The Government last night succeeded in slipping a clause into the Care Bill that is currently going through the House of Commons that enables the Health Secretary to arbitrarily close any hospital in England. Following his bloody nose over attempts to close Lewisham Hospital, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has now taken for himself the absolute power to close any hospital, even if it is performing well. In the case of Lewisham, there is no suggestion that the services that Hunt wanted to axe were below par. No, the idea was hatched in order to force local people through the doors of the adjacent, heavily-indebted Queen Elizabeth Hospital in order to increase its income. Local people successfully fought off Hunt’s attempts to close services at Lewisham, with the courts ruling the attempt unlawful. But, rather than respect that decision and the overwhelming view of local people, the Health Secretary has changed the law so that he can close any hospital without having to worry about what local residents or clinicians think.
What does this mean for us in Somerset? ‘Who knows’ is the short answer. But let’s look at a possible scenario. Weston General Hospital is heavily in debt and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Secretary of State could in future close Bridgwater Hospital (or elements of it) to improve income at Weston. And don’t think the fact that the NHS has just spent £33m on a new building for Bridgwater would stop him. £12m had been spent on refurbishing A&E at Lewisham just before Hunt tried to close it. And thanks to almost all the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs in the country, the Health Secretary now has absolute power to close any hospital he chooses. This really does seem incredibly short-sighted behaviour. Now, whenever Hunt tries to exercise that power in a Conservative or Lib Dem held constituency, the local MP will be crucified by their opponents for having helped supply the ammo that closed their local hospital.
This is such an important issue that I have sought to determine how local MPs and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) would vote on the subject. While I have received some responses from PPCs, none of our local MPs have responded to my request to tell me either how they intended to vote or, in the event, how they actually voted. Thankfully, website www.theyworkforyou.com tells us that ALL of Somerset’s LibDem MPs, Jeremy Browne, Tessa Munt, David Laws and David Heath voted to keep clause 119 in the legislation. A few PPCs have indicated how they would vote including David Warburton (Con, Somerton & Frome), Mick Lerry (Lab, Bridgwater & West Somerset), Neil Guild (Lab, Taunton Deane) and Justine Baker (LibDem, Bridgwater & West Somerset). They all said that they would vote against if they were MPs. Rebecca Pow (Con, Taunton Deane) and Marcus Fysh (Con, Yeovil) both responded to my request but refused to say whether they would support or oppose Clause 119 were they MPs. I received no answer from Sarah Yong (LibDem, Somerton & Frome) or James Heappey (Con, Wells). Such widespread reticence is perhaps not surprising given the potentially explosive political consequences of being seen to back the hospital closure clause.
Personally, I would find it very difficult to vote for any candidate that would not openly tell me that they would vote against legislation that could see elements of my local hospital closed due to debts at other hospitals or in fact, any reason or none at all. The NHS will be a major consideration in who I eventually vote for in 2015 and I would urge everyone to question their candidates closely on this and other health issues.