George Freeman responds to health services debate

George responds to debate on NHS reconfiguration to highlight the need for local leadership and decision-making on basis of clinical need.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) on securing this debate. I know that this is an issue of concern to her and to my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), as well as to a number of other Members locally. The issues around proposed changes to health services in Calderdale and Huddersfield have been debated in this House before.

Of course, the configuration of health services is an important issue for many Members and their constituents. We all agree that patients should receive the best and safest care possible. I know these issues are of keen interest locally, with Members from across the political parties taking a close interest in the changes. People always worry about any change in the NHS, because it is such a loved and respected institution. However, it is not right to play on these anxieties. Change is necessary to ensure that the NHS can offer modern, high-quality care fit for the 21st century.

It is slightly disappointing that the hon. Lady has adopted such a partisan approach. In the period running up to an election, NHS reform is not well served by party politics, and I note the hon. Lady’s refusal to accept interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley. I think we need to hear from people on both sides of the House. I have taken the trouble this week to talk to staff and doctors at the front line locally who are leading the work on this issue, to hear from them what they are planning and what they hope to achieve. I hope that hon. Members, including the hon. Lady, take the time to do the same; I know they would appreciate it.

Let me say a few words about our general approach to reconfiguration before touching on the specifics of the case. The Government are clear that the design of front-line health services, including A and E, must be a matter for the local NHS. It is local clinicians—not me or anyone in Whitehall—who will make decisions about health care in Halifax. That is how it should be. The NHS has a responsibility to ensure that people have access to the best and safest health care possible, and to plan for the future to ensure that safe and sustainable services are available to all patients now and in generations to come.

Reconfiguration is about modernising the delivery of care and facilities to improve patient outcomes, to develop services closer to home and, most importantly, to save lives and improve patient safety. That is why we must allow the local NHS continually to challenge the status quo and look for the best way of serving patients. All these service changes are being led by clinicians and are based on a clear, robust clinical case for change that delivers better outcomes for patients.

The health economy across Calderdale and Huddersfield is working to develop a shared vision for the future provision of high-quality, sustainable services. This work is necessary to respond to the challenges facing the local health economy. As in many areas, the NHS in Calderdale and Huddersfield needs to adapt to an ageing population, increased prevalence of long-term and lifestyle-related illnesses, the needs and aspirations of patients and increased pressure on our public finances. The truth is that local services are currently fragmented, with some duplication and inconsistency of outcomes. There is a need to reduce preventable hospital admissions and enable and support people to live in their own homes for as long as possible. I welcome the fact that the local NHS is looking into how community and in-hospital services can be provided to deliver the best outcomes for local patients.

Craig Whittaker: The Minister will recall that the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) did not say whether she had read the strategic review of our area’s health authority, but if she had, she would have seen that it contains no proposals to close the Halifax A and E. Can the Minister confirm that?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. I think it important to be guided by what the local professionals—clinicians and NHS staff—are saying. I have spoken to them this week, and I can indeed confirm that there are no plans to close the A and E at present. A clinically led consultation is taking place, quite properly, and before the local NHS leadership recommends any decisions, they will be the subject of public consultation with local people.

Mrs Riordan: I can tell the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) that I have read the strategic review. Let me also make it clear that when the consultation began, the acute trust recommended the closure of the Halifax A and E.

George Freeman: As I have said, the local NHS leadership is looking at all the issues on behalf of the patients whom they are there to serve. My point is merely that playing party politics is not helpful. We need to be guided by the local clinical experts. It is important for the NHS to engage widely on the future provision of health services, and it has done that over the last three years. Thousands of local people have given their views on what matters most to them, and that feedback is shaping thinking locally.

Local clinical commissioning groups are focusing on the phased delivery of improvements in community services ahead of any changes in hospital services. Our health system is evolving to adapt to the new landscape of modern medicine, and I think it is in the interests of our patients to encourage that, provided that it is led by clinical decision making. Local commissioners recognise the need for change in hospital services, and I suspect that, as a user, the hon. Lady would recognise that as well. The local NHS believes that the way in which services are currently organised in Halifax does not deliver the safest, most effective and most efficient support to meet patients’ needs. Patients rightly expect that when they see the initials “NHS”, they can expect the very best service that is available, and when they do not receive that service, it is incumbent on the system to adapt so that they do.

The trust is affected by shortages in middle-grade doctors and the high use of locums in A and E, which has an impact on the safety of patient care, and difficulties are involved in providing senior consultant cover overnight and seven days a week. Those are classic problems, which often affect smaller hospitals. We need to ensure that we are delivering the very best care to our patients.

There is often a need for inter-hospital transfers owing to the lack of co-location of first-class services on both sites. The co-location of emergency and acute medical and surgical expertise can result in significant improvements in survival and recovery outcomes, most notably for stroke and cardiac patients. Those who are most seriously ill, with life-threatening conditions, have a much greater chance of survival if they are treated by an experienced medical team that is available 24/7.

It is right for the local NHS to address those challenges to ensure that it can continue to deliver safe, sustainable, high-quality services. Heaven forbid that the hon. Lady should fall ill and require any of those services, but I am sure that, were that to happen, she would want to receive the very best care, and that if that were available in Huddersfield, she would want to be treated in the best possible place. To that end, Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust has considered a number of options for the future delivery of services, one of which involves one hospital delivering planned care and the other delivering unplanned care. At this stage, no proposals have been ruled in or out. Preferences have been expressed in regard to how services can best be delivered, but no decisions have been made, and I can confirm that there are no formal proposals for changes in hospital services.

In August, the local CCGs decided to delay public consultation on hospital services. While they are signed up to the need for change, they have chosen first to focus on the delivery of improvements in community services in order to build confidence in the changes and demonstrate to local people the benefits they are confident they will deliver. That seems to me entirely appropriate. The CCGs are following a process of change. They understand the need to take people with them, and to build confidence in the changes that they propose. It is incumbent on all Members to encourage and support our NHS leadership locally in building that public confidence in the services.

Change can be difficult to explain to patients, particularly the most vulnerable and elderly patients whose focus is, rightly, on the immediate availability of care. Patients’ reasonable anxieties are often exacerbated by speculation in the media about potential changes and their possible local impact. Services are sometimes described as closing when in fact they are simply being provided in a neighbouring facility or changing for the better in response to advances in treatment.

I know that local people care deeply about the future of their local health services and will want to be involved in decisions about the future of their local hospitals. This is, and should be, a locally led process. Local people should continue to make their views known to those developing proposals for the future of local services, as they have done throughout the engagement process. I also want to encourage them to listen to the reasoning behind any proposals from local NHS clinicians and management for any service changes. I encourage the hon. Lady to work with the local NHS as it further develops its proposals. I know that the CCGs have met hon. Members and are happy to continue to do so.

When talking about potential changes to hospital services, it is important to remember that it is the services, the people and the co-ordination—not the bricks and mortar—that really matter in getting people the right care at the right time. The flexibility and co-ordination of services are just as important as how they are geographically configured. In supporting our local NHS we often end up supporting the current institution—the building in its present location and configuration—but we need to allow the service to evolve and allow our local clinicians and NHS leadership to develop the best possible provision for the people it is designed to serve.

The NHS is one of the great institutions in the world; it is one of this country’s great legacies. Ensuring that it is sustainable and that it serves the best interests of patients sometimes means taking tough decisions. Freezing a service in aspic out of love for it will not allow the NHS to develop and maintain its leadership in the provision of 21st century health care. These decisions are made only when representatives of the local NHS, working in collaboration with local people and local authorities, are convinced that what they are proposing is absolutely in the best interests of their patients.

I make no apology for the fact that it is this Government who have taken these decisions out of the hands of the politicians and the mandarins in Whitehall and put them into the hands of local clinicians and local NHS managers who have the interests of local patients at heart and who are driving those decisions in their interests. It is important that the NHS in Calderdale and Huddersfield develops solutions that will allow it to provide high quality, safe, effective and sustainable services to local people for generations to come.

Craig Whittaker: I recall when the Labour Government took the acute services from Halifax and sent them to Kirklees in 2005. I campaigned strongly against that at the time, but I was wrong because it appears that we now have a greater life-saving institution locally. Can the Minister tell me whether there is any evidence around the country that having specialists in one place, rather than having them split between several sites, does in fact save lives?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a huge amount of evidence—which the Department is keen to publish and disseminate in order to inform the debate—that in many areas, particularly in relation to respiratory and cardiac conditions and to diabetes, the centralisation of services in specialist centres drives up clinical outcomes, improves patient safety and prevents avoidable death. Patients have a right to expect us to put in place a framework that allows the NHS to evolve. We need to find ways of ensuring that those services that are best provided locally—community-based services—are provided in that way, and that those requiring increased specialisation in centres of excellence and expertise that operate 24/7 are also available. That is what the local NHS leadership is endeavouring to do, and we should support them in that because it is in the interests of the patients, whose NHS this is.

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