HL Deb 23 January 1997 vol 577 cc795-8

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the pledge made in the Patient's Charter, how many hospitals are now able to offer patients the option of single sex accommodation without penalty.

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

My Lords, this information is not available. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has asked the chief executive of the National Health Service to take action to ensure that Patient's Charter standards on patient accommodation are being met.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but I find it very disappointing. Is she aware that it is now two years since those Patient's Charter commitments were made and more than one year since my noble friend Lord Stoddart was assured that a survey on what was happening in individual hospitals would be available very shortly? Is she aware that those of us who visit hospitals regularly, as I do, continue to find a number of very distressed people being offered what one can only describe as Hobson's choice? They can make alternative arrangements for the single sex accommodation they want and wait for their operation or accept the offer of mixed-sex ward accommodation which they certainly do not want.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, yes, I appreciate very much what the noble Baroness says. There are many people who do not want mixed-sex accommodation. But that must be seen in the context of more than 9 million people admitted every year. The National Health Service chief executive is writing to health authorities. He will ensure that they send clear plans and a challenging timetable to enable mixed-sex wards to be phased out.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in circumstances where hospitals suddenly experience grave difficulties which are not necessarily of their making, would they receive complete assistance from the Minister's department when they need such help?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, clearly we try to assist anyone in the health service who requires help from central sources. But in this context there are occasions when there are fires, floods or severe epidemics of 'flu when mixed-sex accommodation must be used because the accommodation has to be used as flexibly as possible in order to keep down waiting times.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that, on 18th January 1995 when we had a debate on Second Reading of my Bill, she said: I have no doubt that we shall fulfil the demands of the Bill even more quickly than the noble Lord expects".—[Official Report, 18/1/95; col. 745.] The noble Lord mentioned there is myself. Will the noble Baroness take it from me that I had expected action much sooner than this? Will she accept also that promises made have not been kept. I have pursued the matter with the Minister, as she knows. But promises to publish the results of surveys have not been met.

Is the noble Baroness aware also that I nobbled the Secretary of State in the Tea Room of the House of Commons only last week and he is just as concerned and angry about this matter as I am? Are we not now in a position in which nurses, Secretaries of State, Ministers, the Opposition and the whole of Parliament want mixed-sex wards to be phased out but are being frustrated by people on the ground who appear not to understand that patients want dignity and privacy when they are being treated in hospital?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, of course the Government, my right honourable friend and indeed myself share the anxiety and concern expressed by the noble Lord. We expected the review to be published much sooner than it has been. As the noble Lord will be aware, since he received a letter from my right honourable friend on 20th December, the results of the review will be published very soon indeed and will give us more information. In the meantime we are, and shall be, taking action. But there is a trade-off here in relation to clinical expertise. Clearly, there are some wards where the specialty is so esoteric that it is essential that we use clinical skills and equipment to the best advantage. That means that sometimes it will be necessary to have mixed-sex wards, as will be the case as regards emergency admissions and intensive care, where, clearly, accommodation must be used as effectively as possible.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that most young men these days do not wear or own pyjamas? Do hospitals keep spare pyjamas?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness is suggesting that we carry out yet another survey but this time of a different nature. Indeed, I have been prompted to say that we should perhaps start with my noble friend Lord Swinton but I believe that to be an improper suggestion. I really do not know but, clearly, if clothing is needed in any context I am sure that the NHS does its best.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say whether there is anyone who does prefer mixed-sex wards?

Baroness Cumberlege

Yes, my Lords, there are some people who like mixed sex wards, especially, I am told, adolescents, because they are gregarious people who sometimes find that it aids recovery when the opposite sex are in the same area.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, is it not correct that the Government have cynically raised patients' expectations in this area? Is it not true that the majority of patients in beds in hospitals today are admitted as emergency patients and therefore have no rights about a choice of single sex accommodation? Are not the Government guilty of never having properly assessed what the difficulties would be for hospitals with old and ill-designed buildings operating at huge pressures of bed occupancy—as has been the case this winter—and of not actually delivering on the promises that were so rashly made?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I strongly refute the fact that this has been a cynical exercise. The noble Baroness will know that many of those wards are being phased out. However, many trusts are putting considerable investment into refurbishing nightingale wards to divide them into two halves and put sanitary facilities at either end. I am sure that the noble Baroness is trying to do that in her own hospital. Indeed, as the chairman of a trust, she will know about patients' expectations.

However, there is also an issue here about old hospitals. We are replacing them at the most amazing rate. We have a huge capital building programme. It would be ridiculous to put huge investment into refurbishing old wards when they are going to be replaced by new accommodation, new buildings and, indeed, new hospitals.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the Minister referred to the letter written by her right honourable friend the Secretary of State to my noble friend Lord Stoddart. Can the noble Baroness tell us what he meant when he referred to setting health authority chief executives challenging standards on this matter? Surely, that should have been done two years ago. What is the extra challenge now being suggested?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, when the Patient's Charter was first published it was written in fairly general terms. I have told the House today that we share the disappointment that progress has not been made at a quicker rate. Therefore, the chief executive will be setting challenging standards which will be monitored in much greater detail than we initially thought necessary.