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Alcester House, Shaftesbury

Volume 480: debated on Monday 6 November 1950

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

10.40 p.m.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to Alcester House, Shaftesbury, which is situated under the ridge on the south-west of the borough of Shaftesbury, overlooking the Blackmoor Vale which is, without question, one of the finest views in this country and which has been immortalised by Thomas Hardy.

The question of Alcester House was brought to light by information I received in the summer of 1949. Not until 9th August, 1949, was a protest made by Shaftesbury Borough Council to Dorset County Council. Without doubt the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health has certain information of which I have copies and I expect he has a letter addressed by the Mayor of Shaftesbury to Dorset County Council on 3rd November, 1949, and also some notes on Alcester House sent at the same time. If he refers to the mayor's letter, he will see that the Dorset County Council said they had received no protest at all about the removal of patients from this hospital to other parts of the county or adjoining counties, the reasons being that they knew nothing about this until some months had elapsed and a large number of these patients had been removed. In October the matter moved quickly. Alcester House became known in the national Press and on 7th October, 1949, it was featured in the "Week in the West" B.B.C. programme.

The people who have been using this home are officially termed "class 3" patients, but what we understand better is "chronic cases." Some are bad cases and some are able to walk around and are not in need of actual hospital treatment. They are old men and old women. Latterly the home has been occupied by old men who, on account of advancing age, were not considered fit to live alone in their houses.

Alcester House has room for about 90 beds, and during the last year that it was open there were 40 bed cases and 40 walking cases. There is no record of any trouble with the staff at any time. In addition to Alcester House, Shaftesbury has the Westminster Memorial Hospital and the Westminster Annexe Maternity Home.

I am disturbed by the attitude of the Minister of Health and certain sections of his staff in dealing with this matter. No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary has a copy, as I have, of a note of 4th October, 1949, in which the town clerk of Shaftesbury states that he came to London and called on the hospital board headquarters and saw Dr. Stevens and offered him details of the position of Alcester House. The reply he had was that the memorandum would be unnecessary and would not help the position in any way.

I will read an extract from a letter received from the right hon. Gentleman on 14th November last year, in which he referred to the county council's decision with regard to Alcester House and the patients remaining in the house, and said the position was unchanged. The council did not intend to take any further steps for the time being to move out these patients. The right hon. Gentleman continued that it had been known for a long time that the main block of the front of the building was structurally unsound owing to subsidence, although he did not apprehend that there was any danger to the residents there. He believed that accommodation in that part of the building was quite safe and the main reason for the county council's decision to discontinue the use of these premises, namely, to render the building structurally sound and to improve its bad arrangements, would be quite uneconomic. On 31st December last year, in a further letter the right hon. Gentleman said:
"I am quite prepared to grant that Alcester House is no worse than many other antiquated public assistance institutions but, as you will know, it is our hope to replace in time these old-fashioned institutions by a system of smaller homes. The county council is hoping to open one such home at Blandford in six months' time, and I do not feel that I should be justified in intervening by asking the county council to reconsider their policy."
We appreciate the desire to have newer and smaller homes for these people, but it is, I think, another case of the Minister doing away with the existing premises even before he has a site. That is the position here; they have not yet acquired a site for new accommodation. I know that we shall probably be told by the Parliamentary Secretary tonight that Castle man House, Blandford may be used.

It will ease matters if I explain that, after all, the decision was that of the county council and not of the Minister.

Yes, but the county council is guided by the directions of the Minister, and later on I will come to the question I put to the Minister on the subject.

The result is that they are not yet ready to take patients in. Old men and women in the rural district of Shaftesbury, or in the borough, have to leave friends and relatives and are sent to Shaftesbury, 20 miles away, or Fording-bridge 31 miles away, or Sturminster Newton, 26 miles away, or in some cases they are sent to Beaminster 40 miles away. Yet we have Alcester House lying empty and not used throughout this year. The Parliamentary Secretary says this is the decision of the Dorset County Council, but I would refer to the Question I put to the Minister on 29th June last, asking whether, in view of the shortage of hospital beds for chronic cases, he would re-open Alcester House. In reply to my supplementary question the Minister of Health said:
"This building is not suitable for the purpose. It is old and would cost £50,000 to repair. We do not propose to waste money on that building."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1950; Vol. 476, c. 2434.]
As a result of this, I have had a qualified architect in to look over this building and give me an estimate for putting this building into a fit and proper state of repair. I have the plans of the two floors of the building, and I will hand them to the Parliamentary Secretary after this Debate. It is an estimate from Messrs. Houchin, Harrison and Stevens, of 9, Great James Street, Bedford Square, W.C.1, and set out in detail there are the necessary repairs required and, in contrast to the cost stated by the Minister on 29th June, a figure of £50,000, the figure here is given as £5,000. Quite a considerable difference!

Only a fortnight ago, on Saturday, I went over the whole of this building, the second visit I have paid to it. I entered by the nurses' quarters—quarters built since the end of the war—and in this connection I can only repeat the expression of the former medical officer of health at the time, when he said the whole place smelt very new, and the nurses' quarters were ready for immediate occupation, as well as the whole of the building. The architect speaks of the condition of the decorations of this home, and it will be found that the bulk of this is in the area coloured red on the plan.

One of the things that has been worrying not only the right hon. Gentleman, but the Dorset County Council and other people concerned, is the settlement that runs through the building. There is ample evidence that the condition of this settlement is the same today as it was 25 years or more ago and that the bulk of the work that is necessary to put Alcester House in a fit state to receive patients throughout the whole of this accommodation is the ordinary repairs necessary in any house that one may have to keep up.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that in Shaftesbury, and in the surrounding areas, we have many old men and old women who, on account of advancing age, are unable to care for themselves and it is unwise to leave them alone. They do not want hospital care or treatment but they want somewhere where they can go and be cared for, and there is no better place to which they can go than this home that we have at Shaftesbury at the present time. Their friends and their relatives can call upon them at any time and they are living amongst the surroundings in which they have been brought up. One welcomes the Minister's ideal of building homes at some time in the future, but instead of embarking upon these new homes, it would be much wiser to spend some £5,000 to put Alcester House in such condition that these old people can be taken in.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. J. Morrison) will be saying a few words, but I should like to read an extract from a letter which I received on Saturday last and which, I think, may help the hon. Gentleman in appreciating the fairness of this case that I am presenting. I do not propose to read the whole letter, but I would say that it is from someone who lives in Shaftesbury and who is blind and always has been blind. He has got his living by going around the area tuning pianos. This man writes:
"What are the facts? I know of old folk who have waited six months to find a corner in such a home. Old folk not wanted by anybody. Old folk who can rot in unattended loneliness for all the rest of the world cares. I know of such things. Therefore what use is it for Mr. Bevan or even an angel from heaven talking to me about the misery which they say the housing shortage causes. That sort of misery, real as it is, is chicken-feed to the miserable misery uncared-for old folk endure all over the land. This is not a party political stunt. It is just a piece of simple humanitarianism. Just a desire to care for old people. It does not matter to me whether a man calls himself Tory, Liberal, or Socialist. I measure him by what he does. If Mr. Bevan ever dares to talk about misery, and at the same time refuses a few miserable thousands to make Alcester House once more a happy place for the aged, then I for one must regard him as a miserable hypocrite."
I have had several letters during the last week on this matter when it was known I was to raise it on the Motion for the Adjournment. I ask the Minister, for the sake of these old people living in our area, again to look at the position of Alcester House and go through most carefully these plans and this estimate which I have on the bench with me at present.

10.55 p.m.

I wish very briefly to support my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch). I know Alcester House and it is in a most lovely situation. There is a very considerable difference between an estimate of £50,000 and the figure of £5,000 which the Parliamentary Secretary has just heard. There is no doubt that the moving of old people far from their homes has caused considerable upset, for naturally people in their old age like to be nearer their own people. Some patients have been moved into my own constituency of Salisbury. Salisbury is happy to have them, but it is a long way off and it is no secret that, as far as accommodation is concerned, there are too few beds in the area hospitals, and so further hospital accommodation will have to be found sooner or later. I hope the Minister will reconsider the whole question, even if he cannot give a full reply this evening.

10.56 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch), and Salisbury (Mr. J. Morrison) for raising this matter, because I think it is the common desire of all of us to try to secure the best possible accommodation and treatment for old people. I do not think there is any difference between us on that: it is merely that there are differences of opinion as to the way to go about it.

In this particular case—from the reports I have had—it is perfectly clear that Alcester House is in very attractive surroundings. It has a very attractive exterior, but for some years its interior had been reported on very adversely by all those responsible for its running. The decisions taken both by the Dorset County Council and quite openly by the regional hospital board were unanimous—that Alcester House should cease to be used. The Minister clearly could not disregard the views of those two responsible bodies in any lighthearted manner.

What was the actual position? I gather that at the time the decision was reached by the county council, there were 70 county council and hospital patients actually in the house, only two of whom were actually Shaftesbury residents. When the hon. Member mentioned the difficulty of taking people away from their homes to places where they could not be visited so easily by their friends and relatives, I would like to emphasise the unhappy fact that 33 out of 39 county council cases in Alcester House had no visitors for over a year. I should like to take this opportunity of stressing that, because this loneliness is something we do want to combat. In April, 1949, all the county council cases were moved to Sturminster Newton, Wareham, and Beaminster. There was no complaint at that time.

There was no complaint because the people were unaware of the fact that they were being moved away permanently. Also, with regard to people coming from Shaftesbury itself to Alcester House, they came not only from the borough but from the rural districts of Shaftesbury and Gillingham, which is only four miles away. There were lots of people who were moved.

I can well understand the feelings of old people who are moved. It is quite natural. We understand that old people who have been settled into certain conditions for a long period of time, even if they are not very satisfactory conditions, will naturally fear a move. But in fact they are very happy in the new accommodation which has been found for them, although we know perfectly well the difficulty there was with some of those who moved and about whom there was a certain amount of agitation at the time. We know that some of the patients protested when 11 of the chronic sick cases were moved to Salisbury, and at that time a small number were allowed to stay on a little longer until the beginning of this year.

So far as the chronic sick patients are concerned, we do want to provide accommodation for them in Shaftesbury. The regional hospital board agrees that there should be a small annexe near Shaftesbury and proposes to put it up in the grounds of the Westminster Memorial Hospital, which will be much more satisfactory than the provision available at Alcester House or that available now. But we have to make these quite difficult decisions from time to time—or the county council and hospital board have to do so—on what is best for these people. It was clear to both the county council and to the regional hospital board that the accommodation could not be brought up to anything like the standards we require for these old people without an expenditure of money which would be quite outside reasonable bounds—quite beyond, in fact, the modest new provision they were hoping to make available for the chronic sick that I have already mentioned.

The estimate that was made by the regional hospital board—given in all honesty—was about £50,000. It was their view that if they were going to deal with the dangers to that property that they believed existed—as did the county council—then it would involve an expenditure of round about that figure. The £5,000 mentioned by the hon. Member could provide no more than a very temporary kind of repair, which would be completely wasted money from our point of view.

I insist that we are anxious here to do our best to make provision for old people, both the chronic sick and those who are ablebodied, that they will be able to enjoy. We are burdened with large numbers of these old institution buildings and in many cases it is almost impossible to make them fit for present-day needs. In most cases it is quite impossible, in fact, to ensure that there is the right atmosphere to make these people feel that they are part of the community in which they are living, instead of being isolated in the institutional surroundings and atmosphere which in some of these old buildings cannot be avoided.

I want hon. Members to assist us in pressing forward as rapidly as possible with the new provision for the chronic sick we are anxious to make and to encourage the able-bodied who have been moved to settle down in their new surroundings. I would ask them to do what they can to encourage individuals—relatives, friends and others—on a voluntary basis to do what they can to visit these old people. Many of them, alas! have not been visited for a very long time. Clearly nothing can be worse for old people than the feeling that they are left on the shelf, whether in Alcester House or elsewhere.

While the Parliamentary Secretary was most courteous in his reply, I am sorry he was so negative. The hon. Member who initiated the Debate made a very reasoned argument, and the Parliamentary Secretary replied that the Ministry had had their reports from the regional hospital board and from the county council. But other evidence has been brought forward. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the figure of £5,000 would not be adequate. I feel it would have been very helpful indeed if the hon. Gentleman could have said that the Ministry would have another look at the matter.

The hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) has not raised this matter in a flippant manner. With his special knowledge, he feels that another decision should have been arrived at. I hope that, in addition to the great courtesy the Parliamentary Secretary has shown tonight, he will recognise the importance of a special Debate in this House, and that before shutting the door the Ministry will have another look at the matter and go into the figures submitted by the hon. Gentleman as well as examining the special report of the architect. If it is felt that the decision which has been taken is not a right one and that we can get only a negative reply in this House, then the importance of a Member of Parliament is undermined. I hope no one will be flippant in this Debate.

I therefore ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give the hon. Gentleman the satisfaction of knowing that this matter will be looked at again and the architect's report examined, weighing it all up with the reports of the regional hospital board and the county council. The Ministry will be doing the right thing if they reexamine this matter, in view of the local feeling on it.

I am afraid that I cannot give the promise that has been asked from me. The reason is that this has been carefully examined on several occasions without prejudice. On neither side are we anxious for anything but the best treatment and accommodation of these old people, and after a careful and full-re-examination by the Ministry, the regional hospital board, and the Dorset County Council, it would be quite misleading for me to undertake to re-examine it still further.

May I ask, in view of the present housing situation and the necessity of devoting our available resources——

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.