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Dr. Fox: I think that everyone would accept that what we have witnessed is indeed a national scandal, and we all wish to send our sympathy to the relatives whose loved ones were treated so appallingly; we can only imagine their distress.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that such events have been going on for years at Bedford hospital, summer and winter? How often has the same thing happened? The shortage of pathology facilities has been raised by consultants, but not until the pictures appeared in the papers was any action taken. Indeed, it seems that, yesterday, the most urgent task for the consultants was to find out who had leaked the picture.
Is it true that the hospital's chairman was also asked to resign, but declined to do so? What contact has the NHS had with relatives who may be seeking to take legal action? How many other hospitals have similar pathology problems, and how many other scapegoat resignations can we expect? The Secretary of State said nothing about a proposed inquiry, despite the fact that that possibility has been widely mentioned in the newspapers.
These events are symptomatic of a wider problem. Indeed, one of the hospital consultants said that health service managers were being prevented from spending funds on pathology facilities, but scapegoated when problems arose. He continued:
The Prime Minister talks about patients being treated on the basis of clinical priority, yet the Secretary of State sends in waiting list hit teams to ensure that those in the NHS do his bidding. The simple truth is that the Government have increasingly appointed Labour party stooges to run the health service, as Dame Rennie Fritchie said in her damning report. Bedford hospital's chairman, who is a serving Labour county councillor, must not be involved in, or in charge of, any inquiry.
This horrendous episode has blown the lid on the Government's incestuous and corrupting running of the NHS. This is one occasion when the Secretary of State cannot blame the previous Government, funding or the management. These are his priorities, carried out by his people, on his watch, and it is his responsibility.
Mr. Milburn: On the hon. Gentleman's specific questions, the anecdotal evidence shows that this sort of practice has been going on for a number of years, but I am absolutely determined to get to the bottom of it. I hope that the investigation will report next week, and when its report is published and laid before the House, right hon. and hon. Members will be able to see for themselves exactly how long the practice has been going on. Let me emphasise that this sort of practice has absolutely no place in a modern national health service, and we will do everything that we can to help to eradicate it.
On the investigation's independence, I made it clear in my statement that an investigation is being undertaken, and the work of the independent inspectorate, the Commission for Health Improvement, CHI, will complement it. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, the commission--in Committee during the passage of the Health Act 1999 he opposed its establishment--will publish its conclusions. Again, I give an undertaking that those conclusions will be published in full. Although CHI's final conclusions are not normally placed in the Library, I will do precisely that in this instance. I am not aware of whether the chairman was asked to resign, but the investigation will no doubt reveal that. Again, the report will be published in full and made available to hon. Members.
Many people in the House and outside will conclude that, given the circumstances that we are discussing, it was a mistake for the hon. Gentleman to indulge in a party political tirade. What happened in Bedford was wrong. It should have been avoided. It could have been avoided. It is now being dealt with, but it is simply not true to say that it is typical of NHS staff or the wider health service; nor do I believe that it negates the real progress and improvements that are taking hold in many parts of the NHS thanks to the investment and the reforms that the Government are making.
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): May I tell my right hon. Friend that after the understandable shock and amazement at the events at Bedford hospital last week, most people, including the relatives of those who unfortunately died at the hospital during the past few weeks, want to see firm action to put the problem right? They want constructive, critical questions to be asked about the practice so that it does not happen again, and they will not be impressed by some of the cheap party political comments that we have just heard. Given that we are talking about the dead having been treated with a lack of respect and dignity, those comments have come across to me and many others as remarks that do not show respect to those people.
May I thank my right hon. Friend and his Department for the swift action taken yesterday to investigate events at Bedford hospital? May I thank him also for the speedy interim conclusions that were arrived at yesterday?
I seek my right hon. Friend's assistance with regard to the relatives of people who have died recently at Bedford hospital, some of whom have contacted me, to say that in the past day or so they have asked the hospital management whether their relatives were those left on the floor in the undignified way that has been described. Unfortunately, as of this moment, the hospital has been unable to give anyone any information; indeed, some have been told that information will not be available for at least a week. Will my right hon. Friend personally assist me in ensuring that my constituents get the information to which they are entitled, so that they can grieve?
Mr. Milburn: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We spoke last night about some of these issues. He is right to emphasise the important point that this matter is not about cash, resources or the capacity of the mortuary facilities because, as I said, at no point were those facilities fully used. Still less is this matter about clinical priorities or waiting lists. This was a management failure in one part of one hospital. However, I suspect that it reveals a more endemic problem in the management culture in that hospital.
My hon. Friend rightly raised the concerns of his constituents and the many relatives who are still grieving and who are deeply upset about what has happened in Bedford. He is right to say that at the moment we are unable to say which patients were inappropriately kept in the chapel of rest. I asked that question of the eastern regional office of the NHS executive just a few hours ago. Bearing in mind my hon. Friend's comments, I will urge the regional office to try to get to the bottom of the matter and to find out precisely who was treated in that inappropriate and appalling fashion. As soon as we have answers, we will of course make them available to my hon. Friend and, more important, to the relatives of those who died.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): I echo the concerns of those who have said that the procedures at Bedford hospital failed to preserve the dignity of the deceased. However, I do not believe that their dignity will have been in any way enhanced by the contribution of the Conservative party spokesman, the hon Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).
I welcome the fact that the chief executive at Bedford hospital has accepted responsibility in this matter and done the honourable thing by tendering his resignation. Many others in the health service have failed to do so when equally, if not more, significant errors have been made. I welcome the fact that the Government have twice issued guidelines about the dignity of the deceased. I welcome also the recent remarks of the chief medical officer, who signals that the Department of Health and the NHS will in future have a better attitude to the issue of organs that are retained after autopsies in hospitals. What steps can the Secretary of State take to ensure that all
Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his considered remarks. He is right to say that there are wider issues that we must think about, particularly in response to the Alder Hey inquiry, which has now reported. He is aware that, last week, the chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, held a summit not far from this place about the terrible issue of retained organs in the NHS. I will seek to make a statement on that before too long.
As for the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman concerning mortuary facilities in the NHS, as I said in my statement, the chief executive of the NHS, Nigel Crisp, contacted all the trusts in the country yesterday, asking for assurance that the guidelines that we issued in May last year and repeated last November were being adhered to in all parts of the country. We have now received those assurances from all the trusts. I expect all the trusts to adhere precisely to the letter of that guidance, and I certainly do not want a repeat of this sort of incident in any part of the NHS anywhere.