Skip to main content

Health: Mixed-sex NHS Wards

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 7 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What measures they are taking to reduce the number of mixed wards in National Health Service hospitals.

My Lords, in 1997 we set a target to eliminate mixed-sex sleeping accommodation and toilet facilities and to safeguard privacy in mental health units. Intensive care and admission wards were always exempt from NHS reporting on that target. We achieved our target of 95 per cent compliance by December 2002. By December 2004, 99 per cent of trusts provided single-sex sleeping accommodation. In the light of some current concerns, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has asked strategic health authorities to report on their local situation by 11 December. We are also strengthening mechanisms for national monitoring in 2007.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that I was in a mixed ward? It was just as embarrassing for the men as it was for me. Why should we have any mixed wards left in this country when France and Germany do not have any?

My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness says and sympathise with her experience. I repeated the target that we have set, which was largely based on the work done by the Conservative Government on their objectives, definitions and exemptions. We have made good progress in implementing that target, but there will always be places, in particular admission wards and intensive care units, where it will be impossible, in all probability, to remove such facilities. I see that a number of noble Lords opposite are shaking their heads, but I will at a suitable point send them the guidance that was issued by their party.

My Lords, do patients have any choice about whether they go on mixed wards? Before placing men in mixed-sex wards, is any inquiry made about whether they appear on the list of people who are barred because of being unsuitable to work with vulnerable people? It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that putting some very vulnerable elderly women in mixed-sex wards does not just cause them embarrassment but might put them in real danger of abuse or exploitation.

My Lords, it is down to local trusts, which admit people to hospitals, to be concerned about the safety of patients. They must take all due measures to do that, and the evidence is that where there have been unsatisfactory cases, they have been very rare. It is inevitable that in an emergency, the need to treat and admit will always take priority. In general, patients and the public agree with this.

My Lords, do the Government appreciate how acutely wounding and embarrassing it frequently is for people to be put in mixed wards? For two and a half years, a family friend has been going in and out of hospital and has never yet been in a ward that was not mixed. She has never been married and has never shared a bedroom with a man. For her, it is acutely painful. Does the Minister accept that the figures that he gave earlier about the diminution in the number of mixed wards can be given because many wards have been reclassified as a different kind of ward or as not being a ward at all? How can the situation go on, with more and more evidence of increasing numbers of people going into mixed-sex wards, if that is not the case?

My Lords, the work that has been done under this Government has been to build more hospitals with single rooms. There have always been some wards with multiple bays, and they are treated as wards for these purposes. I understand the noble Baroness’s concerns about her friend. However, I should like to quote the guidance given to the NHS:

“There are circumstances when admission to mixed-sex accommodation is unavoidable. However, those occasions should be exceptional and patients admitted as an emergency should be moved to acceptable accommodation at the earliest opportunity”.

I fully support that guidance, which was provided by a Conservative Government.

My Lords, will the Minister remind us what the Labour Party manifesto said that they would do about mixed wards?

My Lords, we promised to tackle the problem of and eliminate mixed-sex accommodation. That is what we have done, as I explained in the Answer I gave the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples.

My Lords, how does the guidance recently given on the dignity of patients marry with the current situation in which very many elderly vulnerable people, as we have heard, find their dignity completely eroded?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. On 14 November, my colleague Ivan Lewis launched the first-ever national dignity in care campaign. It aims to create a care system where there is zero tolerance of abuse of, and disrespect towards, older people, and a situation where people are as outraged by the abuse of parents and grandparents as they are by that of children.

My Lords, I was campaigning against mixed wards in my local area way back in 1990. It really is time that this disgusting practice was stopped. Does the Minister agree that it is the obsession with targets and, in this case, bed occupancy rates which health service managers have to adhere to, that is making this practice continue?

My Lords, I remind the noble Baroness that it was the public who said that they were fed up with the waiting times and waiting lists that were the experience of most people in the NHS under the previous Government. They were fed up with trolley waits in A&E departments. The much maligned targets have delivered the many improvements in the NHS which I shall have the pleasure of listing in the debate that follows these Questions.