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NHS: South London Healthcare Trust

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013


My Lords, I shall now repeat as a statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health in another place earlier today to an Urgent Question on the report of the trust special administrator to South London Healthcare NHS Trust. The statement is as follows:

“I have today published the final report of the trust special administrator to South London Healthcare NHS Trust and laid it before Parliament. I received the report yesterday and must now consider it carefully. I am under a statutory duty to take a decision by 1 February on how best to secure a sustainable future for services provided by the trust.

The trust administrator began his appointment on 16 July. He published his draft report on 29 October, and undertook a consultation on his draft recommendations between 2 November and 13 December. More than 27,000 full consultation documents and 104,000 summary documents were distributed during the trust special administrator’s consultation, sent to 2,000 locations across south-east London, including hospital sites, GP surgeries, libraries and town halls. A dedicated website was established to support the consultation, the TSA team arranged or attended more than 100 events or meetings and the consultation generated more than 8,200 responses.

I understand the concerns of honourable Members and, indeed, the people living in the areas affected by these proposals, especially the people of Lewisham. They have a right to expect the highest-quality NHS care, and I have a duty to ensure that they receive it. However, they will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to give a view now on the report’s recommendations, only one day after receiving the report. To do so would be pre-emptive, and would prejudice my duty to consider the recommendations with care and reach a decision that is in the best interests of the people of south-east London.

However, I have made it clear that any solution would need to satisfy the four tests outlined by the Prime Minister and my right honourable predecessor with respect to any major reconfigurations. The changes must have support from GP commissioners; the public, patients and local authorities must have been genuinely engaged in the process; the recommendations must be underpinned by a clear clinical evidence base; and the changes must give patients a choice of good-quality providers.

The challenges facing South London Healthcare NHS Trust are complex and long-standing, but to fail to address them is to penalise other parts of the NHS from which resources must be taken to finance the biggest deficit anywhere in the NHS. To date, it has not proved possible to ensure that South London Healthcare NHS Trust is able to secure a sustainable future for its services within its existing configuration and organisational form. In appointing a trust special administrator to the trust, the Government’s priority was to ensure that patients continue to receive high-quality, sustainable NHS services. I will consider the special administrator’s report with that objective in mind”.

My Lords, that concludes the statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. We commend the work of the trust special administrator and support a number of the recommendations developed from previous reviews. However, it is difficult to understand how the Government consider this report to constitute the full strategic review of the sustainability of services across south-east London that is required. The TSA has overstepped its remit under the Health Act 2009 by including service changes to Lewisham hospital; and the parallel work by King’s Health Partners on reconfiguration under three other south-east London trusts has yet to be completed.

Can the Minister explain why the rules on making changes to hospitals have been changed to allow back-door reconfigurations in this way without proper scrutiny and consultation? What public consultation will there be on the King’s Health Partners report? Can he reassure the people of Lewisham that they will have their full consultation rights to challenge the closure of their A&E services and the other major changes being proposed?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and I understand the concerns that she has raised.

The first question she asked me was whether I considered the trust special administrator to have overstepped his remit. The clear advice that we have received is that no part of the NHS can exist in a vacuum. The independent trust special administrator is responsible for developing recommendations to deal with the severe failings at South London Healthcare Trust based on local discussions and consultation. I hope that the statement I read out gave the House a flavour of how extensive those consultations have been. His recommendations must secure high-quality care for local people in a financially sustainable way.

However, as I have mentioned, each NHS trust is part of a complex, wider health system, and it is quite clearly the view of the administrator in this case that it is not possible to find a solution without considering the possible impact on other hospitals in the areas. That conclusion is one that my right honourable friend will have to consider very carefully, but Ministers have received clear advice that it is within the powers of the administrator to make recommendations about necessary changes to other local providers if they are a necessary and consequential part of finding a long-term solution to securing high-quality services for patients at that trust. I emphasise that I do not in any way wish to pre-empt the decision that my right honourable friend has to take within 20 working days. However, he will have to consider advice on the clinical, legal and financial aspects of the administrator’s recommendations and I have no doubt that concerns raised by the noble Baroness will be central to his consideration.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the former chairman of the provider agency in the London SHA area who grappled with some of these problems in south-east London which, to the best of my knowledge, have been around for at least 20 years. I congratulate the TSA on the work that he has done in trying to resolve this. Could the Minister explain a little more about the involvement of Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital and King’s College Hospital? The TSA is to be congratulated on involving them much more than has been the case in the past in finding solutions in this area because the failure of those two powerful hospitals to get involved in sorting out the mess in south-east London has bedevilled earlier solutions.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who I know well appreciates the scale of the problem with which the administrator was grappling. This trust was losing more than £1 million a week. That is not a sustainable position in the current NHS, or even when times were rosier as regards the financial settlement. It is important for me not to say anything that will pre-empt my right honourable friend’s conclusion, but I am aware, from the press release issued today by the trust special administrator, that, as the noble Lord rightly says, the wider health economy has been taken into consideration, including the role of Guy’s and King’s College Hospital, in a number of areas, including, in particular, in emergency care and in obstetrician-led maternity care. I would commend to the noble Lord a summary of the recommendations, which is on the department’s website today. I hope he will find that helpful in giving him a sense of the breadth of the administrator’s purview.

Is the Minister aware of the extreme anxiety among the population in Lewisham about the possible future closure of the A&E department in Lewisham? The population of 250,000 is estimated to rise to 300,000 in a very few years’ time as a result of a huge increase in the birth rate. There are very deep social needs and there is no doubt whatever that there is unanimity among the professionals and the population about the importance of maintaining that hospital. Is the Minister also concerned that one report that was produced, which was supposedly a clinical report, in fact turned out to be written by the communications department? Is he satisfied that the process has been a fair one and that there has not been a prejudgment in the consultation exercise?

My Lords, all questions of process must be for my right honourable friend to consider, including that one. I emphasise the Government’s approach to reconfiguration decisions. When the Government came into office, we took a very clear decision about four tests that needed to be applied to any sustainable reconfiguration within the NHS: the changes, whatever they were, had to command support from GP commissioners—that is to say, the clinical community; the public must be engaged in the process; the recommendations must be clinically sustainable and sound; and, as the statement mentioned, they must leave patients with a clear choice of good-quality providers. Those safeguards were not there before, but they are there now and my right honourable friend will be looking at those tests when he considers not just the matter of Lewisham but the totality of the administrator’s recommendations.

My Lords, today it is the South London Healthcare Trust, and there is anxiety abroad that tomorrow it could well be another trust. Can the Minister tell the House how many trusts are in the “at risk” box today and what role is being played by Monitor and others in these cases?

My Lords, it is important to stress to my noble friend that a trust will be put into special administration only when all other options have been exhausted. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is aware that that was the situation we faced in this instance. Where possible, NHS providers will be supported to return to sustainability in both the clinical and financial sense. Our priority is to do what is best to ensure that patients receive high-quality care and special administration is a last resort. However, as my noble friend knows, a number of trusts are facing financial challenges. The department is working with Monitor and the NHS Trust Development Authority to oversee the performance of those trusts. I would just say that while some organisations are in difficulties, currently there are absolutely no firm plans to trigger the regime for any other trusts at all.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl recognises the experience I have had as chairman of the Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust, which went through a similar exercise that took many years. First, however, I want to associate myself with the comments made by my noble friend Lord Warner, and I support the action that has been taken. I recognise what my noble friend said about the concerns of the local community, but that will always be the case. However, what is most important is to make the decision and secure the support of outlying hospitals. My own trust is working towards a partnership with the Royal Free Hospital, although we are not there yet. The move could have been considered much earlier, which would have prevented a lot of pain and heartache for many people. My advice and plea is to stick with what is being done. That did not happen for Barnet and Chase Farm. As noble Lords know, a number of holds were put on what we were doing that made things worse for the community and for the staff. They almost ensured that the services we were providing were harder to deliver.

As ever, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her perspective from the front line. I think it was with that in mind that the previous Government drew up the legislation which my right honourable friend now has to abide by, in that there is now a very tight timescale of 20 working days for him to take a decision. That is not a long time but it is indicative of the need for urgency in arriving at the right solution. The TSA has done his work and we must now judge whether the recommendations are the right ones.