HC Deb 10 November 1998 vol 319 cc128-9
2. Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

If he will make a statement on the Government's plans for the ambulance service. [57350]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

We are committed to modernising the NHS and improving services to patients, including ambulance services. Our plans include achieving faster and more appropriate response times for patients, including wider use of call prioritisation.

Mrs. Brinton

Is my hon. Friend aware of the grave concerns surrounding the performance of the East Anglian Ambulance NHS trust which serves my constituency and is currently under investigation by the regional health authority? Ambulance staff are frightened to speak out about what they know is wrong. Does my hon. Friend agree that the days of gagging clauses ended when the Labour Government were elected in 1997? Will my hon. Friend assure me that, under this Government, my constituents can rely on a top-quality ambulance service, and that all NHS staff will be respected as well as protected? [Interruption.] I do not find those desires funny.

Mr. Hutton

I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurances that she seeks. As she will be aware, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), has already written to chairmen of NHS trusts and health authorities on that issue. Confidentiality clauses discriminate against staff's rights and responsibilities to bring unacceptable practices into the open and there is no place for them in the NHS. NHS employers are expected to allow their staff maximum freedom of speech, consistent with their obligation to maintain patient confidentiality. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be aware that the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which will come into effect in January 1999, will, for the first time, provide statutory protection for employees who are subject to a detriment as a result of blowing the whistle.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will ensure that 999 ambulance calls are always responded to by blue-light ambulances?

Mr. Hutton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the Audit Commission's recent conclusions on that. It is sensible to answer life-threatening emergencies first. Matching resources to clinical needs will help us to improve emergency care. Call prioritisation is about when, not whether, to send an ambulance.

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