HL Deb 13 October 1993 vol 549 cc196-8

3.15 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will host a conference with UNISON, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Health Visitors Association to discuss concerns about the future of the National Health Service.

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

My Lords, there is no need for the Government to host such a conference. Both Ministers and officials have regular meetings and contact with representatives of these bodies to discuss issues of mutual concern and future developments.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. It is rather shattering to have to accept what she says when all the professions say that there are hints that doctors and nurses regret entering our National Health Service. The cause seems mainly to be NHS reforms, overwork and long hours. I should have thought that a conference involving all the organisations mentioned in my Question might at least clarify the situation to the benefit of the department and the nation.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, as I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, we have regular meetings with all the people who represent workers in the National Health Service. In addition, Ministers act like gypsies—constantly going round the country visiting hospitals and looking at communities to see what is happening.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, at those meetings, how detailed are the discussions about the National Health Service and its future? Are UNISON and others allowed to comment on financing and the use of money within the National Health Service? Are they allowed to comment on the closure of beds and the failure to treat patients? How far does that consultation go?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it is very full indeed. We want to hear from the people who work in the National Health Service how their working practices are developing, and we wish to see the results of our reforms. At this stage, we are convinced that the National Health Service has never been better.

Lord Howell

My Lords, will the Minister take note of the fact that in recent days in the West Midlands women have died from cancer through wrong treatment with no explanation or responsibility accepted; a consultant was suspended this week for actively wishing to treat patients suffering from leukaemia; the general manager of the Heartlands Hospital paid himself last week £91,000 in salary, doubling his existing salary, while on this very day sacking three of his managers in order to pay for it? No chairman of any trust has uttered one word about any of those matters. Can the Minister tell us who is responsible for the health service these days—the chairmen of appointed members or just paid functionaries?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the accountability for what goes on in hospital trusts rests with the trust board. Ultimately, it is the Secretary of State who is accountable for all that goes on in the National Health Service because it is a public body using public funds. However, I make the point that we treat millions of patients every year. It is inevitable that things will go wrong in some instances. It is important that when mistakes are made and things go wrong there is an inquiry and we learn any lessons. We have a proud record in the number of inquiries that we have held and that will continue.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, will the Minister inform the House to what extent voluntary organisations, organisations representing patients, are involved at all in the consultations to which she referred?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the consultations are with the TUC Health Services Committee which is due to meet the Minister again on 26th October, having met him on 13th July. The BMA and the RCN are not affiliated to the TUC but they have similar opportunities. We have regular contact with voluntary organisations which work in the field and which have recently set up a carers and users group to inform Ministers on the progress of the National Health Service and Community Care Act.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, if the National Health Service is in such a good state, as the noble Baroness seems to think, why is it that at Bart's about 16 patients are having to sleep in the corridors because there are not enough beds for them? One of the senior nurses has opened a ward, against orders, which had been closed. She said that she was not prepared to see patients being treated in such a manner.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is referring to Ealing where it was in fact the general manager who took the decision. It was not carried out against orders; she was using her judgment. The situation arose because the local authority was so slow in assessing patients for entry to nursing homes. The health authority and the local authority are in negotiation. We expect the situation to be resolved very quickly.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the professional organisations take the view that there is a danger of private medicine challenging the National Health Service? It does not look like Mrs. Thatcher's declaration that the NHS is safe in the hands of the party opposite; indeed, we all know that it never was. Is the Minister further aware of the views of two eminent organisations? First, UNISON, which covers hospital catering staff, ambulance drivers and nurses, has found disgruntlement among staff which ought not to be there. Secondly, the Health Visitors Association, which has more or less carried the NHS to the home, is alarmed at the decrease in its membership. Should not such matters be the subject of the conference to which I referred for the benefit of the department and of the country?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am really not responsible for the HVA membership. If people choose to join another organisation like the RCN, that must be left to individual members. As regards private medicine, we on this side of the House have always taken the view that private medicine has a part to play in the total care of the country and that people who choose to use private medicine should be free to do so. Indeed, there are more and more schemes being jointly run by the NHS and private companies. I believe that that enriches the care that we are able to give.