An extract from the transcript of the NHS Funding debate held on Wednesday, December 12

The following is a transcript of the debate held in Parliament this week which saw Corby and East Northants MP Andy Sawford raise questions over the future of Kettering General Hospital.

Andy Sawford (Corby, Labour)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in a debate that is incredibly important to my constituents. I thank my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham for opening the debate. He is aware of my grave concerns about the future of hospital services that serve people in Corby and east Northamptonshire.

It has long been the ambition of people in Corby—a large, important town that is growing—to have their own hospital. I hope that in future we can realise that ambition. For a long time, however—and for the foreseeable future—we will be served by Kettering general hospital for most of our hospital needs. At Kettering general hospital there are 650 beds and more than 3,000 staff. The hospital is more than 115 years old, and received massive investment, including under the Labour Government. I make that point not so much politically point but as a local person who remembers driving down Hospital hill in Kettering and seeing the fundraising barometer outside the hospital and wondering why we relied on car-boot sales to fund vital hospital services.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh, a former Health Secretary, and his predecessors began to put that right, and there was huge investment. Kettering general hospital now has 17 operating theatres and an obstetrics unit that delivers more than 3,500 babies a year. It has something that serves only a few of my constituents but is incredibly important to all of us—a neonatal intensive care unit, or special care baby unit. My own family has had cause to be grateful to that unit and its brilliant staff.

Kettering general hospital offers a 24-hour accident and emergency service, with level 2 trauma services, which sees more than 2,000 trauma patients a year. There are concerns, however, and I have agreed with the hospital and local people to champion certain issues in the House as the local Member of Parliament, including per capita funding of Kettering general hospital, which we believe is inadequate and lower than average compared with other areas. With a growing population and growing health needs, that must be addressed.

Recently, a report on the hospital by Monitor raised serious concerns, particularly about accident and emergency. I have met the hospital chief executive and the chair of the trust to discuss those concerns, and to assure them that I will seek to do whatever I can, including making sure that a case for adequate funding for the hospital is made, so that those concerns are addressed.

The big issue that causes us all concern locally is a major review of health services—the kind of review that other Members have experienced in their areas. In Kettering, the Healthier Together review of five hospitals has already cost more than £2 million; that was the figure in the summer, and I have no doubt that it is rising rapidly. The review has also taken a great deal of time and effort. In early September, together with local nurses and others, I met the people leading that review, as a public member of the trust, and I was incredibly worried about what I heard, both as a user of the services, and as a representative of local people.

The Healthier Together team gave us a pledge card telling us about their plans and giving us some assurances. The context was also set. We were told that the review was driven by a desire for the best clinical outcomes, by expertise, and by research on how local people could be provided with the best health care. We were told that there were considerations to do with more services being provided in the community, and a shift to prevention, which are things I recognise it is important for our local hospital and its partners—the clinical commissioning group and the other hospitals—to consider.

It was slide 2 that really got to the heart of the problem. It told us that the five hospitals face a combined funding gap of £48 million, and that my local hospital, Kettering general hospital, faces a future funding gap of £6 million a year. I have no doubt that the comments that Andrew Dilnot recently made about the real-terms reduction in funding are very much connected to that, but I do not want to make that wider political point again; it has already been made eloquently by my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State. I simply say that all local people recognise that resources are getting tighter and tighter at the hospital.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk, Liberal Democrat)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that in many local health economies, private finance initiatives are causing a massive strain on resources?

Andy Sawford (Corby, Labour)

I want to keep my remarks to Kettering general hospital, and I do not think that PFI is the issue there.

Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Healthier Together programme; it is clear that many of the hospitals in that programme have very high PFI debts. We will get the figures for him, to clarify that, in the closing remarks.

Andy Sawford (Corby, Labour)

A few weeks ago, the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he had no intention of misleading the House—talked about the funding issues at Kettering general hospital being driven by PFI deals in Anglian hospitals, which are not really part of the group that I am talking about.

Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Conservative)

rose —

Andy Sawford (Corby, Labour)

I will not give way; I want to make important points for my constituents. It is important that these things are put on record, so I shall not be giving way to the hon. Gentleman again. He has not done a great service to people in my constituency in the way that he has addressed these issues.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith, Labour)

I had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency earlier this year, and I am sorry to hear about Kettering. Both the accident and emergency departments and one 500-bed hospital in my constituency are due to close. Neither of those A and E departments is PFI, and none of the four A and Es closing in west London is PFI, so is that point not a complete red herring?

Andy Sawford (Corby, Labour)

I have had some experience of my hon. Friend in the past, and as ever, he talks a great deal of sense. Certainly, in Kettering, we are looking at something driven by funding cuts.

I want to address the issues, because I seek real answers from the Front Benchers, and real assurances about the future of my local hospital. Healthier Together has assured us that no hospitals in the group of five of which Kettering is part will close. I have never heard any claims that those hospitals will close. The local media have been very clear that they are not aware of any assertions that Kettering hospital will close. There has, at times, been the presentation of an Aunt Sally by some of my political opponents, who have sought to say, “The hospital won’t close, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

Let us be clear what is being talked about. The Healthier Together review had six different models, and it has refined that to two options. The status quo is very clearly not an option, and it is not consulting on it. One of the two options would see five hospitals going into three for some of the services, though all the hospitals would remain open and provide some services. The services that are at real risk in two of the five hospitals include in-patient paediatrics. Last year I took my son, who had pneumonia, late at night to the Dolphin ward at Kettering general hospital. It concerns me deeply that paediatrics might not be there. I would have had to go elsewhere, and so will local people in the future if the paediatric ward goes.

Under the proposals, obstetrics would go at two of the five hospitals and be replaced by a midwife-led unit. People in Corby have experience of a midwife-led unit. At one time there was a births in the community facility in Corby, as there still is in some other smaller midwife-led hospitals around the country. Where those exist, if local people want them to continue, they should have that opportunity, but we have a full maternity service in my area and people are very concerned that that could be lost under the proposals.

I have talked to midwives who tell me that during labour it would not be possible to give an epidural, for example, if the labour became more painful for the mother. Among my family and friends, I have heard about people who hoped their children would be born at Melton hospital, which is a midwife-led unit, describing the worst hour of their life as following a blue light on an ambulance taking their wife and hoped-for child across to Leicester royal infirmary or another available hospital so that the care that was needed could be given. We want our proper obstetrics-led unit to remain and we do not want it downgraded to a midwife-led unit.

At two of the five hospitals, trauma services would be lost. I have already described how Kettering general hospital provides level 2 trauma and treats more than 2,000 trauma patients a year.

As to where we go from here, it is important for Healthier Together and the Government to be honest about the proposals. It is important for geography to be recognised as a critical factor. Healthier Together will talk about the clinical evidence and the clinical drivers, but it must recognise that local people are very concerned that Luton and Dunstable hospital is 50 miles away, and that the nearest hospital in the group is 45 minutes away from Corby at Northampton along a very busy road.

The journey takes 45 minutes at the best of times; the road is seriously in need of upgrading and improving. People are really concerned about the geography, and that has to be balanced with specialisms which people understand. There are already specialisms in our local health care system at other hospitals.

I am pleased that despite the empty assurances from Government Front Benchers, Mr Hollobone had the courage to raise these issues on 9 November—notwithstanding the by-election inconvenience for Government Front Benchers. I now look to work with him as we seek real assurances from the Healthier Together team and from the hospital that they will not proceed with the proposals if they mean that we will lose all those vital services for my constituents.