Leeds Children’s Heart Surgery Unit: 30th October 2012

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
Here we are again. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is about a week since we had a very similar debate, also under your chairmanship. That has already been described by my right hon. Friend—sorry, I always call my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) the right hon. Member for Pudsey. [Hon. Members: “Soon!”] Perhaps I am trying to elevate him too soon, but as he has explained, we had a similar debate only last week about the situation at Glenfield. I join everyone else in paying tribute to him for securing this debate.

I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken, of whatever party. In many ways, this has not actually been a debate, because normally in a debate there is a degree of disagreement and people put forward their arguments for or against a particular motion or notion, but that has not been the case in this debate. Here, we have had an outbreak of complete unity, which I acknowledge, between all political parties. It is right and proper that, on this matter, people come together, are not divided by political party and are determined not to score any form of party political point in making their argument. All hon. Members have come to this debate for the right reasons. They have come to represent ​their constituents and to put forward all the arguments that they can on behalf of their constituents and with full force. That is absolutely right and as it should be, but I want to make this point as well, and not because I am any form of coward—after all, I spent 16 years defending, largely, the indefensible.

I have to say that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) was treading somewhat on my good humour with some of his remarks when he was asking me for my opinion because, as we all know, this whole review has taken great pride in the fact that it has been an independent review—independent of Government. It was set up, quite properly, by the last Government, on a cross-party basis, and it was on the basis that we needed fewer but larger and more specialised children’s heart services in England. It was accepted—I say this with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)—that that was the basis of it all and that it was being done so that we could secure the best children’s heart services for babies and young children that we could possibly obtain, and so that we could ensure that those services were sustainable. We wanted to concentrate the specialist heart surgeons in a smaller number of centres to ensure that they had the best skills for dealing with babies and young children.

At the end of the day, we are talking about arguably some of the most specialised surgery that exists. There are instances in which surgeons are operating on a baby’s heart that is no bigger than a walnut. As I say, it is perhaps the most specialised and the most precarious of all types of surgery, so their skills have to be the best. It is also the case that if we have fewer, but larger, more specialised units, we can ensure that those surgeons, those doctors, those nurses and the other health professionals are training the future surgeons, doctors, nurses and other health professionals to do this very important and highly specialised work.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. As we would all have expected, he advanced a thoughtful, well researched and sound set of arguments on behalf of his constituents. He gave the examples of Lauren, Libby and Abi. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) also spoke with considerable feeling about what his constituents had told him. That is only right and proper. I am sure that all those constituents will welcome the comments of their Members of Parliament in advancing their arguments for keeping their children’s heart surgery unit open. It is quite clear from the various interventions that this has all-party support. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). As I said, people are coming together, whatever political differences they might otherwise have, in agreement and in support of children’s heart surgery at Leeds general infirmary.

A number of matters strike me from the speeches that have been made. In addressing some of the remarks made and arguments advanced by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, I shall try to give a response that perhaps allays some fears and certainly answers some questions.

Fabian Hamilton
I am sorry to intervene when the Minister is about to give those responses, but she said that the review, quite rightly, was independent; it was set ​up by the previous Government to be independent of Government. I think that the prevailing view this afternoon is that it was not impartial. Will she comment on that?

Anna Soubry
I will not comment on that, quite deliberately, because it is imperative that I am seen and, indeed, fellow Ministers are seen to be completely independent and impartial ourselves. Of course, that does not prevent hon. Members from making their own judgments and vocalising them, and there may be merit in them, but it is not for me to say whether there is, because, as hon. Members know, this has all been referred to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel—that is right and proper, in my view—and it will look at all aspects of how these decisions have been made. It will take evidence not just from the NHS, clinicians and local authorities, but from Members of Parliament. I am in no doubt that all hon. Members who are here today will make their own representations to the IRP on behalf of the children’s heart services at Leeds general infirmary and will make them with the force with which they have made them today and on the basis of as much information, sound evidence and argument as they have shown us here today.

Julian Smith
Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry
I was going to try to move on to some of the issues, but I will happily give way.

Julian Smith
I thank the Minister for giving way. Can she confirm that the panel will include some people who are actually living in the north? What is the make-up of the panel?

Anna Soubry
I shall be absolutely blunt: I cannot answer that question. I took a strong view some time ago that if I did not know the answer to a question, I would say so. However, I am more than happy to write to my hon. Friend and answer his question as much as I can.

Travelling times were mentioned by a number of hon. Members. I was going to go through all those who mentioned them, but I may not have time to do so. I shall just make this point. Of course, it is surgery that it is proposed will be lost from Leeds and will go to Newcastle. It is very important that all hon. Members, when they communicate to their constituents about this debate, make the point that the plan is that the surgery will take place in Newcastle, but all the follow-up, all the support and all the other things that we might imagine are involved when a baby or a small child has surgery will continue to be provided at Leeds. It is not the case that the whole thing will move up to Newcastle; it is simply the surgery. I just put that into the pot because the point was made about travelling times. Of course, it is for others to say, but it may be that they take the view that those were very good points that hon. Members advanced in the debate today.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) asked specifically about the JCPCT’s refusal, or otherwise, to disclose information. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) spoke with passion, as ever, and commented on that, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and other hon. Members. It is for the JCPCT to decide what information should be disclosed, ​in accordance with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. I am told that the Yorkshire overview and scrutiny committee has indicated its intention to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner, which is the established recourse laid down by legislation. I am afraid that it is not for Ministers to order the JCPCT to disclose information to the OSC in Yorkshire or any of the other local authorities involved. The various authorities are open to make applications under the Freedom of Information Act. I hope that answer deals with that point.

The powerful arguments the hon. Member for Leeds East put forward were largely based on population figures. I have already alluded to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. In large part, my hon. Friend and I disagree on the basis of the review. He said that different experts have different views, but I have to tell him that we have seen an outbreak of unity on this issue among many of the royal colleges, experts and leading clinicians in the field, who welcomed the decision of the JCPCT.

Martin Vickers
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West that experts in Scotland disagree, so there is clearly some basis for doubt.
Anna Soubry
I am grateful for that contribution, but I know that when the JCPCT’s decision was announced, it was universally welcomed by many of the clinicians who have been involved in such specialised surgery, certainly throughout England, but I cannot comment on the views of those north of the border.​

I have a short time left to speak. The Independent Reconfiguration Panel is just that—an independent reconfiguration panel. I can provide details to those who need to know its composition. It comprises independent experts, and Members can be assured that they will conduct a full and independent review. As I said, they will take evidence from NHS organisations, local authorities and local MPs. It is hoped that their deliberations will conclude at the end of February. It will then be for the Secretary of State to receive the findings and recommendations and to decide whether to act on them. There is a concern that there may be some delay due to a legal challenge.

In last Monday’s debate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey made a helpful intervention, to which I responded that if any local authorities in Yorkshire are minded through their OCSs to refer the matter to the IRP, they should get on and do it. I want to put that into the pot, because the one thing that nobody wants is any more delay.

This debate began back in the 1990s, and hon. Members talked about what happened in Bristol. It was determined then that we needed to ensure that our babies and young children had the finest specialised heart surgery services possible, which is why it has been a long process. It is difficult and painful, but the Safe and Sustainable review was set up on the basis that there would be a reduction in the number of units. No one wants to set one hospital against another, and I pay tribute to everyone who has avoided doing so, but unfortunately sometimes tough decisions have to be made. It is always important to remind ourselves that they are made for the very best reason, which is to ensure that our babies and young people are safe and get the very best service.