Blears rejects hypocrisy claims over NHS protest
Published by webmaster for 24dash.com in Central Government
Cabinet minister Hazel Blears today rejected accusations of hypocrisy over her participation in a campaign to save the maternity unit in a hospital in her constituency.
The Labour Party chairwoman joined a picket line outside Hope Hospital in Salford in the days before Christmas to protest against the decision to close the baby unit as part of an overhaul of NHS services in Greater Manchester.
Her spokeswoman confirmed today that she had privately lobbied Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who may have the final say on the closure.
Campaigners from the group Health Emergency accused Ms Blears of riding on the back of local protests while being complicit in central Government policies which have resulted in cuts in hospitals up and down the country.
The row comes at a time when the Department of Health is being forced to defend a series of changes to NHS facilities which have come about as part of what it sees as a vital process of modernisation of the service.
Local health trusts decided earlier this month to go ahead with a reorganisation of mothers' and children's services in Greater Manchester, east Cheshire and Derbyshire's High Peak which would see the number of in-patient baby units cut from 13 to eight.
In a joint letter with the Labour MPs for neighbouring Worsley and Eccles, Barbara Keeley and Ian Stewart, Ms Blears said she was "very concerned" at the decision and "determined that Salford families should continue to have access to the highest quality maternity services and children's health services close to home".
Her intervention follows Cabinet colleague John Reid's decision to join a protest against hospital cutbacks in his Airdrie and Shotts constituency in April.
But Health Emergency's head of campaigns Geoff Martin said: "Here we have Cabinet ministers, totally bound up in the Government's hospital cuts and closure programme, riding on the backs of anti-cuts campaigns in their own constituencies in a bid to save their own political skins. Frankly, it stinks.
"There are 29 hospitals up and down the country facing the immediate threat of cuts and closure to key services in 2007. Will Hazel Blears be joining demonstrators on the streets in each of those areas or is this just a ic case of 'not in my back yard'?
"If the closure of maternity services is wrong in Salford, it is wrong in all those other parts of the country as well and Blears should be piling on pressure to ditch the cuts policy or she should resign."
Ms Blears rejected the charge of hypocrisy today, saying: "I am representing the views of the people who elected me.
"My first and foremost job is to represent Salford and the people of the area and I will continue to make the case that Salford needs its maternity services."
Speaking to the Manchester Evening News last week, Ms Blears said she had raised the issue with Ms Hewitt "several times".
Her spokesman said this morning that she had mentioned the closure in private conversations with the Health Secretary but had not yet had a formal meeting with her to discuss it.
He was not aware of any ministerial colleagues expressing opposition to her involvement in the campaign.
At this stage, Ms Hewitt cannot intervene in the decision made by a joint committee of the area's primary care trusts (PCTs). But campaigners are lobbying councillors on Greater Manchester's health scrutiny committees to refer it to the Health Secretary and ask her to override it.
The decision on December 8 followed a lengthy consultation process which attracted 200,000 responses from members of the public, including petitions to save maternity centres.
Under the PCTs' scheme, three new "super-centres" for long-term intensive care for new babies will be created in nearby Manchester, Bolton and Oldham, while overnight maternity and children's care will be provided in Stockport, North Manchester, Wigan and Wythenshawe.
Leila Williams, director of Greater Manchester's children, young people and families network, said: "This is not about punishing or rewarding individual units, but about saving babies' lives, improving care for women and children and investing in more community services across the whole of Greater Manchester and High Peak.
"We need to provide services where most women and children live now and in the future."
Current facilities are based on the pattern of need from 30 or more years ago, she said. Staff shortages meant individual units were sometimes forced to close without warning - last year alone there were more than 227 closures.
"Services across the review area are currently spread too thinly, so women choosing to give birth in their local hospital may arrive and find that the hospital has had to close unexpectedly due to staff shortages," said Ms Williams.
"Patients will be able to make informed choices if services are concentrated in larger centres of excellence, because this will minimise the current pressures of staff shortages."
Deborah Carter, from Salford Royal Hospitals NHS Trust, told BBC Radio 4's Today: "For us, it will mean the end of maternity neo-natal services for the population of Salford.
"But I think it's really important we look at this in the wider context. This is about changing services for the whole of the population of Greater Manchester and in with that, the hospitals of the Salford Royal Hospitals NHS Trust are very signed up to the principle that change is the right thing."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told Today: "A number of members of the Cabinet, I know, have joined local demonstrations against some of the changes that are taking place in the health service at the moment, and they are reflecting the huge amount of public unease about the direction of change in the NHS."
Conservatives today released a list of 43 maternity units which they said are either under threat of being downgraded or closed, or have been closed.
The list included 29 units (67%) in constituencies held by opposition MPs and 26 units (60%) operated by NHS trusts which ended the 2005/06 financial year in deficit.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "Maternity units are the latest frontline service to bear the brunt of Labour's financial mismanagement of the NHS. The Government talk about delivering choice to mothers, but cutbacks are taking that choice away.
"There is little logic behind these reconfigurations - the only pattern appears to be that units with fewer than 3,000 births a year are being targeted for closure. Once again, the consequence of deficits is that accessible local services will be denied to patients.
"Tony Blair and Patricia Hewitt are out of step with the rest of the country and their fellow Cabinet ministers about reconfiguration of maternity units. (Labour's Chief Whip) Jacqui Smith has campaigned about maternity closures in Redditch and now Hazel Blears is doing the same in Salford.
"The Government is in disagreement over maternity closures because Patricia Hewitt is yet to provide evidence to show why there should any closures at all."
Copyright Press Association 2006