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Kentmere Mental Health Ward, Westmorland General Hospital

Volume 611: debated on Monday 13 June 2016

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

Kentmere ward is the 12-bed adult mental health ward at Westmorland general hospital. It provides essential in-patient acute mental health services to people in South Lakeland and beyond. Four weeks ago, the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which looks after mental health in the county, proposed to close the ward by the end of June, with new admissions ceasing at the end of May.

This is the second time in my time as our Member of Parliament that the ward has faced the threat of closure. Ten years ago, similar proposals sparked a huge outcry from local residents. Thousands of people signed petitions and wrote to health bosses, and about 3,000 of us marched through Kendal town centre in pretty shocking weather to voice our opposition.

The campaign took many, many months, but we won. Our victory in saving the ward was a hugely important moment for our community. Mental health is often a taboo, so the suffering of those living with mental health conditions, and of their families, often happens in silence and in private. In the face of a threat to the services that those with mental health conditions rely on, far too many people would choose to look the other way—but not in South Lakeland. The campaign showed that local people were prepared proudly to stand up in solidarity with those living with mental health conditions and with their families. I am therefore extremely proud of my community. In the face of this latest threat, the character of our community is once again shining through.

Westmorland general hospital is the main hospital serving the Lake district, the western Yorkshire Dales, Kendal and much of the rest of rural southern Cumbria. I have learned over the years that the tendency to overlook the health needs of rural communities such as ours means that I need to be permanently vigilant in my defence and promotion of our hospital. The campaigns we have run to win new cancer services, to prevent the closure of the hospital itself and to increase surgery at Westmorland general are testament to the fact that ours is a special community, which will fight with unique energy and tenacity for mental and physical healthcare that is high quality and accessible. Once again, it appears that we must roll up our sleeves and fight to defend our services.

As I said, the ward provides 12 beds, the majority of which are usually full at any given time. The people occupying these beds are often suffering from the most serious mental health conditions. For much of the time, the majority of patients staying on the ward are under section.

The apparent trigger for the proposed closure came after the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust was inspected as part of Care Quality Commission’s comprehensive inspection programme last November. Its report, which was published in March, awarded a rating of “requires improvement” to the Kentmere ward. In particular, the CQC highlighted concerns relating to privacy, access to outdoor areas and the internal physical structure of the ward. Having visited the ward myself, most recently on Saturday, I have to say that the quality of staffing and patient care is absolutely outstanding. In fact, the CQC itself was surprised that the trust’s response to the report was to close the ward, believing that the upgrades needed to meet required standards were perfectly feasible. Let me be clear: this ward is providing excellent care from outstanding staff in a physical setting that requires some improvement. It most definitely does not require closure. Indeed, the CQC has been clear that it did not recommend closure, or anything of the sort.

As I said, the ward is situated in Westmorland general hospital. The partnership trust that is responsible for mental health in Cumbria is a tenant of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust. The hospital is a fairly modern building, with plenty of car parking and a beautiful setting looking out towards the Lakeland fells and the Howgills. Put bluntly, if you have to go to hospital, I cannot think of anywhere more pleasant you could be, and that is not unimportant when supporting people living with mental health conditions. The hospital building is not full. There is a great deal of space on the site, with ward space that is not used or under-used. There are enormous opportunities, with a little bit of imagination, to seek more spacious, more suitable, better-quality accommodation elsewhere in the hospital.

It is clear, then, that Kentmere ward needs upgrading. It is not ideal that it is on the first floor. There could do with being more space for the unit as a whole and greater privacy for the patients. There will be projected costs of a completely new building to meet the requirements of an upgrade. The Minister may have seen those projections. They will no doubt be expensive, and the conclusion that he is probably meant to draw from whatever scary numbers he has been given is that the only affordable solution is to close the ward. He is expected to read his brief and fob me off. However, I know him well, rate him highly, and know that he has much better judgment than that.

The reality is that the needs of patients in South Lakeland could be met on the current Westmorland general hospital site. An immediate project should be launched, alongside the hospitals trust, to ensure that there is a larger unit with ground-floor access that has greater levels of gender segregation, greater privacy, greater dignity, and greater safety. If there is a will, then the way is staring us in the face. Whatever the challenges, which we acknowledge, in upgrading this unit, it is obvious from my conversations with patients, their families, staff, the CQC and the trust that there are serious concerns about the incredibly detrimental impact that closure will have on patients’ conditions.

What the hon. Gentleman is saying very much echoes what happened in York when the hospital closed nine months ago. The consequence has been loss of life to my constituents. It seems that primacy in decision making is given not to clinical need, but more to the physical environment, and that has to be wrong, does it not?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention and wish to express great solidarity with her in the campaign that she is running in York. It is of great concern to me that the CQC will make recommendations that will require improvements, and potentially not offer solutions to maintain a plausible and sustainable provision instead. The judgment we have to make is, “Is a good service that is not perfect better than no service?”, and of course the answer is going to be yes.

As I said, the quality of care in Kentmere ward at Westmorland general hospital is excellent, as stated in the report, and the staff are excellent. The ward needs upgrading—that is a given—but its closure would harm the health of some of the most vulnerable people in our community. It is utterly unacceptable that those people will have to be shipped off to Barrow, Whitehaven or Carlisle rather than being treated much closer to home in Kendal. What is more, there is no guarantee that those far distant wards will have the capacity to accommodate them. Already, patients sometimes face the immense journey to Manchester, for example. For many less well-off residents, a round trip to these alternative wards of up to 100 miles, with many hours on the bus or train, will put family and loved ones beyond easy reach. It is the patients who would be harmed if they were cut off from their families and friends and missed out on all-important visits. Instead of the reassurance of familiar faces and surroundings, they would face this dark time alone and in an unknown place.

Does the hon. Gentleman know whether any issues have been raised by veterans’ organisations or by veterans themselves? Ex-soldiers and former service personnel are clearly—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Does the hon. Gentleman know whether there is a need to address that issue? A lot of veterans in my constituency need help. Does his constituency have the same problems as mine?

The hon. Gentleman draws attention to an extremely important matter, namely the plight of so many veterans. It seems that we are happy for brave women and men to provide loyal service and to put their lives on the line for us, but they are often dropped when they return from duty. There are incidences of mental health concerns for them and their families in the years after their return, and I am not clear that we as a general community provide the support that we should. That support can sometimes be provided by the community, but sometimes it needs to be provided in a physical setting as well. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

A recent Government report showed that the closure of this ward in South Lakeland would leave our part of the world with among the worst access to mental health services in the entire United Kingdom. Out of the 6,688 open ward stays in adult acute mental health in-patient care in England alone over the past year, only 263 patients —4% of them—received care 30 miles or more away from where they lived. The closure of the Kentmere ward would leave vast numbers of South Lakes residents—including all of Kendal, as well as many other rural areas—even further away from those services, as the closest alternative in-patient ward is in Barrow, 35 miles away from Westmorland general. The most likely alternatives are further away still: Carlisle is a 45-minute drive, at best, and Whitehaven and Manchester are both more than 70 minutes away, if the traffic is kind.

The provision of replacement community support, which has been offered to compensate for the closure of the ward, would be inadequate. More community support would, of course, be welcomed, but that must be in addition to, not instead of, the 12-bed unit. Increasingly, the majority of patients in the unit are under section, and one cannot section people in the community.

By the way, when people are sectioned, there is an immense impact on our local police force. Closure of the unit in Kendal would mean that our local police force, which is already heavily stretched, under-resourced and under pressure, would have to take patients vast distances across Cumbria to far-off mental health units, taking officers off the beat and threatening the safety and security of our rural communities.

The last time I spent a night out on the beat with our local police force, I was stunned by how much of its time was spent dealing with various kinds of mental health issues. Indeed, that was pretty much all it did on that occasion. Anecdotally, police officers locally tell me that up to half of their workload can involve dealing with people living with mental health conditions. Their dedication and compassion in being the first line of support for incredibly vulnerable and often distressed people and their families is overwhelming, and I am proud of them. However, our police are already working beyond their physical capacity; the closure of Kentmere ward would just add to that pressure. It is unacceptable.

Local people recognise the damage that closure of the ward will have on patient welfare and are once again uniting to make their concerns heard as we stand together to fight to put a stop to the proposed closure. There has been an overwhelming response from local people to the campaign, and as of today our petition has reached 5,500 signatures.

Last week, we were encouraged, in the face of such massive public opposition, as we were able to secure a much welcome but temporary victory: the trust announced that a final decision is to be postponed while it looks at whether the ward can be upgraded and improved to meet CQC standards, which means that it will now stay open and continue to admit patients over the summer. The vulnerable patients I met over the weekend continue to get treatment close to home. If we had not achieved this victory, they would already be being carted off to Barrow or Carlisle—far from home, and far from loved ones. News that new admissions will continue to be made throughout the summer is also welcome.

I am grateful to the trust for listening to our concerns and thinking again. I personally thank every single one of the thousands of local people involved in our campaign. Between us, we forced the trust to hold back on closure. I am especially grateful to volunteers from South Lakeland Mind, and to the local media outlets that have shown such strong support to the campaign. This is only a temporary reprieve for Kentmere ward, and our work is far from complete. My message to the people of South Lakeland is that this is the moment to step up our campaign, energised and encouraged by this success and spurred on by victories in campaigns for our hospital over the last few years. My message to patients and their families is: we will stand with you and we will not give up, because we must not give up.

It has been very clear from my discussions with the trust over the last few days that its default position is still to close the ward. I have one very specific request of the Government this evening. Will the Minister clearly instruct the Cumbria Partnership trust not to close this vital ward? While the trust looks at upgrade options and alternatives, I ask him to make it very clear, right here and right now, that closure is off the table.

I have spoken to many local residents about the matter over the past few weeks, but a conversation I had with one lady struck me particularly hard. She is regularly treated for her mental health condition at the unit, and she was clearly extremely distressed by the thought of having to trek miles from home to receive care if the ward were to close. Her condition has been visibly exacerbated by the tangible threat from this proposal. A decision by the Minister to instruct the trust, tonight, not to go ahead with closure could directly alleviate the worry and anxiety of that lady and many more like her.

The long-term effects of closing the unit would be far greater than the short-term savings. If the Government are serious about mental health, they must put words into action and prove it by stepping in and preventing the closure of this vital ward. The closure of the ward would be a serious backward step for mental health care in South Lakeland, and the Minister has the opportunity to prevent it. On behalf of the people of the South Lakes, I ask him now to take the opportunity to save Kentmere ward.

There is no pressure here, then. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), for securing this debate and for his vigilance in raising such an important subject, which matters a great deal to his constituents. I put on record my appreciation for the work done by the NHS in Cumbria and I thank the staff for their hard work and commitment to patients. In doing so, I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman said about the police. As we in the Chamber who know about these matters are aware, the police do a great deal of work in this area. The crisis care concordat, which was piloted by the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), has made a considerable contribution to the way in which we look after those with mental health issues at times of crisis, and the police have been intimately involved. I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the amount of such work that the police in south Lakeland are involved in.

I am fond of South Lakeland. Bury Grammar School had a house at Helsington, near Brigsteer, which I am sure is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I remember the place extremely well. It is a beautiful area, and its constituents are entitled both to good service from an MP and to the best quality services.

Let me turn immediately to the subject of the debate. Cumbria Partnership, the provider trust, announced in May its decision to close Kentmere unit following information from the CQC that highlighted the environmental constraints on the unit. Kentmere is an old mixed-sex unit with no access to outdoor space. The hon. Gentleman’s concerns and comments about the decision have been widely reported. As he knows, and despite what he said at the conclusion of his remarks, this is a matter for the local NHS. Neither I nor any other Minister have a role in the decisions that are taken. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who spoke forcefully about Bootham Park in York, also knows that well.

However, I understand, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, that the NHS now says that the unit will not close as announced and that decisions will depend on further work. It is, therefore, worth setting out the background and indicating the interest that I have in making sure that the best possible services are provided, while recognising that the old levers of Ministers and the NHS are not quite as they were.

Mental health services for Cumbria are commissioned by the NHS Cumbria clinical commissioning group. Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust is the provider of mental health services for patients in Cumbria. The CCG has been working on a new mental health strategy for Cumbria for some time. It is fair to say that one of the problems that the NHS, in common with other public services, faces in Cumbria is the geography. The largest towns are at the northern and southern ends of a region that covers a large area, and it is difficult to travel between the smaller towns because the roads are often slow. This means that the NHS has to make difficult decisions about where and how to provide services. To put it bluntly, everything cannot be available in every local community. While cost is a real factor, the main problem is maintaining quality. It is not about saving pennies; it is about making sure that the quality of service is high.

Like everyone else, NHS clinicians learn and improve through experience. Skills that are not being used will decline. Facilities seeing only a few patients tend to lack the patient throughput needed to ensure that services remain of high quality. The cost of employing staff is the main factor driving the cost of services, and providing services from a greater number of locations means that more staff are needed. There are only so many staff to go round. The NHS invariably finds that larger units do better in terms of patient outcomes, but the question is where those larger units should be located. Inevitably, decisions taken by the NHS will disappoint those areas not chosen.

NHS services in Cumbria overall—not just mental health services—are facing a range of challenges, and in many cases the reasons are the same. The northern part of the area is part of a success regime aimed at improving all patient services; the issues at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust in recent years are well known. It is against this background that the NHS is considering what should happen at Kentmere and what is best for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Cumbria Partnership announced on 17 May that the Kentmere unit would close from the end of June 2016. At the same time, it was announced that the adjoining health-based place of safety would close at the end of May. The trust said that the decision was a result of quality and safety concerns raised by the Care Quality Commission. The CQC had inspected the unit in November 2015 and its report was published in March. However, the CQC says that the decision to close the ward and the health-based place of safety is not a necessary outcome of the findings of the CQC inspection, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. In short, while it did identify problems, the CQC report did not recommend the closure of the unit.

The report clearly highlighted concerns about the ward environment, which it said placed service users at risk and did not support good care and treatment. Something does need to be done about those concerns. The unit, which treats men and women, does not meet minimum standards on single-sex accommodation and has poor access to outside space. As I understand it, one issue is that privacy for bathing and sleeping cannot be guaranteed on the mixed ward. That poses an obvious risk to patients.

On 25 May, the trust gave a reassurance that the closure would be temporary and that timescales for the closure would be reviewed. I now understand that, following discussions with the CQC and with commissioners, any decision on closure will be delayed to allow further exploration of what improvements can be made. More needs to be done, and I will say a bit about that later. It says here that the trust accepts it did not get its messages right on the closure, and I think that hon. Members will probably agree strongly with that. Many hon. Members will be aware of similar experiences in other areas, and I think the NHS needs to think carefully about how it communicates with patients and the public, particularly when the news is not good. The facts need to be clearly set out, and it is important not to rush to announcements prematurely.

These circumstances reminded me of the closure last year of Bootham Park Hospital in York, in the constituency of the hon. Member for York Central. There are differences, in that the CQC recommended the closure of Bootham Park on patient safety grounds, which is not the case here. But the report produced on the closure by NHS England makes a number of observations about how difficult processes such as this need to be handled by the NHS. I have discussed this matter with the hon. Lady and I would be happy to discuss these matters further with the hon. Gentleman if we get an opportunity to do so. These are difficult decisions to get right—safety considerations really matter and when things are identified as needing to be put right, they must be put right—but the question then becomes how to do it, on what timescale and what the options are. I will come to that in a moment. The difficulty of handling such decisions, and the way in which they have not been handled well at Bootham Park, reminds us of the importance of getting such decisions right. The report on Bootham Park, particularly in relation to owning and communicating decisions, has been made public, and I have placed a copy of the report in the Library.

As I have said, in relation to Kentmere ward, we have moved in the space of a few weeks from a permanent closure to a temporary closure, and then to the unit remaining open while more work is completed. The safety of patients has to be the primary concern, and we would be failing patients if the NHS continued to tolerate the risk to the quality and safety of care that the environment at Kentmere places on local services. Something needs to be done, and it is up to the local NHS to decide what that is, but I do not think it will do so on its own. That is where the hon. Gentleman and his friends come in.

The CCG recognises that mental health services in Cumbria need to improve and it has already involved service users, their families and carers on this project. Much of the work so far has shown, not surprisingly, that patients want better services closer to home in their local community. Later this year, NHS Cumbria CCG will therefore be consulting about the future configuration of adult in-patient mental health beds across Cumbria. That will ensure it has the right beds in the right place, with a sustainable service that the local NHS can staff for the future. The CCG has already said it will not support any permanent service change at Kentmere without full public consultation.

In preparation for this, the CCG is looking at the current configuration of adult in-patient mental health beds, benchmarking how it is managing mental health needs across Cumbria with other mental health providers and advising on areas where the NHS needs to develop services to meet future needs. The CCG also needs to make sure it has the right kind of beds in place—for example, facilities for children and young people, older adults and psychiatric intensive care beds.

There is not much time left, and I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to point out to him, first, that there is not a single tier 4 adolescent or child mental health bed in the whole of the county of Cumbria, and secondly, that the 12 beds on Kentmere ward are nearly always full and the majority of them are for people under a section, so there is no opportunity for community options. It is not the case that there is a lack of demand.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I cannot be as au fait with the situation as him, but I fully understand the point in general. Whereas there is a tremendous move towards improving community services, which is important and vital in its own right, that cannot be a total substitute for the in-patient acute beds that are needed. I understand his point, and that is my view and the Department’s. Getting the right balance is important, but the one is not a cheap substitute for the other. Such services are an important component, because it is important that more is done in the community to keep people away from acute beds and make sure they do not need them, but I entirely take his point.

NHS Cumbria CCG is working with its providers—mainly the foundation trust, as well as clinicians, service users and carers—to help develop the model of care it will need in the future to deliver its vision of improved mental healthcare and sustainable services. I am told that public consultation will be carried out in line with best practice and the latest Government guidance. There will be sessions for stakeholders and the public to share their views, ideas and concerns in communities around the county. I spoke to health service chiefs this afternoon in preparation for this debate, so I know how seriously they take the point about the need for consultation, as well as that they recognise the communication difficulties in relation to how they have got to where they are and that they are open to such a consultation. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to involve themselves fully in that consultation, which will shape whatever happens to Kentmere in the long term.

Tempting as it is to follow the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that I should decide on the configuration of services, I am afraid that I cannot do so because that would be outside my authority. I wish him, the hon. Member for York Central and other Members in the House good night and good luck.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.