the South Lakeland area?

Anne Milton: There are two issues here: what happened in the past and what happens in the future. The concerns that my honourable colleague has about safety in the future will be examined, and I am sure that Department of Health officials will help with that. I understand that Professor Roger Boyle, the national director for heart disease and strokes, has said that he does not believe that reopening the cardiac unit will be best for the local people, so that should be borne in mind. He feels that it would not be feasible to provide primary angioplasty for severe heart attacks at the Westmorland. He also thinks that for less severe heart attacks, Westmorland cannot provide the most appropriate care, such as early referral for intervention. However, I do recognise my honourable colleague's legitimate concern over the use of pre-hospital thrombolysis, and over the fact that it is low in Cumbria. Clearly, more work is needed to ensure that heart attack patients in Cumbria get the best possible treatment.

I understand that the trust is listening to my honourable colleague's concerns and that it is looking to increase the number of cardiologists from three to five across the regions. Those clinicians will be based at the Royal Lancaster infirmary and the Furness general hospital, but they will help to build extra capacity in the treatment of outpatients. That might not be enough here and now, but it is something that my honourable colleague can take away.

I understand that there has never been an accident and emergency department-whatever that means in this day and age-but I am also told by the NHS trust that there would be insufficient volume of patients going through Westmorland to sustain a full A and E department. An A and E department has to have back-up services, such as intensive care and CT scanning, to support the unit, and the Westmorland is not in a position to provide those facilities. The trust's argument, therefore, is that it is safer for patients to access those services at Barrow or Lancaster, and I appreciate that that is fundamental to this debate and will be fundamental to ongoing discussions, because my honourable colleague believes that the opposite is the case.

My honourable colleague also mentioned travel times, and I am told that the North West Ambulance Service advises that across Cumbria, the average time for it to get to the scene is 10 minutes. He might dispute that, but that is what I have been told. The average time on scene assessing and treating a patient is 20 minutes and the average time from Kendal to Lancaster under normal driving conditions-not with blue lights-is 20 to 30 minutes. I acknowledge that patients on the far reaches of his constituency have further to travel.

Tim Farron: I simply reiterate my earlier point: in rural areas, the bulk of those times record the time that the first responder arrives-the ambulance probably arrives another 20 minutes later.

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Anne Milton: And let us pay tribute to first responders; I have them in my constituency and they do a fantastic job.

Tim Farron: Indeed.

Anne Milton: It is not always about the time spent getting to the hospital, but the treatment in the first crucial half hour or so.

Provided paramedics can reach the patient quickly, they can provide treatment and stabilise them en route, which is often preferable, and then go to a hospital or an A and E department further away. However, the expertise has to be provided by the ambulance staff. "Dead on arrival" incidents would be reported, and NHS Cumbria has advised me that no such cases have been reported in the past 18 months, but the hon. Gentleman may have data that goes back further.

Unfortunately, when it comes to serving rural populations, the NHS has to balance what is safe with what is desirable. This is very tricky and it is held in the balance. There is no doubt that across the country the NHS is facing considerable challenges, and the local NHS in Cumbria is no different from any other. We made an historic decision, as a coalition Government, to protect health spending during this Parliament and to secure the front-line services that our constituents value so highly, but it is clear that local health services need to change and to become more efficient to secure their long-term future. That will not always be a smooth process; there will be tough calls to make in the future, as there have been in the past, but a clearer and more open process, led by clinicians and putting the local people firmly in the picture, will, I hope, reduce the anxiety that my honourable colleague has spoken about today. I hope that it will also build the trust that we need around such decisions. That is how we can achieve higher standards and better outcomes.

I said to my honourable colleague that I am sure that the Minister will be happy to meet him. The question is: how does my honourable colleague move forward with his constituents and how do we ensure that, even if we cannot right what has happened in the past, we move forward constructively? This is just a suggestion, but if he and local GPs formed a small informed group to work with the trust, I would hope that the local NHS organisations could take into account some of his concerns about the future of health services. What matters now is what happens in the future. I hope that they can provide the service that he wants to see.

Tim Farron: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so often. Would that include the possibility of the local GP community, should they so wish, moving towards something akin to the Fort William situation that I mentioned earlier?

Anne Milton: I thank my honourable colleague, but I am always very nervous about stepping outside my pay grade. The crucial thing now is how we and local MPs who have fought closures and reconfigurations move forward constructively; and we cannot reopen what has gone in the past. Local GPs and clinicians forming a group to work with and alongside the local primary care trust could ensure that good and improving decisions are made about NHS services.

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It is not always about how close someone lives to a hospital. Across his constituency, life expectancy will vary by 10 years or more, and that has nothing to do with proximity to the hospital, but with deprivation. The issue of health care is much wider than this debate. There is an open door for my honourable colleague, so
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he feels that he can get the access to Ministers; I hope that will restore his trust and the trust of his local community.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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