HL Deb 11 February 2003 vol 644 cc555-8

2.44 p.m.

Lord Walton of Detchant asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have a view about the impending closure of King Edward VII hospital at Midhurst, and whether they will take action to restore or increase National Health Service funding in order to maintain the clinical services which the hospital provides.

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

My Lords, NHS managers are co-operating with the liquidator, who is seeking to find a solution to the hospital's difficulties. Increased funding for NHS work, to be undertaken by the hospital between now and April 2003, will provide some more time for further discussions to take place.

I should inform the House that I am personally acquainted with Mr Martin Long, the chairman of the board of trustees who ran the hospital until the liquidator was appointed.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the hospital, which was originally established with, and is still supported by, charitable funds, has functioned very effectively in partnership with the NHS for over 50 years? It has provided outstanding services in cardiac and orthopaedic surgery and in oncology and radiotherapy. Is it not a facility which the NHS cannot afford to lose and which demands much longer-term support and funding from the NHS, beyond the end of the financial year?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am aware of the history of the hospital and the services that it provides, to both NHS patients and private patients. There is no doubt that if the hospital closed, it would have an impact on the National Health Service, which is why we have made an allocation of £900,000. That will secure more treatment for NHS patients between now and the end of the financial year and time for the liquidator to find a solution.

Of course, we all hope that the hospital will survive and prosper, but the majority of its income has come from private patients and not the NHS and it has been running a deficit for some time.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister up on what he said about knock-on effects. The three hospitals involved, in Chichester, Portsmouth and Guildford, are all already stretched to capacity. Will he assure the House that the strategic health authority is doing its job and thinking strategically about the demands being made on the NHS in that area, if closure were to take place?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I would expect the strategic health authorities to take a strategic view. I understand that they are developing contingency plans so that, if the hospital were forced into closure, the NHS would have to find provision of services elsewhere for patients who would have been referred to the hospital. That is being factored into their future plans. However, it should be recognised that nearly £1 million has been invested in the hospital very recently to give the liquidator time to find a long-term solution.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is this the hospital where pioneering work in hip replacement was carried out after the early operations performed by the late Sir John Charnley some 30 or more years ago? Those operations restored mobility and relieved much pain and are now regarded as routine.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to pay tribute to the history of the hospital and the contribution that it has made over many years. I am well aware of its local popularity. Equally, however, the NHS is not there, per se, to fund private hospitals. Funding must be given on the basis that the hospital is providing a good service to NHS patients. Decisions must be made locally, but I hope that the injection of additional funds during the next few weeks will give the liquidator time to find a way through.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that at six o'clock last Wednesday there was not one vacant bed in St Thomas' hospital? I read in the press last Thursday that 1,000 patients might go to Belgium to be treated next year. Is not the issue of a lack of beds extremely serious, and should not something be done quickly?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, bed capacity is an important issue. The noble Baroness will be aware that in the past two years the number of general and acute beds in the NHS has increased for the first time in many years. We are committed to increasing overall NHS capacity.

As for the issue of patients being sent abroad, the NHS has piloted schemes to enable NHS patients to travel abroad when that is appropriate. We are committed to providing more choice for patients generally. However, the key issue is raising capacity, and we are doing that by employing more staff and opening more facilities.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, the Minister has not slammed the door today and to that extent his answers are welcome. However, does he realise that Ministers who reject the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, on such a subject risk finding themselves seriously in error? I would not wish that to happen to the noble Lord.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I try to find myself on the same side as the noble Lord, Lord Walton. I agree that that usually pays off. The noble Lord is right. I cannot say more. I cannot commit the NHS to long-term funding. It is not appropriate for me to do so. We have put in extra money from central funds. I very much hope that, with this support, the liquidator will find a way through. I am afraid that I cannot say any more than that and I cannot give any more commitment than that.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, as an illustration of the high standard of clinical services provided by King Edward VII hospital at Midhurst, is the Minister aware—I doubt that he is—that my godmother was a patient there with tuberculosis 50 years ago? I recently celebrated her 99th birthday by giving her lunch in this House.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I hope that she recovered from the lunch.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, does the Minister agree, without feeling too vulnerable, that we need every good hospital that we have got? As my noble friend has so ferociously said, the King Edward VII hospital at Midhurst is brilliant and we ought to do everything that we can to keep it going.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I fully accept that that is a popular view of the hospital. I reiterate that these are matters for local NHS bodies to decide. We have set the conditions under which there is a little time for further discussions to take place. Let us hope that there will be a successful conclusion, but I cannot guarantee it.