HL Deb 07 December 1978 vol 397 cc291-9

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now read a Statement being made in another place in answer to a Private Notice Question on the dispute at West London and Charing Cross Hospitals. The Statement is by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and it reads as follows:

"I deplore the outbreak of unofficial industrial action at the West London and Charing Cross Hospitals, which is depriving patients of treatment. I understand that the action is a protest against the dismissal of three employees from the West London Hospital. There are established procedures in the National Health Service which protect staff against unfair dismissal. These have not been used although management has made clear its willingness to set up an Appeals Panel immediately.

The action of NUPE members at the West London Hospital is having little effect on patient services there. Pickets from the AUEW and EEPTU at Charing Cross Hospital are turning away deliveries, and, as a result, shortages of essential supplies are limiting surgery to urgent cases.

I understand that local discussions are going on at present and I hope that these will be successful in resolving the dispute. I renew my appeal to the staff concerned to return to work immediately in order that the service to patients may be resumed in both hospitals as quickly as possible."

My Lords, that ends the Statement.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that Statement and I very much sympathise with him in having an appalling Statement to make. I think the whole House is deeply shocked by the conditions at these two hospitals because the situation borders now on a national scandal. I find it extraordinary, looking at the Statement, that the Government can say that the unofficial strike at the West London Hospital is depriving patients of treatment, and in the third paragraph they say the action being taken is having little effect on patient services". They go on to say that essential supplies are short and this is limiting surgery to urgent cases. These are inconsistent statements. The fact is that the whole situation is damaging. It must be alarming and frightening in the extreme to patients hoping for treatment at either of these hospitals. As I understand the waiting list at one of these hospitals is now one year, to ask people to wait even longer is even more deplorable.

I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he agrees that the situation is one that is a national disgrace, and one in which, above all, we need something like a patient's charter, for people who are ill, who are least able to help themselves and who cannot in any way be said to be parties to this dispute, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, but who are suffering acutely. Should we not all combine together to see whether we can achieve a much better situation in the hospitals than a continual series of crises of this nature?


My Lords, I should just like very briefly to say how much I agree with what the noble Baroness has just said. I should like to ask the Minister whether he agrees that unofficial action in the hospital service, from no matter what side it comes and from no matter what source, is something to be very much deplored, because it is bound to have a bad effect on patients? You cannot divide people into urgent and non-urgent.


My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to say that I think there is some slight misunderstanding on her part. When I said that it was having little effect on patient services there, I referred to the West London Hospital. I say that because the people who are affected are those who are having to wait for non-urgent treatment at that hospital. I then went on to refer to the Charing Cross Hospital, where I said that they were turning away deliveries. As a result of shortages of supply, this was having a limited effect on urgent cases. I do not think that there was any inconsistency in what I said.

It may be beside the point. What is important is that this is happening and, as I said, I think that we all deplore this kind of thing from whichever section of the community it comes. People who are responsible for caring for others, particularly at the time when they need care, ought not to be put in this position, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, for saying that he himself feels that it is to be deplored from whichever section it comes, whether it be from the medical profession or from trade union employees.

The only other comment I would make, arising out of what the noble Baroness said, is that I said to your Lordships a good time ago—I think as a result of a Question which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Carr, put to me about procedures—that my right honourable friend was employed in

trying to get some kind of procedure. I think I said at that time that he had called together members of the British Medical Association, members of the Royal Colleges, such as the Royal College of Nursing, members of trade unions and so on, to see whether some simplified form of procedure could be found which would stop this kind of thing. A procedure has been come by, and it has now gone to the General Whitley Council which is considering all these proposals. But, unfortunately, like most other things, it will take some time. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service came in on this in the very early stages, but as I said, the people concerned are unfortunately not prepared to use the facilities available at this time.


My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister will permit me to say this, bearing in mind that these are my own local hospitals and I am literally within 100 yards of Charing Cross Hospital. He mentioned deliveries. This morning, the rumour seemed to be that the pickets were trying to prevent supplies of food from entering. This is rather different from affecting only waiting patients, and I wonder whether the Minister has any information, because this would be particularly deplorable.


My Lords, the latest information—and I received this fairly recently—is that yesterday at Charing Cross Hospital only some surgical instruments and incontinence pads got past the pickets. Everything else was turned away. Oxygen will last until late on Friday or early on Saturday, oil will last for four or five days, rubbish removal has stopped and there is no movement of linen: disposables are at present being used. I have no information with regard to food, and I think that if it did apply to food I should have been given that information.


My Lords, as one who has been in a hospital when a withdrawal of labour was threatened, but, mercifully, was not brought into action, may I say that the effect in a hospital, not only on patients but on all other people who are not privy to it, is extremely serious even before it happens, and, of course, worse still when it is actually happening. May I ask whether, in the examination of this extremely difficult problem about which public indignation is growing very fast, the Government, or the authorities who are examining it, will give thought, even if it is ultimately negatived, to the possibility that for employees who are serving sick people and who have a legitimate or an illegitimate grievance, there should be some alternative form of machinery which does not involve the withdrawal of labour, but which gives the employees a chance of getting a grievance through? Could that be considered as one of the ways of combating this growing danger to sick people which seems to be upon us?


My Lords, I think that I can reply very shortly and say that that is the whole purpose of the procedure which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has tried to evolve and which has gone before the Whitley Council, about which I spoke to your Lordships some time ago.


My Lords, are the Government aware that in many cases like this the people concerned do not seem to obey the agreed procedure, and that their union leaders really do not have any influence upon them to make them keep to it? Are the Government also aware that a very great number of people have regarded the Labour Party with some sympathy, because it was felt that they would tend to put the public interest first? But the people now engaged in this dispute are definitely promoting private interests at the expense of humanitarian interests and the interests of the patients in the hospitals, and it really is an intolerable situation. Is it the case that the Government's ability to take trenchant and effective action in this matter is inhibited by the legislation which they themselves passed earlier in this Parliament?


My Lords, it is very regrettable that a Member of your Lordships' House should concentrate on the sins of omission and commission of the trade union movement. I have tried to be very fair about this. So far as I know, no noble Lord ever complained in 1976 when the consultants went on strike for a considerable period of time, and when the junior hospital doctors did the same, and added tens of thousands to our waiting lists. What I am saying is that we ought to take the view that the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, took, and condemn this from whichever source it comes. It is true that in this instance we are concerned with the activities of trade unions, but it is unfortunate when a Member of your Lordships' House gets up and rather implies that they are the only people who cause this kind of disruption.


My Lords, may I make it quite clear that I do condemn action from whatever quarter which causes stoppages in hospitals. There is no excuse whatsoever for it, and I hope that the whole House will make that clear. May I ask the Minister two questions? First, he made clear that this is unofficial action; it is not trade union action. Will his right honourable friend the Secretary of State therefore summon the leaders of these unions and ask those leaders to take disciplinary action under their unions' own rules against members who are disregarding the unions' own rules and practices by taking unofficial action? I really do believe that this is the least that the country should expect in a matter like this. Union leadership should seek to impose discipline on its members and make sure that procedural agreements which they have entered into are honoured by its members. While I am glad to hear that progress has been made by the Secretary of State upon getting a new procedure agreement, since the matter is so urgent could not the normal rather stately rhythm of the Whitley Council procedure be speeded up to deal with it?


My Lords, if I may deal first with the noble Lord's last point, we are trying to speed up this procedure. Discussions are taking place, but obviously we want to reach certain firm conclusions which will not have repercussions in themselves when they are put into operation. Therefore, it is worth spending a certain amount of time upon them. With regard to the other matter, as the noble Lord knows, my right honourable friend—and I want to associate myself with him—condemns very strongly behaviour of this kind. It is very irresponsible; when so many people are dependent upon the services and goodwill of others, it is lacking in any sense of responsibility. There can be no excuse at all for this kind of behaviour, and when it is unofficial, I think that it aggravates the situation. The noble Lord, who has had a great deal more experience in Government than I have, will know that I cannot answer for my right honourable friend without first seeking his view upon it, but I feel quite certain that anything he can do to deal with people who behave in an unofficial way with regard to their unions he will do gladly.


My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm what was stated yesterday in the Press: that 32 patients who were suffering from cancer and who were to have had operations were not operated upon? And can the noble Lord say how many patients would have been operated on today but have not been operated upon?


My Lords, if I could give the noble Earl information, I hope he realises that I would give it to him, but I have no information on either of those matters.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question about picketing? Can he say exactly what is being prevented from getting through by the pickets? Can he confirm or deny that, quite apart from food, oxygen cylinders are not getting through to the Charing Cross Hospital, which is one of our major and most modern teaching and casualty hospitals? This could cause untold damage. Will the noble Lord accept that I, like many noble Lords, have condemned in this House strikes in the hospital movement by all grades, whether they be doctors, consultants, porters or anybody else? May I also ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that most of us feel that those who work in our hospitals in all grades are highly responsible people?


My Lords, I agree in substance with what the noble Lord has said. The only question that he put to me was one that I tried to answer: oxygen will last until late Friday or early Saturday. Arising out of the question asked me by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, information has been passed to me to the effect that it is not true to say that yesterday 32 cancer patients were deprived of surgery. My information is that all 30 operations planned for yesterday were in fact carried out, and that all operations planned for today were also carried out.


My Lords, may I say that it is a great relief to have that information. I am grateful to the noble Lord.


My Lords, while fully accepting that all forms of strikes which have an effect upon sick and suffering patients are equally to be condemned, would not my noble friend say that the picketing of hospitals resolves itself into a totally different form from any other type of picketing? Have not the Government some means of preventing this appalling suffering that is inflicted upon unfortunate patients simply in conformity with the laws of picketing? Surely the picketing of hospitals falls into a totally different category from any other form of picketing.


My Lords, if we can obtain common agreement as to the method of procedure in future disputes and if we can get it to work, that in itself ought to avoid anybody feeling that it is necessary to picket.


My Lords, would the noble Lord reply to the question put to him by my noble friend Lord Segal about the Government's power to see that the law on picketing is properly enforced? Surely picketing is allowed in the sense of dissuading people from entering a building but not in the sense of stopping them physically?


My Lords, the law on picketing has been referred to many times. I believe that a case was mentioned in your Lordships' House not so very long ago in which the law has been very clearly defined. I do not know whether the law needs to be looked at again, but I will see that what my noble friend has said about picketing is conveyed to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, arising out of the Government's reply on that point, can the noble Lord tell us whether the action of the pickets in turning back goods and supplies to the hospitals concerned is strictly legal?


My Lords, I do not know whether or not it is illegal. If it had been illegal, I should have thought that it would have been possible to do something about it. All I can say is that such action is to be deplored.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, in view of the great disquiet over this matter that has been expressed from all parts of the House, if this matter is not resolved can the noble Lord say whether he will be prepared to make another Statement early next week, or whether the Government will allow time for a debate?


My Lords, I consider myself to be a servant of your Lordships' House and I will do what is possible, so far as I am able. However, this is a matter for the Government, and perhaps it could be dealt with through the usual channels. The noble Baroness the Chief Whip is here and will have heard what your Lordships have had to say.