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Public Assistance Institution, Howden

Volume 422: debated on Wednesday 1 May 1946

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

9.59 p.m.

I wish first to apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Health for keeping him on the Front Bench for another 20 minutes or so. He and the Minister have obviously been fully occupied during the last two days on the Bill which the House has been considering, but the hon. Gentleman will know that, having had the luck of the ballot and the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment, I could not arrange it to suit the convenience either of the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary. I make no apology whatsoever for raising the question of the closing of Howden Public Assistance Institution.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Pearson.]

This is purely a local matter. It is now becoming the custom to raise matters of major importance on the Adjournment, but the Adjournment provides the only opportunity for an hon. Member to raise a grievance registered by a large number of constituents. The Howden Public Assistance Institution was built 100 years ago. Some say that because the building is 100 years old it is out of date, but I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that although the building was built 100 years ago, it is of brick, has 40-inch walls, plenty of windows, water, electric light, and is situated in extremely pleasant surroundings. Prior to the second world war, suggestions were made by the East Riding county council that the institution should be closed, and an entirely new building erected at Market Weighton, 12 miles to the North East of Howden. I think the Parliamentary Secretary will agree that at a time when there is such pressing need for housing and such a shortage of bricks, this institution should not be closed and bricks used to build a new institution which could be better used in building houses for Service men coming home after fighting for their country.

The county council propose to close the present institution at Howden and move the inmates, not into another brick building 100 years old, but into wooden huts at Driffield. Hon. Members who are interested in the timber trade might allege that timber buildings are equally suitable for such a purpose but another aspect has to be considered. Driffield is 25 miles away from Howden, the other side of the Yorkshire Wolds. It is almost a foreign country. There is no bus service between Howden and Driffield, and the only means of communication is by way of one of the stations in the Howden rural district area, thence to Hull, where one has to wait for some time for a connection to Driffield. It is a very expensive journey, and it would be almost impossible for a relative or friend of some one in the institution at Howden to make the journey to Driffield, see the inmate, and get back to Howden during the same day. This is not a political matter. A large number of protests have gone to the county council and to the Minister of Health in this matter. They number nine from parish councils, 13 from local doctors and one even from a political organisation which is not unfriendly to the party which the Parliamentary Secretary represents in this House.

I wish to put one or two questions to the Parliamentary Secretary. There are 115 beds in the present institution at Howden, and they are generally fully occupied. I will return to that question in a moment. The public assistance institution at Howden has for some time been providing in that building a very efficient and well-equipped maternity ward. During 1945 there were no fewer than 74 confinements in that maternity ward. I know it is said that there is a stigma, perhaps I should say an alleged stigma, on any child who is born in a public assistance institution. Will there be any less stigma on the child who in future is to be born in a State hospital as opposed to a voluntary hospital in the past? Surely, it does not matter where the child is born. When a child is born all we are anxious about is that the mother shall have the easiest confinement possible, and that the child shall be born in the best possible conditions. I am assured by the 13 doctors who are regularly attending Howden Institution, and dealing with the maternity cases there, that they have all the most modern equipment and that they are satisfied that no mother and no child could have better treatment than they are having at the present time. If this institution is to be closed I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary what is to happen to those women in the Howden district who are to have confinements in the future.

Again there is the question of antenatal advice. We have been told during the past two days not only of the importance of the National Health Service Bill, and of dealing with the treatment of disease, but that the Bill will enable people to get treatment and advice before illness gets a hold. Surely, then, the House and the Government are only too anxious that every possible facility shall be provided for the giving of ante-natal advice. That is being provided at Howden at the present time. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary what is to happen when the institution is closed, in order to provide the people in the Howden district with the ante-natal treatment and advice which they are getting at the present time.

Let me return to the question of the old people who are at present in this institution at Howden. We are dealing with a human problem. No high sounding scheme of centralisation should be undertaken at the expense of the happiness and well being of the aged and often bedridden people in this hospital. I wish to quote a letter which was written by a Mrs. Watson, the wife of the Methodist minister at Howden, to the Minister of Health. The Parliamentary Secretary, no doubt, has read this letter. I quote it to the House because it conveys in language very much better than I could hope to use the sentiments and feelings of the people in this area. The letter says:
I am writing to bring to your notice a fact which is causing real distress and heartburning among the people in our little town. As I go about visiting and chatting with people in all walks of life I hear on all sides the same anguishing question, 'Can nothing be done? What shall we do? Isn't it dreadful?'
Mrs. Watson further says:
This building has served as institution, hospital and maternity home for a long period and has been the source of help and blessing for the people of Howden, primarily because of its nearness to our homes. It is here in our midst, and the haunting dread of becoming an inmate of an institution (a source of poignant agony to old, lonely and infirm) has been softened and lessened by the fact that relatives and friends may visit on three days a week. This fact makes all the difference.
I suggest that that is the letter of a Christian woman on a human problem. I quote the reply which was sent to that lady on behalf of the Minister. It is couched in the official terms of Whitehall. Neither she nor I complain of that. This is the reply:
The Minister of Health is awaiting a statement by the East Riding County Council of detailed proposals for the alternative treatment of inmates of the Howden institution in the event of its closure. Your letter will then be considered in connection with these proposals.
The satisfactory part of the reply sent on behalf of the Minister is that the last word with regard to the continuance of the present institution or its closure is the word of the Minister of Health himself. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary that he should convey to the Minister that here is an opportunity not only to be a great social legislator, as he has tried to demonstrate to the House during the last day or two, but a human legislator. That is even more important, and it is by that he will be judged in the future.

I always feel great sympathy with the Home Secretary of the day. I understand that every day when he goes to the Home Office he sees a calendar on which are marked the day and the names of men who are to be executed. He has to decide whether or not he will advise His Majesty to grant a reprieve. That is a very great responsibility. If these old people are transferred from Howden into an entirely foreign district, away from their relatives and friends, who, through lack of means of transport, cannot visit them, their hearts will be broken, their days will be numbered and death will come upon them more quickly than if they remained as they were. It might well be that, when death ultimately claims these old people—if they are removed to Driffield—perhaps in the hours of darkness in the early morning, the Minister of Health will awake with a start and will wonder at that time why it is that his sleep has been disturbed.

I suggest that the sensible solution is to keep open the present Public Assistance Institution at Howden, and to build, it may be, a new building, perhaps more centrally situated within the Howden rural district, at a time when bricks, mortar and men are available. We have been told of the great shortage of hospital accommodation. Why, then, close down this public assistance institution? Why move the people into huts at Driffield? If these huts are so much better than a brick building built 100 years ago, why not use them for the extension of the overtaxed hospital accommodation in the country at the present time?

I can only say in conclusion that, if the Minister has the final word on this question, if he will decide that this institution must remain open until building conditions are more normal, until an opportunity provides itself for building a more modern building still within the area of the Howden rural district, he will earn the gratitude of all those who wish that these 115 old people, who have served their country and their time as useful and valuable citizens, shall spend their last years in comfort, near to their friends and relatives and in the locality where, for years gone by, they have toiled and striven, where they have enjoyed their happiness, where they have endured their sorrows, and where, now, they only ask the Minister that they may end their days in peace.

10.19 p.m.

This institution was one of a number which the East Riding of Yorkshire inherited from the public assistance authorities as a result of the Act of 1929, and the institution at Howden has for many years been regarded as absolutely unsatisfactory and would have been abandoned before now, at any rate, if the war had not intervened. When it was token over in 1930, its total number of inmates was 73. The number gradually fell before the war, but then, as the result of conditions during the war, its use increased and the number of occupants during the war was certainly rather larger. But as an institution, from the reports given to us, it seems to me to be absolutely unsuited, particularly for anything like a maternity home and ante-natal treatment. Some of the reports that I have had about this place are really astounding. In 1933, for instance, it was described as:

A small, old-fashioned institution of the mixed sort built of stone and brick in 1839. The buildings face north …there is no separate infirmary…the water supply is not satisfactory and rainwater is stored and used for all purposes. There is a piped supply, but it is very hard water and unfit for drinking. The sewage arrangements are not at present satisfactory…The sick have no sanitary conveniences apart from"——

The hon. Gentleman is quoting from a report in 1933. Has he had a report as regards water, heating and lighting in 1946?

The hon. Gentleman must not be too impatient. I said this was 1933. [Interruption.] If hon. Members are patient I shall be able to get on; if they are not I shall not be able to finish. That was the condition in 1933. It was recognised that Howdenshire was rather isolated, and attempts were made to try to improve the institution. Certain improvements were made and the conditions were a little better. But even now we find report after report emphasising the fact that, even with the improvements, the institution is not one which can be regarded as adequate for the purpose. Another report said:

I am sure it would be an advantage it maternity cases could be diverted to an in- stitution where more suitable facilities are available and where staff arrangements are easier.
Then, later, the general inspector said that the defects were very numerous indeed, that the place was not suitable for the accommodation of the sick and could not be made suitable except at a cost which would be almost prohibitive in view of the age, condition, etc. of the building. A special committee——

It is 1935. A special committee was appointed to consider the future of the institution and kindred matters. Closure was held to be the only solution. In present conditions the institution is not held to be one that is suitable particularly for the accommodation of maternity cases.

By the people responsible for inspecting and reporting with regard to the institution on our behalf. Before the war, as far as maternity was concerned, there was only one maternity bed at this institution. During the war, the accommodation was increased to nine lying-in beds. The county council have never considered setting up a permanent maternity unit at the institution. In 1944 the council put forward proposals to provide institutional maternity accommodation to serve all parts of the East Riding, and whilst these schemes——

Might I ask what the alternative proposals were? There are geographical features about this matter.

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient I will give him that information. The county council put forward, as I say, their general proposals. These included the setting up of a unit of 12 beds at Balby three to four miles North-West of Howden. A unit at the Howden Institution was not contemplated. Then a scheme to convert the first floor of the infirmary at Beverley, 20 miles Nort-East of Howden, to make it into an efficient maternity unit, was under consideration. For that the necessary building work was authorised on 19th February, 1946, and should be completed by July of this year. That will provide 14 lying-in and five ante-natal beds. Further, the county council are actively considering setting up a new unit at North Ferriby, 14 miles East of Howden, and on this we are at present awaiting firm proposals. That provision will serve the Eastern part of the Howden rural district. The county council are now actively considering what provision can be made in respect of the Western area when the unit at Howden is closed. The point I want to emphasise is that no date has yet been agreed for the closing of the Howden Institution, and that the Ministry will require to be satisfied that adequate alternative maternity accommodation is available before agreeing to any closure.

Might I interrupt once more? The Parliamentary Secretary has made it clear that no decision has yet been reached. Might I ask him whether, before the Minister reaches a final decision, he is prepared to hold an inquiry in the locality in which he can meet the local county council, the chairman of the guardians committee, the nine parish councils and 13 doctors?

I can report to the Minister all that the hon. Gentleman has requested, but I cannot undertake on behalf of the Minister to make any promise one way or the other.

On a point of Order. Surely, the hon. Gentleman is speaking on behalf of the Minister? If he has no authority, why is not the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health himself here?

The hon. Gentleman has risen several times, and his last point was not a point of Order.

I have tried to explain what the situation is. I have emphasised that no date has been fixed for the closing of this institution. I have said that before the Minister will agree to its closure he has got to be satisfied that adequate alternative maternity accommodation has been provided. I cannot pledge the Minister as to the means which he will adopt to satisfy himself with regard to the adequacy of that accommodation. I can only undertake to report to the Minister the request which the hon. Gentleman has made about it, and, surely, to expect me to do more than that is to expect me to exceed the position which I hold at the moment. I do emphasise that the conditions in this institution are not such as to warrant us being satisfied that it should continue normally to be used as maternity accommodation, and I also emphasise that it is rather a misstatement to say that it is an establishment where any ante-natal work of any character is really done, because we feel that the Howden area does not warrant the establishment of an ante-natal clinic. Adequate service is being and will be provided for ante-natal cases by domiciliary midwives and by general practitioners The impression that ante-natal work was done there arose when people registered for the use of maternity accommodation and a visit was paid to the people concerned, but that is not the establishment of an ordinary ante-natal clinic. We certainly could not agree that this should be regarded as a satisfactory institution for carrying on ante-natal work, but before we agree to the closure of this institution, we must be satisfied that adequate alternative accommodation has been provided.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.