§ Mrs. Knight
(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what action he proposes to take to alleviate the situation at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham because of the threat of the imminent closure of that hospital; and if he will make a statement.
§ The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)
There is no question of this hospital being closed. Yesterday, because of concern about the supply situation, it was decided at the hospital to reduce the number of inpatients. About 100 of the 500 patients were discharged. The decisions about the discharge of patients were taken by individual consultants on their assessment of the relative medical needs.
The area medical officer, Dr. Nichol, was at the hospital this morning to assess the situation. At a meeting between the health authorities and the union officials, a list of essential supplies was agreed. The union has given instructions to its members that these supplies shall not be obstructed. I hope that this will ease the situation and I have called for a full report.
There is no escaping—as I have made clear to the House on many occasions—that any industrial action in the Health Service is liable to harm patients.
Even if workers at the Queen Elizabeth hospital had not gone beyond the union's instructions, services would have been affected. For example, many patients have had their admissions postponed. This must affect the health of some patients and this is a fact which must be faced by all those taking industrial action in the Health Service.
§ Mrs. Knight
Is the Secretary of State aware that the information that he has received does not altogether add up to that which has been made available to other hon. Members about the danger of the hospital being closed? Will he keep a close eye on the situation?
Is the Secretary of State aware that pickets are not only stopping food and essential medical equipment from entering the hospital but are taking upon themselves the task of judging which patients 679 shall be allowed to have treatment and which shall not? Is he further aware of the case yesterday of a dying man who was held up for 20 minutes by the pickets? When he finally entered the hospital he was immediately taken to the operating theatre. It is not yet known whether that man will live.
Is the Minister aware, finally, that some patients are being sent home to cold homes with nobody to care for them? Does he agree that that is serious? Does he recognise that the people of Birmingham are not prepared to put up with sick people-bashing? Is he aware of the large number of people who are ready to volunteer their services in order to help the hospital?
§ Mr. Ennals
I did not seek to underestimate the problems that are faced in the hospital because of the industrial action. The House should bear in mind that the health authority is responsible for the hospital. The area medical officer and other officers were at the hospital this morning and an agreed statement between the union side and the area health authority was issued. It read:At a joint meeting of officers of Birmingham AHA(T) and officers of NUPE and COSHE it was accepted that certain statements attributed to Mr. Bond director of the Radiotherapy Department Queen Elizabeth Hospital may reflect his personal view but do not represent the view of the AHA(T) which is as follows:'Patients sent home from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, including those from Radiotherapy are those whose treatment could most safely, though not ideally be suspended in the short term'.The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) made reference to pickets and interference with patients. No patient's admission to hospital has been interrupted by pickets. I have made inquiries about this. It is true that two patients were delayed at the gate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] I would say, and the House would say, that that is deplorable. All I can say is that, fortunately, it has been said that there were no medical consequences from these delays.
No such delays should take place. Patients should be able to move freely in and out of our hospitals. Of course they should. However, I think that the House should get the facts right and not try 680 to blow the matter up into something that it is not. When we talk about threats of action and I hear of a consultant threatening that he will not treat someone who holds a union card, I believe that that is behaviour of almost equal irresponsibility.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
Will my right hon. Friend keep the House informed when and if he receives apologies for repeated allegations made by Conservative Members on several aspects of this matter? Is he aware that both the Leader of the Opposition and her spokesman on Scottish affairs, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), have made allegations in the House which have subsequently been proved untrue but that they have never withdrawn or apologised for them? Will my right hon. Friend invite them to condemn any doctor who refuses to treat any patient for whatever reason, and will he be assured that every Labour Member will condemn any action taken by anyone that jeopardises the health of any patient anywhere in the country?
§ Mr. Ennals
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have many times, from this Dispatch Box, condemned and deplored industrial action in the Health Service, whether by doctors, nurses, ambulance men or anyone else in the Service. In handling these grave problems, we must not discriminate between the action of one group and that of another. All of it is not only deplorable: it endangers the lives and health of patients.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the people of Birmingham will consider his statement totally complacent and will think that the director of radiotherapy at the hospital is the man who is best able to tell the effect of this action on his patients? Since the director said yesterday:I am sure some of these people will die because of this action",what action does the Secretary of State intend to take?
§ Mr. Ennals
I have indicated the action that is to be taken over essential supplies and have explained what action has been taken on the access of patients. I understand that there is no real difficulty, but, if any question of obstruction or the like should arise, I have no doubt that 681 the police would deal with it in the appropriate manner. The police are there today. I do not believe that anyone could say that my statement was complacent. I have been concerned to see that the facts are properly reported to the House.
§ Mr. Litterick
Will the Secretary of State accept that the factual part of his statement will be appreciated by his hon. Friends, being in sharp contrast to the hysterical ignorance of Conservative Members? Will he also accept that this and other events point, evermore dramatically, to the fact that the House, the Treasury and the people can no longer expect a first-class Health Service for poverty wages?
§ Mr. Ennals
I do not intend to go into the wages question at the moment. However justified anyone may feel his wage claim to be, there is, in my view, nothing to justify the action that has been carried out in some parts of the country to the damage of patients' lives. I say to those who take action that clearly goes well beyond the official union position that they are doing great damage to the cause that they seek to represent.
§ Mr. Grieve
Will the Secretary of State accept that the picketing of hospitals, whether in Birmingham or anywhere else, shows a callousness and wanton disregard for human life which disgraces a civilised society? Will he not, for once, recognise that in such a situation his statement falls lamentably short of what is expected of one of Her Majesty's principal Secretaries of State? Does he realise that the people of Birmingham and of my constituency will be horrified by his complacency in a situation that is likely to cause the death of Her Majesty's subjects in the West Midlands?
§ Mr. Ennals
No doubt the hon. and learned Gentleman wanted to get his supplementary question on the record, but I suggest that before putting such a question he ought to have listened to the language and the words that I used.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I propose to call one more hon. Member from each side of the House before calling the right hon. Member on the Opposition Front Bench.
§ Mr. Grocott
Is my right hon. Friend aware that while the Opposition mouth concern about the need to treat sick people at times of crisis, the fact is that in the West Midlands and elsewhere the normal practice among most consultants is not to treat people strictly on the basis of the degree of their sickness? Most are always prepared to deal first with the private patients who are prepared to pay.
§ Mr. Ennals
My hon. Friend knows the position that I take on that matter. An initiative was taken on 1 January in terms of the introduction of common waiting lists for urgent cases, whether in the private or the public sector.
§ Mr. Eyre
Does the Secretary of State realise the seriousness of the growing chaos affecting Birmingham hospitals? If essential supplies are denied, eight hospitals in the central area will be prevented from treating patients who are desperately in need of care. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that Birmingham people will hold him directly responsible for seeing that the supplies are delivered and that services continue?
§ Mr. Ennals
I do not believe that the people of Birmingham will take any such simplistic view. The hon. Gentleman underestimates their intelligence. He will know that my colleagues and I want to see an end to the industrial action and a return to full service in the NHS. While industrial action is taking place, we shall act as precipitately and directly as we can to ensure that supplies get through and that the service is provided as well as possible.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
Will the Secretary of State accept that we all condemn industrial action that hits at patients, from wheresoever it comes? Does he remember that the Home Secretary said yesterday that if there were a threat to cancer patients he would not be able to face their relatives and say that nothing would be done? The right hon. Gentleman said:We would do something about it."—[Official Report, 24 January 1979; Vol. 961, c. 427.]Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether, as a result of the area health authority's meeting this morning, it has been able to give a categoric undertaking that the cancer patients will be readmitted to hospital and that their treatment, which 683 ought never to have been interrupted, will continue? If not, what does he intend, in the Home Secretary's words, to do about it? Will he take steps positively to make sure that the food, supplies and equipment that are necessary for the treatment of these patients will be allowed into the hospital? Can he assure us that, if necessary, he will do it himself through the use of troops?
§ Mr. Ennals
I sometimes think that the right hon. Gentleman wants to see it done in that way rather than in the ordinary way. The Home Secretary said yesterday, and I confirm, that the union accepts that essential supplies, including medical and pharmaceutical supplies, must reach our hospitals. If they do not, we will find a way to do it. As I said earlier, the health authority and the union agreed at their meeting this morning on a list of medical supplies which would not be obstructed from going into the hospital.
§ Mr. Dykes
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) expressed what the whole House will understand to be legitimate anxieties during the questioning of the Secretary of State for Social Services. The Minister replied to the effect that my hon. and learned Friend was just asking the question for the sake of it. Is it in order for a senior Minister to impugn the motives of my hon. and learned Friend in that way?
§ Mr. Churchill
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in order for the Secretary of State to answer that part of the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) concerning when the cancer patients are to be readmitted?
§ Mr. Molloy
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it help the position—[Interruption.] I am merely trying to be helpful, Mr. Speaker. When all supplies are available to all our hospitals and things return to normal, would it not help 684 if the right hon. Lady, the Leader of the Opposition were to make a clear statement condemning those consultants who discriminate and create queue-jumping on cold cash considerations?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Hon. Members on each side are beginning to make points instead of points of order. There is another private notice question, there is also a statement to follow, and this is a Supply day.
§ Mr. Ennals
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps it would be helpful if I were to say that I am sorry that I did not answer the point made by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin). Having dealt, I hope satisfactorily, with the supply position—I point out that the decision was taken some time before 2.30 p.m. today—I very much hope that with supplies now flowing into the hospital it will not be long before it will be possible to resume normal admissions.
§ Mr. Ennals
The right hon. Gentleman must recognise that these are decisions which must be taken by the health authority and the hospital authority concerned.