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Bedford Hospital: Storage of Corpses

4.19 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat as a Statement the Answer given this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health to a Private Notice Question in another place. The Answer is as follows:

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My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

4.23 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Since the weekend the press reports about the treatment of dead bodies in Bedford Hospital have shocked the country. I am sure that all noble Lords would wish to sympathise with the relatives of the deceased patients involved. It is not simply the photographic images that have distressed us, nor, indeed, the fact that dead patients could be treated with such indignity or apparent lack of respect, but what these incidents appear to tell us about the workings of this hospital and about the NHS in general.

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I have a number of questions for the Minister. Is it true that the practice of storing bodies in the hospital chapel has been going on for months and that NHS guidance issued last May has been consistently ignored? Can the Minister confirm what he repeated in the Answer; namely, that the chief executive of the trust, Mr Ken Williams, has resigned? I ask that because although the resignation of Mr Williams has been extensively reported, it is also alleged that at a hospital staff meeting last night Mr Williams was described as having "stepped aside". Stepping aside does not sound quite the same as resigning. I should be grateful for clarification.

When the Commission for Health Improvement looks at Bedford Hospital, will Ministers take steps to satisfy themselves that the board of the trust is competent to meet its responsibilities? The scandal has been attributed to the failure of the trust's management in general. However, is it the case that the chairman of the trust was asked to resign and declined? In asking that, I intend no personal slight on Professor Blowers, the trust chairman. However, it is striking that not only he but two of the other four members of the board are declared activists of the Labour Party and were appointed in the latter part of 1997; in other words, a majority of the board are openly Labour Party supporters. The Labour Party document entitled Renewing the NHS: Labour's Agenda for a Healthier Britain, published in June 1995 states:

    "Health authorities and hospital boards will not be stuffed full of party political placemen".

As the Minister will recall, Dame Rennie Fritchie, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, published a report last year in which she stated:

    "candidates who declare political activity on behalf of the Labour Party--

Lord Shepherd: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. Perhaps I may ask him the relevance of what he now says to the Statement which has been given? I cannot see any relevance.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I think that the words of Dame Rennie Fritchie will answer the noble Lord's question. I have already asked the Minister whether he and his fellow Ministers will examine the competence of the board of the hospital. The point made by Dame Rennie was that:

    "Less successful candidates have been brought forward to replace those identified on merit".

She also stated that before 1997 there were fewer political appointments, and that those that were made were far more equally balanced between the two major parties. I prejudge nothing, but I suggest to the Minister that the Government would be wise to look again at that report. I ask the Minister what steps the Government are taking to make the appointment process less politically skewed in favour of the Labour Party.

However depressing the incident, the other sad part of this event is its wider message. Can the Minister confirm that much of the effort of trust boards up and down the country is still being directed towards meeting

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centrally-imposed waiting list targets, and that hospitals run the risk of being financially penalised if those targets are not met?

Is it also not the case that many hospitals are having to cut non-clinical services in order to find the efficiency savings laid down by Ministers centrally? If that is so, is it not central Government, as well as the management of the hospital, which should accept responsibility for what happened at Bedford Hospital? Are not the incidents also eloquent testimony to the view expressed by Sir Alan Langlands, the outgoing NHS Chief Executive who said last year at the NHS Confederation Conference:

    "people don't have the space to reflect on the work they are doing. They don't have enough time--given the torrent of instructions from the centre--to work through the needs of their local communities and to manage them in a way that makes sense locally"?

I put it to the Minister that it is that syndrome, one that his party specifically pledged to banish, that lies behind the shocking events in Bedford.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I too welcome the Answer repeated by the Minister. Clearly, this has been a deplorable lapse of management at Bedford Hospital. However, the chief executive has done the honourable thing; he has resigned, whether willingly or not. It is worth expressing regret about his going. The hospital was, by repute, a good hospital. Indeed, in view of its track record, the incident is somewhat surprising. As a nation we expect proper respect for deceased patients and I welcome the steps taken by Nigel Crisp, Chief Executive of the NHS, and by the Secretary of State, in moving swiftly to deal with the situation in a particular hospital. However, I do not believe in "micro-management" by either House of Parliament. I certainly do not believe in mounting a case about the nature of the hospital trust in these circumstances, based on a pretty flimsy case.

The question which we as a House should be addressing is whether wider lessons can be learnt from what happened in the hospital. We know that guidelines are not always enforced and we want to know whether there is a failure to enforce them in other hospitals. Is this a one-off problem or does it apply to other hospitals? Are there adequate mortuary facilities across the country? What happens when mortuary facilities are not useable or when they are full? Are the proper reporting-up procedures set out in guidelines so that people responsible are automatically bound to report problems to the chief executive or the medical director? Do the guidelines need changing? Are they adequate in the circumstances of this case?

I note what the Minister says about resources and I accept it, but the question whether there is a resource issue remains. We have heard that a 2 per cent cash economy is expected within the NHS and want to know whether that is a factor in these circumstances?

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Finally, as regards the review of the work of hospitals conducted by the Commission for Health Improvement, can the Minister undertake that elements of it which relate to mortuary services and this case will be published?

4.31 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for joining me in expressing sympathy in relation to the events at Bedford Hospital, particularly about the lack of dignity and respect which were afforded to the bodies and to relatives of the patients who died in the hospital. I can confirm to the noble Earl that the chapel was used once between 9th and 11th January. It is my understanding that it was also used last winter and in previous winters.

The chief executive of the trust has "stepped down". Those are the words which are used. He is no longer carrying out the responsibilities and duties of the chief executive, but noble Lords will understand that contractual issues must be resolved by the trust board. The important point is that in practical terms he has stepped down as the accountable officer, the chief executive, of the trust.

The noble Earl raised a wider issue in relation to the performance of the trust board. From the preliminary results of the inquiry which the chief executive of the NHS received, there is no doubt that the core problem was a failure of management within the trust. However, ultimately the boards of trusts must accept responsibility for what occurs in their name. When we receive a fuller report from the director of the regional office we shall look at guidance and at the performance of the board as a whole.

Furthermore, I have no information or indication that the chairman of the trust board was asked to resign. I understand that in the light of yesterday's review of all the events the chief executive decided it was appropriate to stand down from that position.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about board appointments. I must say to him that having spent 25 happy years representing the members of those boards, I do not believe that his government had an entirely impartial approach to their appointment. This Government have taken great care to ensure that people appointed are of the highest calibre. As regards the future, he will recall that we are in the process of establishing an independent appointments commission which will begin work in April this year. The whole appointments process will be undertaken by that commission. I fully accept that boards have a great leadership role to play in the NHS. We want to ensure that they do so effectively and we want the highest possible calibre of people to serve as chairs and non-executives.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about the Government's priorities for the NHS and suggested that waiting list targets and other such initiatives were in some way distorting the management effort of NHS trusts. I absolutely refute that suggestion. I believe it is

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right that tackling waiting is an essential priority for the NHS and that it is right for the Government to identify that as one of their key priorities.

I am a great believer in an effective approach to efficiency savings where they produce savings brought about by efficiency rather than simply by taking money off budgets. Our focus is to ensure that we improve efficiency and we are making good progress in two areas. The first is in shared services in a whole health community where services can be shared between different NHS organisations. There are enormous benefits to be made in terms of quality and financial savings. The second area is procurement because more effective procurement can save large sums of money for the NHS. That is where we want the focus to be in efficiency savings.

I turn to the general issue raised by Sir Alan Langlands, former chief executive of the NHS whom I have always held in the highest regard. There is no doubt that since the NHS began there has been within it a balance, an argument and a tension between central direction and local autonomy. Again, I say to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that from time to time his Government were not beyond sending out a circular or two to the health service.

The concept that we have developed of earned autonomy is the right one. We are saying to NHS organisations that those who are shown to be effective, those who meet the targets, and those who can show that they can provide an excellent service to the public will be given greater autonomy. Those trusts which are not doing so well can expect greater intervention. I am sure that that is the way to ensure that there is a consistent approach within the NHS while allowing sufficient freedom and autonomy at local level. That will enable the leaders of those organisations to develop them in the most effective way possible.

I believe that I have answered the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about the chief executive and micro-management. As regards the wider lessons to be learnt, following the incident at Bedford the chief executive wrote to every trust in the country reminding them of the guidance which had been issued on 23rd May 2000 in relation to mortuary facilities. It stated:

    "NHS organisations should work with local councils to ensure that all services involved in the disposal of bodies, medical certification, registration, coroners, funeral directors and burial/cremation services are in place and adequate out-of-hour services are available. The NHS should ensure that mortuary capacity is adequate to meet peaks in winter deaths and take steps to provide additional facilities where this is likely to be required. Temporary mortuary facilities must meet minimum standards to respect patients' dignity. Refrigerated vehicles or trailers must not be used".

The chief executive has asked all trusts to confirm through regional offices that they are providing mortuary facilities in line with those guidelines, and it is my understanding that assurances have been received from all trusts. In view of that, it is clear that the Bedford incident is very much an isolated one.

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I do not believe that resources is an issue in this case. Bedford Hospital was able to purchase additional mortuary facilities a few weeks ago. The wider issue of whether this country has sufficient mortuary facilities must be seen in the context of our drive to improve the quality of services generally. Under the modernisation programme we have injected a considerable sum of money to help improve facilities. We have required regional offices to pull together the plans of every trust at the end of this financial year, from which we shall be able to see any shortcomings in pathology services and ensure that there is a strategy to improve them.

4.41 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, there are two chapels in Bedford hospital. Having heard the debate, one could easily gain the impression that the chapel for normal worship or contemplation by patients or families was the building used for the storage of the deceased. That is not so. For the purposes of a number of reports and the Statement in this House, it is more accurate to refer to "chapel of rest". The chapel of rest in Bedford, which I am informed is carpeted, is attached to the mortuary and is the place to which some people are taken if they wish to view the deceased.

All of us deplore a situation in which the deceased are not treated with dignity and respect. However, in my experience mortuary attendants do one of the most difficult jobs in the health service. They carry out their task with enormous care, well beyond the call of duty. One mortuary attendant whom I saw recently after a major accident acted well beyond the call of duty in caring not only for those who had been killed but the mourners and bereaved who came to visit the deceased. Let us ensure that those who do some of the most difficult jobs in our society, in particular mortuary attendants, are given the dignity and respect that they deserve, and that that message is sent to them.

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