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Community Hospitals

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

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If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on smaller community hospitals. [103198]

We want to see a new lease of life for community hospitals. Our new guidance, "Keeping the NHS Local", issued last month, emphasises the important role that community hospitals can play in providing locally based health services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very encouraging reply. In the light of it, will he join me in urging the North and East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire strategic health authority to give urgent and careful consideration to the outline business case that it will receive later this month from the Selby and York primary care trust for the complete rebuilding of Selby War Memorial hospital, not only because of the role played by the hospital in the community but also because that exciting project is one of the first to come from a PCT?

I very much enjoyed meeting my hon. Friend and representatives of his local PCT about a month ago to talk about the proposed development. As he remembers, I visited the hospital two or three years ago and was most impressed by what I saw. There is a strong case for redevelopment. Obviously that will take investment and it will need a good case, but I know that the PCT will make a good case to the SHA. Equally, I am sure that my hon. Friend will remind his constituents that such developments are possible only because of the investment that the Labour Government are making.

On the assumption that the Secretary of State will give the go-ahead to the reorganisation of health care in east Kent, and given the excellent coastal and cottage hospitals in that area, will he tell us what financial assistance he will give the PCT so that hospitals such as the Queen Victoria Memorial hospital in Herne Bay can have the minor injuries and accident and illness units and telemedicine that they need, which would help patients to be treated closer to home without having to travel at all?

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, not least because he has been one of the protagonists in the whole sorry affair vis-á-vis east Kent, decisions have to made, and most members of the community now want a final decision so that we can make progress. What is absolutely clear across the country, not just in east Kent, however, is that community hospitals have a very important part to play. Indeed, technological change and medical advance are driving many of the treatments that were previously available only in the big tertiary centres and making them available much more locally, provided, of course, that we invest in the necessary information technology and make the necessary capital investment and resources available for staff and training. That is precisely what the Government want to do—but whether the Conservative party agrees with those proposals is a moot point.

On 10 February, I attended the official opening of the new £1 million skin care unit at Kettering general hospital, which will deal with the increasing number of problems with eczema, skin cancer and other dermatological conditions. I welcome that investment in our local health service. Does my right hon. Friend believe that smaller hospitals would benefit from that kind of investment if we adopted a policy of cutting public spending by 20 per cent., like the Conservative party has?

I take the very simple view—I think that my hon. Friend shares it—that if we want more out of the national health service, we simply have to put more in. That is what the Government are committed to; it is what the Conservative party opposes.

According to the logic of the document published by the Secretary of State's Department on 14 February and, indeed, the strategies of many local NHS trusts, services would move from district general hospitals to community hospitals; but does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, if that happens, many parts of the country are likely to have fewer district general hospitals?

No, I do not think that that is the case. Although change will always be necessary in the NHS—change is often a very positive thing because it is driven by medical advance and technological improvement and it makes more treatments available to more patients—we have to move away from the idea that the "biggest is best" philosophy will always work for NHS patients, especially in local communities.

Rather than presuming that biggest is always best and that the only way to solve a problem with local health services is to centralise those services, the new guidance rightly says that the starting point for examining what is needed in the local community should be the presumption of keeping as many services as locally based and locally accessible as possible. That is what we want to do, but it can only be done—I repeat this point—provided that we make the necessary investment in IT, technology, training, staff, buildings and equipment. We are prepared to make that investment. Of course, the hon. Gentleman's party voted against it.