asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he has now reconsidered his letter of 22 August to the chairman of the North-West Thames regional health authority on the subject of consultation on closures as promised by his hon. Friend the Minister for Health on 13 November; and, if so, whether he will confirm that that letter was meant to apply to very short-term closures of small sub-units.
Temporary closure should not be a way of avoiding consultation. When a substantial temporary closure has to be made without prior consultation, the authority is still expected to consult afterwards if there is any danger of the closure becoming lasting.
Is the Minister aware that while he has been making conciliatory noises on the question of consultation about closures, the Secretary of State has been adopting a hard line on the matter? Will the hon. Gentleman do his best to ensure that his view prevails?
I am not aware that there is any difference of view between my right hon. Friend and myself.
The Minister will be aware that in my constituency a hospital in perfect condition, with 230 beds, has been closed without consultation. That closure has caused great hardship and pain. Will the Minister state what consultations took place? Will he also define "temporary"?
In a few cases the authorities—I am not saying that that is one of them—may have misunderstood the position initially. For that reason we issued clarification guidance.I do not believe that it would be helpful to try to define the word "temporary". A closure is temporary so long as no other alternative is brought forward.
The Government have been compounding confusion in this matter. First, the Secretary of State issued a letter of guidance which was supposed not to change the position. It could have fooled hon. Members. Then the Minister made statements which are more acceptable, but which the community health councils consider to be different from those of his right hon. Friend. The Minister is now issuing further guidance which may confuse matters. Why does not the Minister state firmly that the practices of previous Ministers should be followed? My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and his constituents will then know where they stand.
Order. My request for brief supplementary questions. applied to Front Bench as well as to Back-Bench speakers.
I do not accept the lengthy allegations of the right hon. Gentleman. Much of the chaos could have been avoided had there been clearer guidelines from the previous Government.