HC Deb 05 July 1972 vol 840 cc550-5
Mr. Wingfield Digby

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will make a statement on the fire at the mental hospital, Coldharbour, Sherborne, in the early hours of this morning which resulted in the deaths of 30 patients.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Sir Keith Joseph)

It is with deep regret that I have to inform the House of the deaths early today of 30 mentally handicapped patients in a fire at Cold-harbour Hospital, Sherborne, Dorset. The police, together with the fire department and the hospital authorities, are making immediate inquiries into this tragic accident, and I myself am going to the hospital this afternoon.

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who died.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will conduct the fullest inquiry into this pathetic tragedy? Will he make it clear that the local fire services did everything possible in the circumstances? May I express my sympathy, and, I am sure, that of every hon. Member, to the relatives of the unfortunate people who died?

However, does my right hon. Friend accept that the care of patients of this sort presents very special problems? Is he satisfied that war-time constructions like this former naval hospital are suitable places for mental patients? Is he sure that the electric wiring of the huts at this hospital has been renewed since the war, and that it was wise to introduce wooden furniture into them? Will he review the priority which he gives to the construction of hospitals for people like this, especially in areas like Dorset where we enjoy a low priority, as we have seen in the case of our county hospital, because our population is not expanding very fast?

Sir K. Joseph

I hope that my hon. Friend and the House as a whole will understand that at this stage, intensely anxious though I am to discover what lies behind this tragedy, I can give virtually no information yet. But once the immediate inquiries have done their work I shall be considering what further inquiry, if necessary—and I am sure that it will be necessary—should be held and I will inform the House. All I know as a fact is that the ward involved was only recently—two months ago—opened after upgrading, and I am told—I cannot yet be sure of this—that the design and construction of the upgrading were agreed with the fire authorities.

Dr. Summerskill

I know that all hon. Members on this side of the House would like to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the relatives of those who died and to pay tribute to the efforts of the staff in dealing with the fire. It was a particularly tragic fire because the victims were among the most helpless and vulnerable in the community—people whom we have a particular responsibility to care for and protect.

The inquiry and the right hon. Gentleman's proposed visit are both to be welcomed, but will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that this disaster is the latest in a series of at least four other hospital fires—at Shelton Hospital in 1968; Carlton Hayes Hospital in 1969; Exeter City Hospital in 1970; and Exe Vale Hospital in 1971? Will he bear in mind that all these fires occurred at night and in wards where elderly or mentally ill people were being looked after? Therefore, does he agree that for these categories of patient extra special and additional fire precautions are needed and that particularly vigilant night-time supervision by staff is required?

Sir K. Joseph

I must agree with all those comments. The Government have been sufficiently concerned about the position in hospitals to encourage regional hospital boards to give the question of the improvement of fire precautions very high priority. Spending on those purposes has increased sharply, and the monitoring by my Department of the fire drills and other essential procedures has been sharply tightened up.

Sir D. Renton

While acknowledging the compassion and promptness with which my right hon. Friend is acting in this matter, may I ask him whether he is aware that many mentally handicapped people also suffer from physical handicaps, sometimes severe handicaps? Will he ask all persons who have residential care of the mentally handicapped to review their fire precaution arrangements without delay?

Sir K. Joseph

I have so asked. I know that regional hospital boards have followed my wishes and their own wishes, and I am sure that this latest disaster will intensify their anxiety. But I should say, before hon. Members say it to me, that we have not yet achieved the full staffing required at non-acute hospitals. although the staffing position has improved, thanks to the extra resources found by this Government. But no one pretends that we yet have enough. I make that merely as a general background comment.

Mr. David Steel

My colleagues and I would wish to be associated with the general expressions of sympathy and regret about this appalling tragedy. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that this tragedy should bring home to all of us the fact that war-time temporary hospitals, however upgraded and improved, are not adequate in 1972 and that it should increase our collective determination to secure a greater share of the nation's resources for their proper replacement?

Sir K. Joseph

I do not think the hon. Gentleman's comments should be accepted. We have 3,000 hospitals in this country, and inevitably, however big the building programme, it will take time to renew them. The fire authorities are being asked to consider the fire vulnerability of all hospital structures, and I do not think it is inevitable that wartime building, if suitably treated, maintained and looked after in the fire sense, leaves the patients exposed in any special way.

Mr. Raison

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that if staff shortage proves to have been a factor in this awful disaster it cannot be right that staff shortages should be allowed to persist at a time of very high unemployment?

Sir K. Joseph

I do not want to be misunderstood. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) made a general point, and I made a general point in reply. The proportion of staff to patients at this hospital was well above the recommended minimum ratio. I do not believe that that is so in every hospital, but it certainly was at this hospital. I merely make the general point that, although we have increased the staff, we still need more.

Mr. Crossman

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that anyone who has borne his responsibility shares the dread with which he looks forward to the results of an inquiry? Will he have a look at the report of the Shelton Hospital inquiry, which showed the gravest failings at the hospital? Will he look particularly at one problem? Has any effort yet been made to ensure that every member of staff is trained in rescue operations in the event of fire? Until that is done, these tragedies will recur incessantly while people are waiting with unfortunate, crippled people for the fire brigade to arrive, and the only hope is that members of the staff are trained in exactly what they should do if a fire occurs.

Sir K. Joseph

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being so understanding. I will certainly study the Shelton inquiry. I see that in the questionnaire which went out last year and again this year to regional hospital boards, on my instructions, one of the questions, to which all hospital authorities had to reply, was whether all nursing staff had had recent instruction in the methods of movement of patients, particularly the elderly and non-ambulant, from danger areas in an emergency, in addition to other instruction.

Mr. Mayhew

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whatever the results of this inquiry, and whatever the staffing position at this hospital, the risk of these continued disasters at mental and psychiatric hospitals—and not only through fire—is likely to continue when hospital staff, especially nurses, have far too many patients to look after? Is he aware of the widespread support he will have in any efforts he can make to increase the number of patients continuing in accommodation within the community so that they do not have to go into hospital but can live outside?

Sir K. Joseph

That is precisely the Government's policy, in which, I know, we have the stimulus and support of all Members of this House. It cannot be done overnight, but it is our policy and we are making progress. My understanding is that in this particular hospital the staff ratio was well above the minimum recommended, but that is one of the matters which I have to confirm on my visit.

Sir Clive Bossom

In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend consider having automatic sprinklers installed in all wards of our old mental hospitals—I have one of over 100 years old in my constituency—and also an electrical system which automatically opens all locked doors when a fire breaks out?

Sir K. Joseph

I would like to consider my hon. Friend's suggestions in the light of what comes out of this tragedy.

Mr. Pavitt

I would like to share in the tributes which have been paid by hon. Members to the staff, and to all the devoted staffs in these hospitals, but may I ask the right hon. Gentleman, when he makes his investigation, to look not only at the staffing establishment but also at the ratio of disposal of staff within each establishment—the ratio of disposal ward to ward and at different times of the day—and will he, arising from this tragedy, not only consult fire officers and so on but also bring into play people in the Confederation of Health Service Employees and the National Union of Public Employees, who have a considerable amount of practical knowledge which may be of assistance?

Sir K. Joseph

Yes, Sir.