HL Deb 07 March 1991 vol 526 cc1487-91

3.7 p.m.

Lord Ennals asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the bombing of Downing Street and Victoria Station, it is still their intention to close Westminster Hospital.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very brief Answer. Is she aware that in a series of central London emergencies —namely, the poll tax riot, the Carlton Club bombing, the Downing Street mortar attack and the Victoria Station bombing—the accident and emergency unit of the Westminster Hospital, which, as the noble Baroness knows, is due to close very shortly, was heavily involved? That hospital is absolutely essential. Does the Minister accept that the distance and the crowded streets from the heart of London to Fulham will make that new hospital unable to cope with the demands made on it not only by those who live in central London, but by the working population and the tourists? Will she consider with her right honourable friend cancellation of the closure of this crucially important and greatly respected Westminster Hospital?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am sure that many of your Lordships will join me in taking this opportunity to congratulate the staff at the Westminster, St. Thomas's and other hospitals which were involved in the incidents to which the noble Lord has referred. They responded splendidly to the emergencies. In those congratulations I include the London Ambulance Service. The Westminster Hospital will close in 1992 when the new Westminster and Chelsea Hospital opens. However, there are several hospitals within reasonable distance of the City of Westminster that are specially designated to deal with major incidents. They include St. Thomas's, which is just across Westminster Bridge.

Lord Colnbrook

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a number of noble Lords, of whom I was one, two years ago wrote to the then Secretary of State and to the then Prime Minister urging that this decision should be reversed for precisely the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals? Unfortunately, we wrote without effect. Is she further aware that the events of recent days described by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, have merely increased my anxiety? Will the Minister accept that it is foolish to close a hospital which is so near to the centre of government and political life and to increase the distance which people subject to terrorist attacks may have to travel before they can get succour?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I was not familiar with my noble friend's involvement in this matter. However, I am aware that all proper consultation and other procedures were gone through before the final decision was made about the opening of the new hospital and the closure of the existing Westminster Hospital. I reiterate that there are many excellent hospitals within reasonable distance of the City of Westminster, including Charing Cross Hospital, Guy's, St. Mary's, Hammersmith and the Middlesex Hospitals. The London Ambulance Service and the North West Thames and Riverside Health Authorities envisage no difficulties in responding to major incidents after the closure of the present Westminster Hospital.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, did the noble Baroness refer to Charing Cross Hospital? Does she think that it is still at Charing Cross? Is the Minister aware that that hospital is now out at Fulham? Is she further aware that patients are sent there, that it takes half an hour to get there by taxi and that the fare is £5?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am aware of the location not only of the present Charing Cross Hospital, but of others. I have a map which proves that. I reiterate that these hospitals are within reasonable distance of the City of Westminster. I did not reiterate then the hospital to which I referred previously; namely, St. Thomas's.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, is the Minister aware—

Lord Annan

My Lords, can the Minister say why she left out St. Thomas's Hospital? Is that hospital debarred from dealing with casualties from the centre of London?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me. I have just made up for the fact that I did not refer a second time to St. Thomas's Hospital because I had referred to it in response to the supplementary question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that we in this House are very grateful that Westminster Hospital was still open at the time she was hit by flying masonry in Victoria Street and that she was able to get there very quickly? We hope that the hospital will continue in order to help all those who work in the Palace of Westminster.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am very much reminded of that particular incident. My noble friend Lady Strange was very kind in personal terms on that occasion. I remind your Lordships that, as part of the plan for the new facilities, as well as the new Westminster and Chelsea Hospital there will be a new health centre at Pimlico which will provide GP care, outpatients' clinics and a minor casualty service. Those facilities will take care of that problem, and they will also take care of the walking wounded from a major incident if it occurs close to the sites of the incidents to which reference has been made.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us who have benefited very greatly from the attentions of the staff of the Westminster Hospital have been much dismayed by this decision? Can she say whether all connection between the Palace of Westminster and the surrounding area and that hospital is to cease? If that is the case, then it is a serious matter. Can she say how far the nearest casualty station will be after Westminster Hospital has been removed from all contact with Westminster?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I must repeat that St. Thomas's Hospital, with all its many excellent facilities, is just across the river —one minute further away from Victoria than the Westminster Hospital. The Pimlico health centre, which will be able to deal with minor casualties, is also very close.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, St. Thomas's Hospital is across the river. Few of us can swim that distance with ease. How much further is it by land than Westminster Hospital?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, it has always been recognised that few of us can swim. That is why there is a bridge.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the noble Baroness assist the House by giving one good reason why Westminster Hospital should be closed?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, there is room for a wide debate on the whole question of facilities which apply to London. One basic fact about London remains: it is extremely well provided for in terms of hospital services. In inner London there are still 50 per cent. more beds per resident than in outer London. Therefore a certain rationalisation was required. New facilities were required. The decision to centre those facilities at the new Westminster and Chelsea Hospital was taken with all proper consultation, planning and other consents.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not for the benefit of the Houses of Parliament as a whole and London especially that we have a new and modern hospital rather than an old one? Is my noble friend not happy that the new arrangements will be an improvement rather than, as noble Lords opposite have been saying, a disimprovement?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing a note of reason to these questions. The new facilities will be much admired.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is it not good practice to have critical care teams coming out from casualty departments to save life? Is that not more important than anything else? What will happen if the bridges are blocked because of, say, riots?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, that argument could be raised in relation to access to any hospital. Our efforts are directed at dealing with casualties on the spot as much as possible. All the improvements being made to the London Ambulance Service are to that end.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is rather curious that it is the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, who is always attacking the Government for closing hospitals in London? Who was the villain of the piece who started the movement to shift resources in the NHS from London into the country? It was none other than the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, himself.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, my noble friend asks a rhetorical question.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I was associated with the noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, in the representations which he mentioned, together with other noble Lords who served as business managers in the other place. We did so on the basis of our experience of looking after the welfare and care of Members of both Houses and also of the problems posed by security. Even at this late stage I press the Minister to see whether some facilities cannot be kept on the present Westminster Hospital site.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, my understanding is that all the possible alternatives were gone into at the time the decision was made in 1988. Nevertheless, I shall of course draw these representations to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, according to the plan, as I understand it, the main relief hospital for Westminster Hospital is to be located in the Chelsea-Fulham area. If that is the case, is that not altogether too far to be called a reasonable distance away in the event of a major accident or something of that kind? Is it really too late to give the matter further consideration?

Baroness Hooper

No, my Lords. In my response to the first supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, I indicated that several hospitals other than the new Westminster and Chelsea Hospital will be within a reasonable distance of the City of Westminster.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the Minister—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Ennals

My Lords, it is my Question. I have been attacked and I am entitled to reply. Does the Minister understand my disappointment that she did not dissociate herself from the point made by her noble friend Lord McColl in that the decision to close the Westminster Hospital had nothing whatsoever to do with the RAWP report which I implemented 12 years ago? Does she accept that the consultation which she says was adequate led to almost total opposition to the proposal—from the Westminster City Council, from the health council and from the residents who submitted an enormous petition? Does she recognise that all those groups were totally opposed to the decision? In view of all the points of view presented in the House today, will she not at least discuss with her colleagues whether the decision makes sense?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, as regards the remarks made by my noble friend, I believe that no specific allegation was made. He was referring to the wider policy which was initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals. The decision in question was made in 1988 and, so far as I am aware, the discussions are now closed. However, as I said, I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend to the views which have been expressed today.