HC Deb 07 March 1966 vol 725 cc1864-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. O'Malley.]

10.4 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Although this is one of the last days in a dying Parliament, I welcome the opportunity of launching a debate on hospitals in Leicester. If, at the end of the debate, we have made the Minister aware just how short of hospitals Leicester and its catchment area are, just how bad existing accommodation is, and how deplorable conditions are for patients and staff—and if we can seize the Parliamentary Secretary with the determination that he or his successor will correct those faults at the earliest possible debate—our debate will not have been in vain.

It was the Minister's apparent unreadiness to reply to a Question which I asked him on 14th February, relating to the hospital problem in Leicester, which prompted this debate. The right hon. Gentleman then declined to give a simple and reasonable undertaking which was asked of him. He declined to undertake that plans for the building of a new maternity hospital in Leicester would not be postponed. I hope that as a result of what the Parliamentary Secretary hears tonight we shall receive a firm undertaking from him that plans for this new maternity hospital, which is so badly needed, will be put in hand forthwith.

In an endeavour to convince the Parliamentary Secretary of the need for this hospital I want to put before him one or two figures of which he may not be aware. With one possible exception, no city of an equivalent size, or bigger, has grown at so fast a pace in the past 30 or 35 years. There is a set of figures which I shall row read which may surprise him when he studies them in tomorrow's OFFICIAL REPORT. The population living in the catchment area of the Leicester hospitals has grown from 541,000 in 1951 to 682,000 in 1962, and the projected total for 1975 is just over 784,000. This indicates an average growth rate of 10,000 yearly or 50 per cent. in 25 years.

What makes that figure so significant is that it is just four times the average rate of growth of population in the rest of the United Kingdom. This gives some idea of Leicester's problem. Its facilities to cater for this exploding population are meagre and limited. I believe that it was the Cranbrook Committee which recommended that for every 2,000 people there should be nearly 1½ maternity beds. At the latest count available to me Leicester had only half a maternity bed for every 2,000 people, or one-third of the recommended figure.

I am disappointed not to see the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health here tonight, although I am sure that we shall get a very sympathetic and energetic response from his deputy. I realise that the right hon. Gentleman is very busy. He was unable to accept an invitation which I extended to him a week or two ago to visit the Bond Street Maternity Hospital in Leicester, with which I shall deal now. I am pleased to know that although the Minister was unable to visit that hospital he sent two senior representatives from the Ministry—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health (Mr. Charles Loughlin) indicated assent.

Mr. Farr

I see the Parliamentary Secretary nodding in agreement. No doubt he will have in front of him their report.

The Bond Street Maternity Hospital is a disgrace, with both patients and staff having to live in the most unhygienic conditions imaginable. It is unhygienic because, cheek by jowl with the sterilising unit are dustbins full of garbage and because the drainage system is so inadequate that it frequently overflows. It is outdated because in one small surgical nursing home which was discarded as a non-conventional unit when the State Medical Service came into being, together with a small but recent wing built in the late 1920s and an old dispensary and a few council houses knocked together, we have what is now the Bond Street Maternity Hospital. In 1955, that sorry collection of buildings took in 1,175 maternity cases. Ten years later, in 1965, the intake of patients in one year had more than doubled, to 3,504. This tremendous expansion has been achieved at great discomfort to the staff, at some considerable discomfort to the patients and also by discharging no less than 13½ per cent. of all the patients who come in within 24 hours of arrival.

I can do no more than give a brief outline of the chronic conditions at Bond Street Maternity Hospital. This is not the time to give a whole mass of figures and statistics. All I can hope to do is bring home to the Parliamentary Secretary that, at this moment, in the City of Leicester, children are being brought into the world in what is supposed to be one of Britain's most prosperous cities in buildings which, if they were not utilised for hospital purposes, would long ago have been condemned as unfit for human habitation.

I know that at least one other hon Member from Leicester wishes to take part in the debate. What is it that we want the Parliamentary Secretary to undertake tonight? First of all, we want from him a very firm promise, to be recorded in the OFFICIAL REPORT, that the new maternity hospital, of which Leicester is in such real need, the plans for which lie in his Ministry at the moment and the money for which has already been earmarked by the Sheffield Regional Hospital Board, will be proceeded with forthwith.

It is not good enough to say—as the hon. Gentleman's Minister said on 14th February—that it is hoped that planning will be completed in time for building to start towards the end of next year, and then to decline to give an undertaking that even these plans would not be further postponed. The plans are now waiting in his Ministry. Why cannot a start be made with this serious project this summer or autumn, without waiting for 1967? I am advised on the best authority that foundation work could be begun at a very early date.

With the example which I have given of hospital capacity in the City of Leicester, with its large catchment area stretched up to and possibly beyond the limit, it might be worth my while to mention the importance of some of the smaller hospitals which are playing a real part in the function of the Health Service in the City and County of Leicester, particularly in some of the county towns in Leicestershire.

I have in mind the very important rôle, for instance, which the cottage hospital plays at Market Harborough, where the townsfolk are so determined to see their hospital flourish that they are engaged in raising £12,500 by their own efforts from voluntary subscription for a new wing to be constructed there. While looking for a moment at the needs beyond the immediate city of Leicester, I should like to call the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the fact that, readily available for him at Wigston in the southern part of the County of Leicester, there is a very good site for the new general hospital project for the county to be commenced in the 1970s.

Finally, may I read a short extract from a letter of a constituent who sums up the tenor of this important and anxious debate? This shows how the strain of coping has reached the limit at Bond Street Hospital. This constituent who lives in Wigston writes: My wife went into Bond Street Maternity Hospital some three years ago to have her baby and was told that if all went well she would be in about ten days. She goes in again at the end of March—that is three years later—and this time she has been told, 'Two days, then home'. It is time the Minister and the regional hospital board did something. Upon that note, which I should like to echo—that it is time that the Minister and the regional hospital board did something—I conclude with my fervent plea that this something should be done at the earliest possible date.

10.17 p.m.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

We have been given a number of figures by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) whose concern in this matter is shared by many people in the area which I have the privilege and honour to represent. This is not a new problem for it has existed for a long time, and because of the conditions at this hospital it requires immediate attention. Incidentally the hospital is in my constituency.

Having revisited the hospital as recently as Friday last, I should like to pay a very well-deserved compliment to the medical staff, the matron and the nurses who for many years have been practising in the hospital, who have been bringing great comfort to the patients and who, in spite of the sordid surroundings in which confinements take place, have created an atmosphere of happiness and contentment for those who have passed through the wards. It has been a remarkable effort and their conscientious and painstaking services for those who have passed through the wards of the hospital should not blind us to the fact that they have been working in intolerable circumstances.

I know that the Minister is anxious to do all that he possibly can to alleviate the suffering and to help all those who pass through the hospital. I know that more money is being spent in this country on hospitals than ever before. But decisions on priority in the spending of the money should obviously take into consideration circumstances such as those which prevail in the Bond Street Hospital. Almost daily there is an increase in the number of patients who go to the hospital. They cannot be kept there for any length of time. Even in those cases in which the medical staff believe it to be essential for patients to have a longer stay in hospital, they have to go out sometimes within a few days. This puts a great strain on visiting midwives and others who must follow up the work done in the hospital. I am sure that my hon. Friend will, when replying, not only express his sympathy at this state of affairs, but will do his best to remedy the position.

It is difficult to explain to the House what is actually happening at this hospital. In some instances the passages are so narrow that people can hardly turn round, remembering what old houses that are converted are like. I agree that it has managed to operate for many years, but the staff have done the best possible with what is available to them. If one visits the hospital one sees what they must put up with. Despite this, the hospital is remarkably clean and the way it is kept is highly commendable. However, it is most unsatisfactory, with wash places which would not be tolerated in the average household.

The Minister will appreciate that this state of affairs cannot be tolerated. I am told, for example, that in the last few years the hospital's delivery rate has been about 60 per cent. of the rate in other hospitals in the Nottingham and Sheffield region. To achieve this rate of delivery it has been necessary to discharge patients much earlier than is generally thought to be suitable. It has also meant increasing the daily visits to Leicester of mid-wives from 50,000 to 70,000 visits a year. I am also told that the criteria for booking patients into the hospital has had to be changed, as a result of which life is made even harder for the staff. It is interesting to note that the hospital still shares with the general hospital a yearly emergency intake of 12,000 patients.

In these circumstances, I appeal to my hon. Friend to do what he can to remedy this state of affairs. Unless the work is started quickly—certainly within the limit given by the hon. Member for Harborough—we will be placed in the position of not only having to pay additional sums of money to have the work done, but the building operations will be delayed. These operations should start some time before the date given by the hon Gentleman, so that there is no interference with other necessary building work. I appreciate that my hon. Friend has great sympathy in these matters and that the Government are anxious for hospitals in this plight to be helped. I trust, therefore, that he will give a firm date so that the anxieties which at present exist may be somewhat alleviated.

10.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Charles Loughlin)

I regret that I must rise to answer the debate before allowing the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) time to speak. I will speak quickly, and he may possibly have a moment in which to speak at the close of my remarks.

These matters have recently been the subject of several Questions in the House, following on many references in the local Press. The Chairman of the Sheffield Regional Hospital Board discussed the situation afresh with Mr. McGavin, Chairman of the Leicester Area Consultants Committee, who is also as it happens a member of the regional hospital board, and other consultants in the area, and sent a long letter in conjunction with the Chairman of the Leicester No. 1 Hospital Management Committee, to the editor of the Leicester Mercury dealing frankly and fully with the hospital situation in the area. This was published on 14th February. There was a further meeting between the chairman and senior officers of the board and the consultants on 2nd March.

I do not want to suggest for a moment that things are everything that they ought to be in the Leicester region at present, but the House will appreciate that the present situation there has not just suddenly developed. The conditions of which the hon. Member complains have obtained for a number of years—certainly during the period of the last Government. However, I assure the House that there is no complacency about the present state of the hospital service, and that my right hon. Friend is determined to introduce improvements as rapidly as the country's resources permit.

Mr. John Peel (Leicester, South-East)

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would be good enough to answer this point, which is that the tremendous increase in the waiting lists for the hospitals has suddenly appeared over the last year, and that this really requires the most urgent treatment.

Mr. Loughlin

I am very sorry to contradict the hon. Member, but the fact is that the waiting list has gone up over a considerable period of time. There is no question about that. If the hon. Member checks the figures he will find that what I say is true.

To return to what I was saying, we can only introduce improvements as rapidly as the country's resources permit. But we must recognise that where so much needs to be done must have regard to overall priorities and tackle the worst situations first. We are doing this energetically, and are providing for a rising volume of capital investment for the building of new hospitals and hospital units, and for the improvement of the existing hospitals.

I want, if I may, very quickly to deal with the Leicester situation in particular, but I want to make it absolutely clear that it is for the board to assess priorities for development of the service within its region or between one locality and another. Leicester was more fortunate than some other areas in the hospitals taken into the National Health Service, and it is not surprising that the board judged that other areas had a higher claim for capital developments. Nevertheless, there has already been development at Leicester, and about 11 per cent. of the board's investment in the first 17 years of the Health Service has been spent in the area.

As the hon. Member knows, one of the problems we have been faced with in Leicester has been a shortage of nursing staff. I think that he will accept from me that Leicester has long been a prosperous area, and there has been a long tradition for the womenfolk in the area to go out to work in the industries for which the city is famous. To some extent this has created difficulties in nurse recruitment in the area. There has been for some time a shortage of nurses in some of the Leicester hospitals, particularly the Leicester General Hospital and the Swithland Recovery Home at Woodhouse Eaves. The hospital authorities have taken strenuous measures to overcome this; at the New Year there were 66 more trained nurses working in the group than a year previously. The management committee has been able to reopen all the beds at the general hospital, which were closed for shortage of staff, and also some of the pre-convalescent beds at the Swithland Recovery Home, the use of which should further increase the hospitals' capacity.

With regard to the present situation in Leicester, I will deal first with the maternity services, since the hon. Member is particularly concerned about these, and especially the Bond Street Maternity Hospital. First, I would assure the hon. Member that my right hon. Friend is aware of the current situation in detail. I also have studied a full report, to which the hon. Member referred, by two of our medical officers who visited the hospital on 24th February. The present unit is indeed working to full capacity; there were about 3,200 admissions in 1964, and 3,500 in 1965, or over 50 patients per bed per year. The very greatest tribute is due to the doctors, the matron and her staff for the effective way in which such a large volume of work is carried out under difficult circumstances in quite unsuitable premises. There is no denying that the buildings are primitive in parts and generally unsatisfactory and should be replaced as soon as possible. The Sheffield Regional Hospital Board has for some years been preparing plans for a new unit, and these have now reached an advanced stage.

The new unit will not only replace the 70 or so beds provided at Bond Street, but make further provision to meet the needs of Leicester. The new unit will have 156 beds and 30 special care baby cots with all the necessary supporting services. The estimated cost is something over £1 million. A major development of this nature needs to be planned with great care to fulfil all the implications of hospital planning. The whole project has reached an advanced stage in planning, but the cost limit has yet to be approved, after which the designs have to be completed and the usual stages gone through before the contractor can begin. This is likely to take 18 months. After that the planned contract period is two and a half years.

I give these facts because I do not want to create any undue optimism. At the same time I assure the House that the Sheffield Regional Hospital Board and the Ministry are treating this scheme as a very urgent matter, and—

Mr. Peel rose

Mr. Loughlin

I am sorry, but I am short of time and I want to answer the hon. Members who have spoken.

It is hoped that construction will be able to begin towards the end of next year, that is, as soon as the plans are ready. I do not know whether this assurance will be satisfactory to the hon. Member—

Mr. Peel

Can the hon. Gentleman say why in September, 1964, the starting date could he April, 1967, and it has had to be deferred since?

Mr. Loughlin

This is in keeping with a lot of things in the hospital service. We have had to look at the whole issue of the projected plans of the previous Government on the basis of how it was possible to meet them. Even today at Question Time—

Miss Mervyn Pike (Melton)

This Government—

Mr. Loughlin

The hon. Lady says, "This Government", but if the last Government had done its job in the proper way some of the difficulties with which we are faced today would not have come about.

Miss Pike

The hon. Gentleman must at least recognise that we did things more quickly.

Mr. Loughlin

It took the last Government 13 years to get us to the position in which we are now, but the hon. Lady expects us to complete all the projects in 13 months.

Miss Pike

I expect them to get on with the planning.

Mr. Loughlin

I want to make reference to other maternity services in Leicester and make clear that the board does not regard this as the complete answer, but as a first step. Other developments in the maternity services are being considered—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to-Eleven o'clock.