As you said, Mr Speaker, we shall have those tributes tomorrow, but I should like very briefly to echo your comments, because I know that the whole House is shocked and deeply saddened by the umtimely passing of Charles Kennedy. He was a giant of his generation, loved and respected in all parts of the House. Our thoughts are particularly with Liberal Democrat Members who knew him well, and to whom he was a very good friend over many years. We shall all miss him as a brave and principled man who had the common touch, and who proved that it is possible to be passionate and committed without ever being bitter or bearing grudges. Our thoughts are with his whole family.
I can tell the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) that the ambulance service is performing well under a great deal of pressure. Although a number of national targets are not being met, the service is responding to a record number of calls, and is making a record number of journeys involving all categories of patients.
I echo the comments made about the late Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. He was one of the kindest Members of the House, and he will be greatly missed by many of us.
As for the Secretary of State’s response to my question, I think that his assessment was a bit off. When my constituent Malcolm Hodgson’s son-in-law broke his leg in a local park, he waited in agony for 50 minutes for an ambulance, and then waited a further five days for an operation. Can the Secretary of State explain how our ambulance and health services were allowed to fall into such a dire state over the past five years, and will he apologise to that young man for the delay and the pain that he suffered on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch?
I take responsibility for everything that happens on my watch. [Interruption.] I think it is a little early to ask the Secretary of State to resign—but maybe not. The ambulance service is under great pressure, but across the country we have 2,000 more paramedics than five years ago, we are recruiting an additional 1,700 over the next few years, and from March this year, compared with March the previous year, the most urgent calls—the category A red 1 calls—went up by 24% and the ambulance service answered nearly 2,000 more calls within the eight-minute period. There is a lot of pressure, we have a plan to deal with it, but we need to give credit to the ambulance service for its hard work.
I stood against Charles Kennedy in 1992 in Ross, Cromarty and Skye and will take the opportunity tomorrow of remembering what a very happy occasion it was and how very glad I was to lose to Charles at that election.
I strongly opposed the creation of the South Western Ambulance Service because I believed the Wiltshire Ambulance Service did a better job on its own. I know the Secretary of State has been monitoring the calls received by the South Western Ambulance Service—one of the two trial areas. Will he tell the House whether response times in the south-west have improved or got worse in recent years?
NHS England will be updating the House on the results of that trial. It was a very important trial because it was designed to stop the dispatch of ambulances to people who did not need one within eight minutes, in order to make sure ambulances were available for people who did need one. South Western was very helpful in taking part in that trial and we will update the House shortly on the results of it.
Yesterday 400 people in my region expected to begin a paramedics course put on by the East of England Ambulance Service only to discover that there is no course and they are now £4,000 out of pocket. That is because the University of East Anglia and Anglia Ruskin University could not get accreditation for the courses. Does the Secretary of State think this event is going to help the ambulance service in the east of England where staff are already overwhelmed? It is a critical service—a vital service. Does he think this will contribute to hitting those targets, which at the moment are being inadequately met?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. It is important that we train more paramedics. It is one of the most challenging jobs in the NHS and I will take up the issue he raises with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to understand precisely what the problem was and to try to resolve it as quickly as possible.
Will the Secretary of State consider reviewing the protocol, which is unique to the ambulance service in terms of our emergency services, that breaks cannot be broken into even if there is a category A incident in the area? We had the loss of a young man in Berwick recently; the ambulance which was in post in the ambulance station a mere four minutes down the road was not called and the boy died. That is the cause of enormous distress across the rural areas of Northumberland.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place as someone who campaigned a great deal on health issues while she was a parliamentary candidate; it is wonderful to see her here. That is a tragic case and we need to look at those rules. I will take that up and see what we can do.