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Maternity Services (Hastings)

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 24 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

I am worried and my constituents are worried. There are many issues that Members of Parliament campaign on in their constituencies, but those to do with health provision must be the most important. We can all agree that maternity services deserve to be a high priority in health planning. This is about the safety of mothers and babies.

Our hospital in Hastings, the Conquest, has a full-service, consultant-led maternity unit. Within East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust, which we are part of, Eastbourne also has a full-service maternity unit. Four years ago, it was proposed that one of those units should close, and that we should have one midwife-led service and only one full maternity service for the area. The community rose up in arms. We campaigned in our thousands. We marched with babies and with prams. Every local MP objected, and we did not let up until we won—and win we did. I would like to pay tribute to the able, determined and dedicated campaign leaders, Margaret Williams and Liz Walke.

In September 2008, the decision was made by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, which advised the then Secretary of State for Health, that both units should stay open with their full service. The chair of the IRP said:

“The needs of local women and their families were at the heart of this review…we concluded that women’s access to and choice of services would be seriously compromised if the proposals were implemented.”

The campaigners already knew that, but we were reassured and, indeed, jubilant that the final decision makers also took that view. This was nearly three years ago. Some people might, ask “What’s the issue now?” or “Why are you campaigning when there is no formal proposal for closure of either units currently on the table?” They would not share my concern—my unease—about the latest information coming out of East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust. It is being signalled that there may be change in the air. It is not change itself we are frightened of, but the possible outcomes for mothers and babies.

The Care Quality Commission visited both hospitals in February this year, and it has raised concerns about the maternity services. The hospital trust, to its credit, was swift to contact stakeholders and MPs to inform them of this and to reassure us that action was immediately being taken to ensure high standards of safety and to address the concerns that the CQC had raised. I would like to thank the chief executive of the trust, Darren Grayson, for his swift action in disclosing this important information. I must confess, however, that we are not entirely reassured. We, the campaigners—my constituents—are still worried. I am not reading any motive or plan into the trust’s response to the CQC; I am simply here to highlight, once more, that the outcome of these concerns must not lead us down the very road we have travelled before—namely, having to protect our full-service maternity units.

We do not want to stick our heads in the sand. If there are problems with the maternity units that might impact on safety in any way, we must address them. However, this must not be a shortcut back on to the damaging road of trying to shut one of our units. We will not accept that. I urge the trust not to present that as the answer to the current problems. I would like the Minister to consider that in her response.

There are other answers, and they are in the very problem that the trust is highlighting—namely, staffing. The original decision to maintain both units urged the trust to address the issue of staffing by getting the right and safe mix of experience and qualifications among the doctors and consultants. The report of three years ago accepted that staffing was a problem, but critically it urged the PCT to

“consider alternative staffing models which have not been explored so far”.

It stated:

“It is incumbent on the local NHS to explore the potential of these roles to develop midwifery careers and support doctors’ roles locally.”

It agreed that there was a problem, but urged the local NHS to develop a strategy to deal with it. But here we are. As was anticipated by the report three years ago, we have a staffing problem that may be impacting on the service, and in such a way that doubt is once more being cast on the viability of having two full-service units.

Each hospital handles about 2,000 births a year. I am pleased to say that the strategic health authority recently commissioned an external head of midwifery to review midwifery, leadership and staffing levels, and she confirmed that the trust was safe. The latest annual regional report also praised the trust for having the lowest caesarean section rates in the region, thereby supporting women to experience a normal birth.

Eleven consultants cover both sites, and we have our designated number of junior doctors. However, we are short of middle grade doctors. There should be eight at each site, but there are only seven at the Conquest hospital and six at the Eastbourne district general hospital. The gap is filled by locums, which is expensive. An agency locum costs approximately £79 per hour, which equates to £18,000 per agency doctor per month, as against a trust doctor, who costs approximately £9,000 per month. In these times of increased pressure on funds, even though NHS funding is ring-fenced the NHS is still being asked to make efficiency savings and to improve services. The locum costs are therefore an unpleasant and substantial addition to the hospital overheads.

Unfortunately, the staffing issue is exacerbated by the European working time directive. I know that the arguments against the directive for parts of the medical profession are being examined, but in the meantime the outcome of restricting working time to 48 hours per week simply puts yet more pressure on the staffing levels in these units.

I appreciate that some might say that I am panicking early. We have been reassured by the trust’s chief executive that there are currently no plans to close either unit, and a consultation is about to be launched on how to maintain a top service at both units. In this reassurance, there is a sting. It signals that the challenges of staffing may require a change. I fear that that could include the closure of one of the units. We must not let that happen.

The town of Hastings in my constituency has high levels of deprivation. Its teenage pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the country and, as we know, this country has the highest rate in Europe. Some 22% of its residents are in the bottom 10% according to assessments of deprivation. Local doctors, to whom I speak regularly, tell me that young women can be reluctant to attend antenatal classes and often miss their appointments. These are the women who may encounter unforeseen difficulties, and who may need a full-service maternity unit at their hospital. They are not the women who are likely to hop in their car to go to Eastbourne for their check-up. In fact, in many parts of Hastings car ownership is running at only 40%, so many would have to rely on the local bus services and the local roads. If the maternity service were closed, it would effectively put up barriers to safety for that group of young women.

I wish to say a word about the local roads, on which I hope to secure a separate debate. If we look on the map, we see that Hastings is just over 20 miles from Eastbourne, and the AA tells us that the journey can be done in approximately 20 to 30 minutes. It is quite wrong. It is in fact the equivalent of a 40 or 50-mile journey elsewhere, and in my experience it takes at least an hour. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recognises the need for investment to support smaller units, such as ours, where there are significant distances involved. That is what we have in Hastings and Eastbourne—because of the nature of the roads, the towns are a significant distance apart.

Those of us who campaigned on the issue before know the arguments well, but we are up against what feels like the establishment. It is creating a tide that pushes us one way—to super-size maternity units, beloved of managers and some doctors but not particularly of mothers. Expectant women want choice, safety and accessibility. I can quite understand management’s preference for large units. It is easier to manage a larger group of people, more efficient for those delivering the service, more convenient for the consultants who are in overall charge and more flexible for training junior and middle-ranking doctors. However, we must not let the one-size-fits-all principle dominate our maternity services. We must remain aware of local issues that are relevant to any changes in configuration. In Hastings, I have mentioned geography, deprivation and the particular needs of some of the youngest, most vulnerable mothers in my constituency.

Although I speak up for the residents of my constituency, I urge the Minister to pay attention to the trend of addressing staffing issues in hospitals by moving towards super-sized units, particularly maternity units. “Bigger is not necessarily better”—that may sound like an extract from a nursery rhyme, but it is actually part of the name of a highly respected paper about the centralisation of hospital services. Even the well respected King’s Fund questions the assumption that outcomes are improved in bigger units.

Despite the conflicting views about smaller or larger maternity units, one thing is clear: the staffing issue is about preparing and planning. That was highlighted to the health trust more than three years ago in Hastings. We must demand more from our trust now, and we do not accept that closure should be considered for either of our full-service sites. We need the complete service. We need in our communities the delivery of a safe, efficient local service, for the continued delivery of safe and healthy babies.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) for giving me an opportunity to speak in her Adjournment debate. I concur with everything that she said. I will take a limited time, because we want to listen to the Minister, but I wish to focus on a couple of separate matters. I add that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) expressed specific concerns to me this morning, because many of his constituents in Polegate and Seaford use the district general hospital in Eastbourne.

I feel as though I have walked about 150 miles over the past few years for the “Save the DGH” campaign. It was an enormous, cross-party campaign with cross-community support, led in Eastbourne by a splendid lady, Liz Walke, and in Hastings by Margaret Williams. They are two fantastic, community-focused individuals who did a superb job in rallying their towns and all the political parties.

I shall quickly make a couple of points. I have never been a conspiracy theorist, but there is an exception to every rule. Just because I do not believe that there are conspiracies everywhere does not mean that they cannot sometimes exist. I have some good contacts in the district general hospital and I spent eight and a half years working in Eastbourne before gratifyingly winning the seat in the general election last year. I have developed some good contacts in the trust and, sadly, I must tell the Minister that I believe that the single-siters who originally wanted to move to one consultant-led maternity service have not gone away, despite being turned down by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. I am afraid that they have used the pretext of the Care Quality Commission report to begin the process of moving to a single site.

As soon as we heard that, we were very active and we blitzed the media for 10 days solid. I believe that that led the trust’s chief executive to say that there were currently no plans to close one of the maternity wards even temporarily. The blunt reality is that there were such plans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye mentioned middle grade doctors. Around the country, more than 30 different trusts with maternity wards deliver an outstanding quality of service without eight middle grade doctors. The issue is a smokescreen, I think that it has been seen as such and I will not tolerate it. I ask the Minister to speak to the trust board, expressly remind its members of the content of the IRP report and tell them to consider seriously options other than middle grade doctors. I think that this last option suits some of the consultants rather than the patients.

I am terribly keen to hear the Minister’s comments, so I will finish with a quote. I wrote to the IRP within 24 hours of the issue blowing up again two weeks ago. The other day, I got a response. For Hansard, I shall quote from it. It states:

“Dear Mr Lloyd…

As you note, in July 2008, the IRP completed a full review of the proposals to close the Eastbourne obstetrics service and advised that the case to do so had not been made. The IRP also made recommendations about what further action should be taken, all of which were accepted by the then Secretary of State for Health in making his decision.”

I urge the Minister to assist my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye and me to keep an eye on the trust over the next few months and years because we, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, and thousands of residents in Eastbourne and Hastings are not prepared to countenance in any way, shape or form the closure of either of the consultant-led maternity wards in Eastbourne.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) on securing the debate. There is no more important issue for a politician or, indeed, a politician’s constituents than the health services available in their constituency. My hon. Friend spoke with passion about her concerns and those of her constituents. I note that she and the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) paid tribute to Margaret Williams and Liz Walke, the campaigners from last time. They must have a heavy heart listening to or reading tonight’s debate. I do not think that my hon. Friend is panicking early. She is doing exactly what is right: highlighting early her concerns and fears in the light of some vigorous campaigning three years ago.

I would like to join my hon. Friend, as I am sure other Members for the area would, in paying tribute to the NHS staff in her constituency for their hard work and dedication. In common with NHS staff throughout the country, the health and well-being of the public is their driving motivation day in, day out. It is not an easy time for them, and we should not lose sight of that. The Government will support them and ensure that they have the power to provide people with the health outcomes that are consistently among the best in the world.

It would be remiss to pretend that the NHS is free from problems. It is right for people to be concerned when they see something going wrong. I can therefore understand why people in Hastings may have been anxious following the Care Quality Commission’s recent inspection. As my hon. Friend knows, the commission found that inadequate staffing was putting patients at risk, and that that affected the quality of services being provided in the maternity units and in A and E. From the very beginning, the Government have made it clear that safety must be at the heart of the NHS, and that substandard care will not be tolerated. I trained as a nurse and worked in the NHS for 25 years, and from my point of view, nothing but the best well do for the people of this country.

We expect the trust to work hard to resolve the issues raised, and my hon. Friend spoke quite warmly of its response. I understand that it is working closely with the PCT and the strategic health authorities to address the issues by 31 March. I hope and expect that it will meet that deadline.

My hon. Friend spoke of her constituents’ fears that the CQC’s concerns about the safety of the local maternity units will lead to the Conquest’s consultant-led maternity service being closed, and of the previous campaign on that. My constituency is not so very far away from hers. My constituents were also victims of “Creating an NHS fit for the future”, which I felt at all times was fit only for the bin.

I know that in 2008 the independent review panel advised the then Secretary of State for Health that consultant-led services should be retained in both Conquest and Eastbourne hospitals. Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Eastbourne felt that that would be an end to matters, and I understand why people in East Sussex now worry about a new threat.

I gather that East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust has sought to calm those fears by stating publicly that there are no plans for the closure of either maternity unit. However cynical we might become when we have campaigned over time on local issues, we must take what we hear at face value and believe it. I am also aware that the trust has advised local MPs that it will look at various options for the future of maternity services, and that those services will be linked closely to paediatrics, emergency services and gynaecology. The review will have input from external clinical experts, which is crucial for the confidence of local people. Irrespective of their cynicism, it is important to stress that no decision has been made in advance, and that the trust has no plans to close any of the units.

However, I understand the concerns of local people and my hon. Friend. Whatever decisions are made, they must be guided by the trust’s principal responsibility to provide high-quality and safe care. Decisions must be made in an open and transparent way, with the involvement of GP commissioners, staff, patients and public, and with full, real and meaningful consultation. As she knows, I cannot speculate on or prejudge the optimum size of the unit or the outcome of the exercise.

It is right that decisions are made locally without central interference. The Government believe passionately that local decision making is essential in improving outcomes, and in driving up the quality and sustainability of services for different communities. My hon. Friend ably highlighted some of the deprivation and health inequalities in her constituency.

To that end, the Health Secretary has identified four crucial tests that all service changes must pass: they must have the support of GP commissioners; arrangements for public and patient engagement must be strengthened; there should be greater clarity on the clinical evidence base underpinning any proposals; and any proposals must take into account the need to develop and support patient choice, which my hon. Friend mentioned. That means that service changes that do not have the support of GPs, local clinicians, patients and the local community should not happen, which gives patients, local professionals and local councils a far greater role in how services are shaped and developed, and ensures that changes will lead to the best outcomes for local people. That is in line with our proposals in the Health and Social Care Bill, in which we have said that local NHS services must be centred on patients, led by local clinicians and free from political interference, whether from this House or the various layers of NHS management.

My hon. Friend raised, in particular, the working time directive. The coalition Government are committed to limiting the application of the directive in the UK. It has caused immense problems in the health service, and the Health Secretary will support the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in taking a robust approach to future negotiations on the revision of the directive to achieve that greater flexibility.

I also draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the King’s Fund paper that questions the assumptions that outcomes improve in bigger units. The King’s Fund is right that an effective skills mix is important to get the best out of maternity units, and the Department of Health has commissioned the national perinatal epidemiology unit to undertake a study comparing the outcomes of births planned at home, in different types of midwifery units and in hospital units with obstetric services. That report is expected in autumn 2011 and will be very important in providing the evidence for further action on choice of place of birth.

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s reasons for calling this debate. She is right to raise the matter at this very early stage, so that local people are clear that they are getting the support from their local MP—that was quite apparent from the passion with which she spoke—and so that all those working in the health service are aware of her close involvement. I applaud her determination to press for local health services that best meet the needs of patients, and to ensure that whatever measures are taken, following the CQC report and this review, the overriding concern of those services must be the interests of the local people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.