Hands: Royal Brompton is “good enough, large enough and loved enough to survive”

Below is the text of Greg's speech in the House of Commons on Thursday 23rd June 2011:

Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): I very much support the principle that lies behind the review—that we need larger, more sustainable centres with the same overall number of specialists throughout the country. That is why charity and campaign groups, such as the Children’s Heart Federation and Little Hearts Matter, back the change.

I recognise that people will have to travel further as a consequence, and that will sometimes be extremely difficult, for families in particular, but the choice is between people travelling further and getting the best outcome for their child, and people having a shorter distance to travel but perhaps compromising the outcomes that can be achieved. The clinical evidence is unambiguous: travelling further means that some children will live who would otherwise die. On that basis—the whole basis behind the review—we have to bite the bullet and make change.

I support the principle of fewer, larger units, but the experience of Royal Brompton hospital in my constituency has made me question the process that is being used to make individual decisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) pointed out, the matter needs to be depoliticised from the outset. The review is taking place at arm’s length from the Government. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) said, it was set up under the previous Government and is being administered by a body called the joint committee of primary care trusts, which I assume is up for abolition.

Phase 1 of the assessment process involved ranking all the existing units on core standards, sustainability, facilities and so on. Great care was taken, and that makes the next phases all the more mystifying. Out of the 11 units ranked, the Royal Brompton came joint fourth, on 464 points. Of the 11 units assessed, only two had the maximum number of four surgeons—the Royal Brompton and Great Ormond Street. In terms of the number of procedures undertaken each year, the Royal Brompton came fourth highest of all. In each of the three objective criteria, the Royal Brompton was in the top four nationally. I therefore ask the joint committee of PCTs this question: why bother to rank all the units only then to stipulate that one of the top four has to close whatever else happens? That is the consequence of the decision arbitrarily to rule out keeping three centres open in London. One of the top four units in the country is to be axed, no matter its size and no matter its quality, due merely to its location. That flies in the face of the starting point of the review—that it was all about clinical outcomes, not geography.

The Royal Brompton has four specialist surgeons who perform 520 operations, including 453 children’s heart operations, per year. It has a fantastic safety record, with an aggregate mortality rate of 0.94 of 1%—less than half the national average of 2%. Why, then, when it is already a model example of what the review wants to create, does the consultation, in all the options available, decree that it must close? The Joint committee of PCTs is claiming that it has an open mind, but in reality it is consulting on four options, all of which would shut the unit at the Royal Brompton.

The knock-on effects on services elsewhere in the trust would be considerable, especially on children with cystic fibrosis, of whom there are 300. The future of provision for those children would be extremely unclear. It is also unclear what capacity the remaining two hospitals in London would have to take on—

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): I will speak with great care because—he is as aware of this as I am—of the possible judicial review with regard to the Royal Brompton. I would like to say, though, as I think it may help him, that no decisions have yet been made. The consultation literature specifically asks consultees for their views on how many centres it is best to have in London—two or three. If they agree that two is optimal, they are asked to state which two they prefer, including the Royal Brompton. Even though it is not included in any of the pillars, people who are taking part in the consultation process can argue its case, and it will be considered because the JCPCT is taking a flexible approach to the consultation process.

Greg Hands: I welcome that intervention from the Minister. He is right that it is open to the consultation to consider it, as it says on the last page of the consultation document, but the document was contradictory on this point in the first place. On page 84, it says,

  • “London requires at least 2 centres due to the size of the population it covers”

but in a footnote on page 93 it still imposes the arbitrary limit of two centres at most.

The joint committee has belatedly recognised a problem. Under pressure, it announced at the beginning of May that an expert panel would be established to review the wider impact on other services if cardiac paediatrics were to close. That was welcome, but it has continued to press ahead with the original consultation and names for the new panel were not proposed until this week. By the time the new panel reports in August, the consultation will have closed. What happens if its response reflects the serious concerns about a whole series of national services? Having consulted on options A, B, C and D, it can hardly go for an option E that no one was asked about. It would then probably have to re-consult.

I became the MP for the Royal Brompton in May last year, although, as the neighbouring MP previously, I have been very familiar with its work for many years. Its previous MP, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), also strongly supports its campaign to fight the proposal. I have visited the hospital three times in the past year. The proposal to end its cardiac paediatrics has been brought to the attention of parliamentary colleagues across all parties and across large parts of London, the south-east and East Anglia. A huge petition has been gathered, signed by more than 30,000 people, and tomorrow we are delivering it to No. 10. I have written at length and in detail to the Secretary of State on the matter, and he helpfully replied—I think this was confirmed by the Minister—that

  • “no decisions have yet been made”,

including on the number of units to be located in London. That is a cause for encouragement.

I repeat that I support the aims of the review, but the consultation has been badly flawed. Three units in London, perhaps restructured, should have been an option, and the knock-on effects of closing services should have been considered. The case must now be re-examined. The Royal Brompton is good enough, large enough and loved enough to survive.