HC Deb 15 December 1998 vol 322 cc749-51
8. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

If he will make a statement on the advice given to Goodmayes hospital by the NHS executive concerning the possible continuance of mixed-sex wards in psychiatric units. [62449]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

The advice given to the Goodmayes hospital about the elimination of mixed-sex wards in psychiatric units is exactly the same as the advice that has been given ever since the new Government started to issue advice on the matter. We are determined to eliminate mixed-sex wards in all hospitals, including psychiatric ones.

Dr. Lewis

Does the Secretary of State understand that a contradiction is apparent? Does he recall that on two previous occasions when I have raised the issue of the continuation of mixed-sex wards—and even the construction of new mixed-sex wards in psychiatric units—he said, in forthright and welcome terms, "If this is going on, I am going to put a stop to it." In the light of what he said when stopping the mixed-sex ward at Charing Cross hospital, how does he explain the letter from the NHS executive to Goodmayes hospital which stated: completely segregating services would not be acceptable, as there are good clinical reasons to provide an environment in hospitals which, as closely as it can, prepares people for their return to their own accommodation"? Is not that a backsliding on the categorical commitment that the Secretary of State has given? That backsliding was confirmed in a letter to me, dated 1 December, from the Under-Secretary of State, in which he says:

Within a mental health unit, medical opinion favours an environment which is as normal as possible. Does the Secretary of State accept that medical opinion, as represented by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, does not favour that sort of latitude?

Mr. Dobson

Our promise was to eliminate mixed-sex wards. I am confident that about 95 per cent. of health authorities will have done so by 2002. When the hon. Gentleman raised with me the matter of the building of some mixed-sex psychiatric wards at the Charing Cross hospital, I put a stop to it. They have been redesigned, and they are no longer mixed-sex wards. The proposal for Goodmayes hospital is not for mixed-sex wards, but will mean that some of the day rooms and other facilities will be available to both male and female patients. That is reasonable, if the clinicians responsible for those patients consider it appropriate.

I have made it clear to those clinicians that such a decision must be subject to the absolute certainty that measures are taken to protect women from any form of harassment—sexual or otherwise—by the men in the unit. However, the wards in which the patients sleep will be segregated, as will the washing facilities and lavatories. If the women want to get away from the men, they will be able to do so. That means that we are keeping our pledge, not evading it.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The Government are to be commended for ending what has undoubtedly been a very unpopular practice, which was introduced by the previous Government to save money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that elderly people who are sick and need to go into hospital will especially welcome the measure?

Mr. Dobson

In fairness to the previous Government, I must say—it grieves me to do so—that the practice was not entirely their fault. For a brief period during that Government's time in office, the conventional wisdom among some of the practitioners in this sector was that mixed-sex wards were all right and were akin to mixed hairdressers and mixed saunas. However, it is not like that for people in hospital, and we are putting a stop to that mistaken fashion. The previous Government did nothing about it, but we are going to eliminate mixed-sex wards. We are going about doing so, and have found £70 million to do it with.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I have constantly welcomed the Secretary of State's stance on mixed-sex wards, which I know were introduced by the practitioners. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in a recent answer to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stated that about six or seven of the units in Northern Ireland still run mixed-sex wards? Will it be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to speak to his right hon. Friend to ensure that Government policy is consistent throughout the nation?

Mr. Dobson

It is foolish in this House for people who are not experts to tread on Northern Ireland territory, as the history of the area shows. However, I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is aware of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Back to