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Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I thank my right hon. Friend for his sympathetic, sombre and swift response to the incident, which is in sharp contrast to the reaction of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who has done a great disservice to the families of the deceased.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that the whole issue has sent shockwaves, not just through that particular hospital, but through Bedfordshire health authority as well? Having spoken to the chair of the authority a short while ago, I am assured that a review is also being carried out at my own hospital, Luton and Dunstable hospital. It is a great pity and tremendous shame for us all that the failure to fix a door handle, which appears to be the root of the problem, should undermine so badly positive work that is taking place in Bedfordshire health authority, not least in Luton and Dunstable hospital, where a new accident and emergency unit has just opened.

Will my right hon. Friend therefore undertake to look more closely at the estate management and maintenance practices of health authorities and hospitals, which seem to underlie the problem? More particularly, will he assist in rebuilding morale and confidence--not just among staff, but among users of our health service--which is being badly undermined by the climate of fear that Conservative Members are seeking to engender?

Mr. Milburn: As for the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend, preliminary investigation results indicate that that was precisely the problem. Unbelievably, there was a problem with the hinges and door handles in the temporary mortuary facilities, which could have been dealt with on the Monday. It was reported to the works department in the hospital then, but no one regarded it as sufficiently urgent to deal with immediately. As I said, it was not until late on Thursday that the problem was rectified. The problem could have been rectified at once: it could have been rectified literally overnight.

There were some faults at those facilities, but what concerns me more is the fact that although there was a specific problem in one part of the hospital, there was no

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reporting mechanism up the line to ensure that it was dealt with at a more senior level in the organisation. The investigation, led by Mr. Houghton, the regional director of the eastern regional office, will need to look at that extremely carefully, and it is right that it should do so. There are likely to be general lessons to be learned, and if there are we shall seek to make them available to the NHS in Bedfordshire and across the whole country.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): The Secretary of State rightly recognises that what happened at Bedford hospital was unacceptable. We all share and sympathise with the distress of families whose loved ones were affected. Does the Secretary of State accept that, when considering the chief executive, Ken Williams, who has taken the blame and resigned, we should remember that a great deal of good work has been done in Bedford hospital during the many years in which he has been in office? He has done much, above and beyond ordinary working hours, to help patients in the vicinity.

Is not the key question whether there are adequate mortuary facilities in Bedford hospital and hospitals throughout the country? It is plain from what I have been told that, until the supplementary mortuary was provided, mortuary facilities at Bedford hospital were inadequate.

Mr. Milburn indicated dissent.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I see that the Secretary of State is shaking his head, but will he ensure that the inquiry publishes the proportion of each hospital's mortuary facilities in relation to the population that it serves so that, in future, the House and the country can be satisfied that the NHS generally provides adequate facilities for the inevitable deaths that occur and for their proper and humane management?

Mr. Milburn: I am sure that, as a result of the investigation, there will be some lessons that we will want to extend across the NHS, but, with the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he is wrong about mortuary capacity in the hospital. As I understand it, the sequence of events is this: there had been problems, perhaps going back over several years, and the investigation will get to the bottom of that. In 1999, the hospital installed an additional temporary mortuary facility. Last year, it decided to purchase that temporary mortuary facility rather than rent it again.

As I understand it, the permanent mortuary facility at Bedford hospital has 24 places. The additional capacity that has been made available over the past few months has an additional 15 places. In other words, there are places for 39 deceased patients. At no point last week was all that capacity being used. That is the essential point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should bear in mind. It was nothing to do with cash. It was nothing to do with capacity. It was nothing to do with a shortage of resources. It was everything to do with the fact that a very small problem became a very big problem for many patients and their relatives.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Last night, I received an e-mail from a constituent whose uncle died at Bedford hospital last week. She says:

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Will the Secretary of State deal with the perception to which he has referred? Funding was not the problem, but, as the comments of the Opposition spokesperson showed, everything that goes wrong in the health service is automatically turned into a funding issue. Will he assure the House that he will deal with the perception held by the general public as well as the reality of what he has discussed?

Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In this case, we should all dwell on the facts of the matter. In this case, I believe that making generalisations and party political generalisations, from either side of the House, is peculiarly unhelpful. If people stop to examine the facts and what went wrong, they will quickly realise that, despite the generalisations and sweeping accusations that are flying around the Chamber and the media, those comments are wrong. That is why we have tried to act as quickly as we can.

When I first heard about the matter on Sunday, I contacted the NHS chief executive, Nigel Crisp, and asked him to get on to it and undertake the investigation straight away. To his credit and to the credit of the eastern regional office of the NHS executive, they did so immediately and made contact with Bedford hospital. As a consequence, I have been able to say some of what I have said today. The truth is that we shall have to wait a while before we get the full results of the investigation. If, at that point, Members on either side of the House want to make sweeping generalisations, that will be a matter for them to determine. At this stage, we do not have all the facts, and what facts we have suggest that there was a management difficulty in a part of the hospital. The problem was that it was not gripped at the top of the hospital.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Pending the publication of the report, many will accept the Secretary of State's initial assurances that there was a failure of management and that sufficient mortuary facilities were available. Will he turn his mind to a broader connected issue? There will be times when hospital mortuaries are full. Will he publish--at least for the eastern region, but preferably for the country--what mortuary facilities hospitals should turn to if their own mortuaries become full? If that information were in the public domain, it would provide considerable reassurance to patients and might help the Government to deflect some of the understandable criticism from distressed relatives. I hope that he will take that suggestion seriously.

Mr. Milburn: I am happy to consider that suggestion. I shall double check, but I think that in the guidance we suggested what hospitals should do if they were concerned about their mortuary facilities not being adequate, especially at certain times of the year. I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion and reply to him in writing.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): May I say how disappointed I am that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) tried to turn this tragic incident into another bandwagon? This is clearly a very serious issue. I am

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pleased that my right hon. Friend supported the 1 million-plus staff who do an excellent job in the NHS. Does he recognise that such a tragic incident undermines public confidence in the NHS and reduces morale among its staff? What can he do following this incident to reassure people that, when their relatives enter the NHS to obtain treatment from dedicated staff, they will be looked after with respect and dignity, and that this incident is very unlikely to recur?

Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. First, we must take appropriate action where the problem has occurred, and that has happened and will continue to happen not just in the next few days but in the next few weeks, especially when the HSE and CHI undertake their inspections of hospital services in Bedford. It will be very important indeed to reassure the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall), who use Bedford hospital, that this terrible event was out of the ordinary for that hospital.

Secondly, we must remind people that, however awful this incident was--it was dreadful and completely unacceptable--it is not the custom and practice of NHS hospitals, it is not the custom and practice of NHS staff and it is certainly not the custom and practice of the national health service as a whole.

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