HL Deb 26 January 2000 vol 608 cc1553-6

2.55 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the target of eliminating mixed-sex wards in 70 per cent of health authorities by December 1999 was not achieved.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, as I said in the House last week, we are committed to ensuring that mixed-sex accommodation disappears and we are working towards that. To achieve this aim we have put in place the target that 95 per cent of health authorities will have eliminated such accommodation by the end of 2002. I regret and apologise to the House for implying last week that the target was 100 per cent. However, in practical terms, our intention is that almost all mixed-sex accommodation will disappear. There are five trusts where capital schemes will come to fruition after 2002. In those few cases the feasibility of building temporary segregated washing and toilet facilities is being actively explored.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disturbing and disappointing Answer. Is it really beyond the collective wit of the Government and the health administrators to deal with the problem? It is not just about money; it is a question of political will. The same promise was made two years ago: to deal with the problem. Why have not the Government delivered on it? If the promise is not delivered, why should anyone believe the Government in relation to the NHS?

I quoted from a question asked by the then Leader of the Opposition to the Leader of the Government. That was in 1996. It is disturbing that we are still in this position.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, in 1995 her government introduced in the Patient's Charter the right of the patient to know before going into hospital whether he or she would be placed in mixed-sex accommodation. But her government did nothing further to monitor that or to set targets for the health service. We have done so. As I said, we are committed to ensuring that 95 per cent of health authorities meet the target by the end of 2002; and we are in discussions with those five trusts which have capital schemes that will come on stream after that date to see whether it is feasible to introduce temporary separate facilities.

I understand the concerns of your Lordships and many members of the public about the disturbing effects of mixed-sex accommodation in many of our hospitals. I understand the urgency with which your Lordships wish this problem to be tackled. I assure the House that the Government are determined to ensure that the target is achieved.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the last Parliament I promoted a Bill in this House to phase out mixed-sex wards? Indeed, the House was good enough to approve that Bill and to pass it to another place. Is my noble friend further aware that my noble friend Lady Jay, the previous Secretary of State, Frank Dobson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, are fully and utterly committed to the policy of getting rid of mixed-sex wards? They should be commended for that. I believe—I hope that my noble friend will be able to deny this—that they are being undermined by the authorities in the hospitals themselves. Frankly, that is completely and utterly unacceptable, not only to the public at large but to Members of this House and of another place who have said repeatedly that they want mixed-sex wards phased out. I hope that my noble friend will redouble his efforts to ensure that we reach his target date of 2002, which he announced last week.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, first, perhaps I may pay tribute to my noble friend and to other noble Lords for their determined campaigns over the years in this area. As I have said before, this issue unites the whole House. I am not sure that the word "undermine" is appropriate in relation to the progress being made by health authorities. However, I am disappointed with the progress that has been made so far. That is why we are redoubling our efforts to monitor the situation and to make clear to the NHS that we are absolutely determined to ensure that the 95 per cent target is adhered to. Furthermore, I assure my noble friend that performance management throughout the next two to three years will ensure that that is done.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, despite appearances, we on these Benches—and on the Bench in front—are not making a statement about the Question, although we should like so to do?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am sure that those are words of wisdom which I shall take away.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, exactly how will the Minister ensure that his aspirations in this field will be successful when they have not been met on matters such as waiting lists and a further host of areas within the health service? Will they be achieved by exhortation or by money? How will he ensure that the 95 per cent target will be met by 2002?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Lord thinks that the Government have been unsuccessful. However, I believe that we are making considerable progress in the modernisation of the National Health Service. Thirty-seven new hospitals are on track. New services such as NHS Direct have been set up. In-patient waiting lists are now 87,000 lower than those we inherited and a third of a million more people are being treated as out-patients this year. These are significant steps along the way to modernisation. As regards achieving the 95 per cent target, we have in place strong and effective performance management arrangements. We have made it absolutely clear to regional chairs and directors of the NHS that we want this commitment to be brought to fruition.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, have I understood the Minister correctly? The Government will have been in power for five years before they meet their target. However, when the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal was Minister of Health, she said on 5th August 1997 that, Any health authority which tells me that it is unable to get rid of mixed sex accommodation within the next two years will have to have a very good reason". Can the Minister explain the difference in the timetable?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord's Government had 18 years in which to sort this matter out. The fact is that my noble friend did take a very active interest in ensuring that the health service removed mixed sex accommodation. I have already said that I am disappointed—as, I am sure, is my noble friend—that health authorities have not made the progress that we would have wanted. Because of that, we are redoubling our efforts to ensure that the 95 per cent target at end-2002 is achieved.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful for my noble friend's reaffirmation of the target and assurances that progress is being made. Is it not the case that in many hospitals progress has already been made by the creation of single sex bays rather than single sex wards? While we all wish to see a situation where all wards rather than bays are single sex, can my noble friend confirm that the 95 per cent target has been set for wards rather than bays? That will clearly represent significant progress over what has already been achieved.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the target is set for accommodation. It is, of course, perfectly acceptable for segregation to be achieved in wards that accommodate both men and women through the use of single sex bays and individual rooms. I should make it clear that the definition of mixed sex accommodation is exactly the same as that used by the previous government in the Patient's Charter. My noble friend is right. New building techniques can ensure that, within a ward with separate bays, it is possible to provide strong segregation between those bays.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, in view of the Government's performance in this area, and the events of the past two weeks, can the Minister confirm that the Government's pledges for the NHS are now being converted from commitments to mere aspirations?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, this Government made a commitment to modernise the NHS. We are doing so. I repeat my reference to 37 hospitals, NHS Direct and new dental services. These are indications of the kind of health service that we wish to deliver and which we will deliver.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether progress is being impeded by the chronic and continuing shortage of nursing staff? Could that be the reason for the problems in this area?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I invite all noble Lords to remain in their places for our debate on nursing staff that will begin in a few moments. Of course we are crucially dependent on nurses. However, our recruitment drive is proving to be successful and over 5,000 nurses are about to return to the NHS as a result of it. I believe that the appointment of nurse consultants and the decision of the Government not to stage pay awards but rather to pay nurses the awards recommended by the review body in full will ensure that we shall have the nurses we need to provide the services to which the noble Lord referred.