HL Deb 15 March 2005 vol 670 cc1201-4

2.42 p.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtreeasked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to abolish mixed-sex wards in National Health Service hospitals.

Lord Warner

My Lords, we have set clear standards that require single-sex accommodation to be provided. Data collected for 2003 show that 97 per cent of National Health Service trusts provide single-sex accommodation. This is defined as single-sex sleeping areas, separate bathroom and toilet facilities for men and women and, for those trusts providing mental health services, safe facilities for those who are mentally ill.

The remaining 3 per cent of trusts are undertaking building projects and will be compliant when these are complete. We are currently collecting data for 2004 and will publish this in May. We expect this to show that the rate of compliance has risen.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, is the Minister aware that press reports in recent weeks have indicated that there is a doubt about the 97 per cent figure? Does he recall telling this House only last Wednesday that his Government keep their promises? Can he explain why a promise made in 1997 and again in 2001 to abolish all mixed-sex wards has still not been kept? The promise was made eight long years ago and those wards still exist.

Is the Minister also aware that, for many sick people who are conscious and aware of their surroundings, it is a gross indignity to be forced to be in a ward where there are members of the opposite sex? Is he not concerned that the most recent government diktat—that hospitals will be penalised if they do not get rid of mixed-sex wards and waiting lists—is liable to increase the problem?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am not sure that I recall all of the noble Baroness's lengthy questions, but I shall do my best to respond to their spirit. I remind her and the House that the Conservative Party's policy on mixed-sex accommodation had exactly the same objectives as that of this Government. We have not changed the guidelines in any way from those that were issued on this subject before 1997. The difference is that they set no targets for their achievement, put no resources into it and cut the number of hospital beds by nearly 160,000, which made achieving single-sex accommodation far more difficult.

However, we have kept the promise that we made and perhaps I may refer the noble Baroness to the announcement made by my noble friend Lord Hunt on 13 January 2003, which showed that we had met the target of 95 per cent that we promised. I shall provide a few figures to help the noble Baroness with this difficult issue. There are about 10,000 general wards in the NHS and only between 100 and 120 do not have single-sex accommodation.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

My Lords, I welcome the information given by my noble friend the Minister, but I regret the fact that there are still some people who have to stay in mixed-sex wards. What are the Government doing in the interim to ensure that the dignity and privacy of patients who have to be in those wards are maintained?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I shall pick up a matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Knight—namely, the misreporting she described which, I think, appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. As was clear in that misleading newspaper report, it is always inevitable that there will be some clinical emergencies whereby hospitals have to take the most appropriate action for the patients involved. We are using the hospital building programme, on which the party opposite is usually notably silent, to improve the accommodation. While this Government have been in office, we have spent some £250 million on improving patients' privacy and dignity.

Lord Chan

My Lords, in mental health wards there is a high risk of problems with mixed-sex wards. Is the Minister entirely convinced that all our mental health hospitals have no mixed-sex wards?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the information that I have is that compliance with our guidance in mental health accommodation is even higher than in acute units. The latest data show that 99 per cent of mental health wards comply with our objectives.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the MIND report in September 2004, in which 25 per cent of mental health patients recorded having been in mixed-sex wards. Can he confirm that a significant number of children and young people are still held in mixed-sex psychiatric wards?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I do not have the data on children in psychiatric hospitals, but I can tell the noble Baroness that the MIND report used a different definition of single-sex accommodation. Moreover, the sample size was very small and included information from former users dating back as far as two years after they were in hospital.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, last year, I stayed in one of the 3 per cent. of hospitals to which he referred, and that I was in a mixed ward? I agree with the noble Baroness opposite. It was extremely embarrassing; we all felt very uncomfortable.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I am sorry, but if the noble Baroness would tell me where she was, I shall let her know what the circumstances were.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, this question goes back a long way. Perhaps the Minister will recall that in 1995 1 promoted, and this House passed—although the Commons did not—a Bill to outlaw mixed-sex wards. That was 10 years ago. Despite what Ministers on both sides of this House have said and the promises that they have made to get rid of such wards, they still exist. Will my noble friend the Minister assure me that staff in the National Health Service are being appraised of the view of this House, and of the population generally, that those promises should be carried out fully?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I think that people are being a little unfair on the NHS in this area. The NHS is confronted with the fact that this will go on under whichever government are in office. People will be admitted as emergency cases and hospitals will have to do what is right clinically and find the most appropriate placement for those individuals—men or women. I think that there is confusion in some noble Lords' minds about the difference between single-sex accommodation and single-sex wards. Earlier I said that the guidance on this issue has been exactly the same under this Government as it was under the previous government. The NHS guidelines require single-sex accommodation, which is defined as: single-sex sleeping areas, which may embrace bays rather than whole wards; separate bathroom and toilet facilities for men and women; and, for trusts providing mental health services, safe facilities for patients who are mentally ill. We have delivered those objectives, while the previous government did not.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, over the past seven years, transforming this accommodation has been a massive undertaking and there has been substantial success in achieving the target? Is it not time that we started praising the NHS rather than continually knocking it?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. That is why we have consistently paid tribute to the hard work of NHS staff in delivering the improvements that we have seen in the NHS under this Government. The knocking copy comes from the other side of the House.

Earl Howe

My Lords, some months ago, my noble friend Lady Noakes tabled a series of Questions for Written Answer in an attempt to find out which NHS hospitals still have mixed-sex wards. The Government declined to supply that information. Why do Ministers believe that the public do not have a right to be told where mixed-sex wards are still to he found?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I go back to my earlier answers. I have been talking consistently about single-sex accommodation and not single-sex wards. I have gone to some trouble to try to explain that to the House and to noble Lords opposite. As I have said, a number of hospitals are not compliant, the reason being that they have outstanding building works, many of which will be completed in the next 12 months or so. As I said in my Answer, in May we shall be making public the results of the 2004 survey in this area.