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Mr. Howard: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming what I am saying.

I shall quote from one more letter. As I have not been able to contact my constituent to obtain her permission to do that, I shall not mention her name. She made an official complaint on 8 August about what she rightly described as the appalling treatment that she received after the delivery of her baby at the William Harvey hospital on 26 June. He was born at two minutes to 5 in the morning. My constituent and her husband expressed concerns about him a number of times during the day. It was not until 10.30 pm that an auxiliary nurse took the baby to the special care unit--an act that might have saved his life.

My constituent's letter of complaint then deals with what happened in the following 24 hours. She was told that her baby might be suffering from Down's syndrome, but that it was not necessary to telephone her husband. Despite her earlier requests, a telephone was not brought to her until 6 am.

When her husband arrived at the hospital, he had trouble getting into the maternity ward. No one seemed to be expecting him and he was told that his wife was on the delivery ward. He asked for a wheelchair to take her to the special care unit, but was told that she had to have breakfast and a shower before she could see her baby. Eventually, after a confrontation between her husband and the staff, she was allowed into the unit and the doctors, who were doing their rounds, were able to explain the situation to her.

It was suggested that she should be moved to a separate room where a video link would be set up so that she could see her baby in the incubator, but when she returned to the ward she was told that the room was not ready because workmen were in it. She was subsequently told that it did not have a working video link anyway. By late afternoon, she was moved to another side room.

Lack of cleanliness is a common theme of the complaints that I have received. My constituent found the toilet in the side room so unclean that she had to put baby wipes on her feet and clean the floor. Her bed sheets were not changed for three days. She eventually changed them herself.

My constituent needed to have her breast milk expressed every few hours so that her baby could be fed down a tube in his nose. To do that, she needed a breast pump. Although she asked several times for it to be sterilised, she often had to wait more than an hour for that to be done. Some of the staff did not know how to sterilise the pump. In the end, she and her husband asked to be shown how to operate it and did the sterilising themselves.

I have not mentioned all the complaints listed by my constituent. She made her official complaint on 8 August last year. Not having received a substantive response, she

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wrote to me on 21 December. She said that her baby son was suffering from atopic eczema and rubbed his face raw at night. The waiting list to see a skin specialist was 30 weeks, so she and her husband paid for a private consultation. In her letter, she said:

Who could disagree?

I wrote to the chief executive of East Kent Hospitals NHS trust about her complaint on 2 January. On 9 January, he sent my constituent a letter informing her that a letter responding to her complaints had been prepared and that it would be signed and sent to her shortly. The chief executive wrote to me on 23 January saying that he had asked for a letter to be sent to my constituent as a matter of urgency. On 5 February, she still had not received the letter. I wrote to the trust again. The letter was not sent until 7 February. Her complaints were upheld.

It gives me no pleasure to recite that litany of abundantly justified grievances. I want my constituents and, for that matter, my family, who have used the accident and emergency department at the William Harvey hospital, to receive decent medical care from the NHS.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): My right hon. and learned Friend is making a compelling case. Is he aware that a meeting of 81 consultants--almost half of those in east Kent--passed a unanimous motion saying that a lack of capacity is preventing them from delivering quality health care? Is it not ironic that in the face of those problems, East Kent health authority is still committed to a £100 million reorganisation that, at best, will leave capacity unaltered and may even reduce it?

Mr. Howard: There is no doubt that the consultants' view gives rise to a great deal of concern. I do not pretend that the national health service in east Kent was perfect until four years ago, but I know that it has deteriorated during the past four years. I have never before received complaints of the kind, on the scale and in the number that I am receiving now.

Yesterday, I received a document entitled "Moving Forward: A strategic outline case for modernising hospital services in East Kent". It contained the following sentence:

That will give no comfort to my constituents who spent such lengthy periods in the accident and emergency department because no bed was available for them in a ward. It will give no comfort to all my constituents who fear that at any time they may find themselves in that position.

In the light of that sentence, I hope that the Minister, in responding to the debate, will not spin us fantasies about what may or may not happen in the far-off future. The condition of the NHS in east Kent today is unacceptable. My constituents and I want to know how and why that situation has come about and what the Government propose to do about it now. I look forward to the Minister's response.

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10.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart): I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on securing this debate. He wants high-quality health services for his constituents, and I can assure him that the Government want that too. That is why we are undertaking a major programme of long-term investment and reform in the NHS. The investment will bring more staff, more beds, more new hospitals and reform in the way in which health care is delivered. Patients will be treated in modern, high-quality facilities with the latest equipment and the best-trained staff. Reliability will be improved and waiting times will be cut. Of course, that will take time to deliver, but the NHS today is the fastest-growing health service of any major country in Europe.

Mr. Howard: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Stuart: I will give way, even though I am only one minute into my speech. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants me to answer certain questions, he might like to give me time to do so.

Mr. Howard: I am very sorry to intervene so soon, but the investment to which the Minister referred will not lead to more beds. The document that I received yesterday made it clear that an increase in bed numbers is not intended in east Kent.

Ms Stuart: I would be grateful if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would listen so that I can outline not only what we are doing now, but the overall direction of our policies and how they will improve matters. I remind him that the situation that he and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) described did not suddenly occur on 1 May 1997. Opposition Members might reflect for a moment on the causes of that situation.

I turn now to an outline of our policies and how we are improving matters not only in the William Harvey hospital but in the whole of Kent. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is most concerned about how the reforms and investment will affect his constituents, and that is right and proper. East Kent health authority will receive £469.6 million in 2001-02. That is a real-terms increase of 6.2 per cent. on the previous year and around 40 per cent. on the £262.7 million that it received in 1996-97.

Significant additional funds have been made available to the health authority this financial year to address the pressures from emergency admissions experienced in recent months. Those include almost £2.2 million for accident and emergency admissions, almost £1.6 million to expand critical care services, £400,000 for elective capacity in the private sector to cut waiting lists, and £1.15 million to deal with winter pressures. As the right hon. and learned Member can see, there are good foundations on which to build.

Before I turn to the changes in east Kent, I shall deal with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concerns about primary care trust reconfigurations. I understand that there is support for a stand-alone, shared-way primary care trust. The configuration of PCTs in east Kent is a matter for local determination, and I will ensure that the

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right hon. and learned Gentleman's views are brought to the attention of the health authority. The decision will be very much a local one.

I return to the foundation on which we have been building. We cannot maintain the status quo; that must be accepted. Health services in east Kent cannot stand still--they need to change. They need to be modernised to ensure that everyone receives faster, fairer and more convenient services.

The way forward has already been decided. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the east Kent reconfiguration, which will centralise specialist services at Ashford and Margate and retain a core of local services at Canterbury. That was approved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) following extensive consultation in 1998.

At no point during the process has the driving force for change in east Kent been financial savings. That force has been the need to modernise services. For that to take place, there will be expansion of the William Harvey and the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother hospitals and refurbishment of Kent and Canterbury and Buckland hospitals. On 15 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced that work will begin this year to procure these £102 million developments. They will ensure that everyone in east Kent receives the NHS services for which we are striving. We will not turn back from this.

In the shorter term, I appreciate that change is unsettling and that there will always be people who would have preferred an alternative course of action. However, the decision has been made, and I believe that it is the right one. Everyone must now work together to ensure that the changes are a success.

I want to be clear. I am not saying that everything is perfect in east Kent. Of course it has not been perfect, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has provided examples to illustrate that. I want to focus on the direction in which we are heading. The expansions and refurbishments will take time to complete, and I am aware that the transitional arrangements are causing some concern. However, things are not as bad as they are sometimes painted. I shall give a few examples.

At the William Harvey hospital, a new ward with an extra 54 beds opened in July 2000 to allow transfer of acute medicine from Buckland hospital. A 19-bed medical acute assessment unit opened in August 2000, and the critical care unit was enlarged from six to 10 bed spaces in December 2000. At the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother hospital, the critical care unit was expanded from five to 10 bed spaces in December 2000, and a new block with an extra 75 beds, including a 23-bed medical acute assessment unit, was opened to accommodate catchment change from the Canterbury area in January 2001. At Kent and Canterbury hospital, December 2000 saw expansion of the surgical ward block by 18 beds, the establishment of a separate gynaecological unit and the expansion of renal in-patient beds.

More action is required in the interim period and other actions are due to come on stream in the near future. These include the completion of a new cross-sectional imaging suite at the William Harvey hospital, the opening of an extra operating theatre and the starting of a £1.1 million modernisation of the accident and emergency department at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

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hospital. At the Kent and Canterbury hospital, there will be the completion of the refurbishment of the day surgery area in April. There will also be the completion of a purpose-built unit for the health care of older people service, including two rehab wards, a stroke unit, a therapy centre and day hospital in June, and the opening of the new cataract centre in July.

I fully accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concerns that the situation in east Kent is not perfect. However, we are making steady progress. We are not talking about aspirations in the distant future; something really has happened. There are positive developments. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has given examples to show that the NHS in east Kent has failed a small number of patients in recent months. I say a small number, and I do not mean to lessen the seriousness of the individual cases, but we need to get them in perspective.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of how many more complaints he has received recently about the NHS. To get a sense of proportion, the East Kent Hospitals NHS trust received 266 letters of complaint between October and December last year. During the same period, it received 2,392 letters of thanks. As Members of Parliament, we all know how much more likely it is that a letter of complaint, rather than a letter of thanks, will be sent. We must not forget the many patients who do not have cause to complain.

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