Practice Makes Perfect

Issue section: 
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The National Audit Office is investigating the transfer of services from Crawley Hospital to East Surrey.

About 18 months ago Alan Milburn, apparently at the instigation of our MP, called a delegation to his office asking us to put the case for a new hospital in Crawley and the retention of existing services at the old hospital in the meantime. As a result of this meeting he set up a review body to look into the matter of the health needs of the whole area. This body was set up towards the end of 2000, with instructions to report back by the end of 2001. It is in fact having its last meeting, at which, presumably, the report back will be made, on 31 January this year.

After this review was set up and working, in January 2001, maternity services were finally withdrawn from Crawley Hospital, despite members of Crawley Hospital Campaign trying to block the path of the removal vans. Soon after that Milburn--amid much trumpeting of triumph from the local MP--conceded a moratorium on the removal of other services until after the review body has reported. We thought this was to please the electorate just before the election.

Now it seems the National Audit Office is looking into the matter of whether, in fact, it was 'best practice' to remove the maternity service before the report of the review body had been made. Although it certainly came in handy just before the election, it seems the moratorium was a legal necessity--although conveniently too late to save maternity services.

When the announcement of the transfer of services was first made, the old, now discredited trust suggested that there was 'concrete cancer' in the maternity block and that it could not be repaired. The building has since been used for child development. The new trust has declared that there is no concrete cancer and that the building is sound.

There is a counter-argument in this case. The shortage of midwives qualified to oversee the intensive care cots had become so desperate that it was declared 'unsafe' to keep the services in Crawley. The high cost of housing in the town, plus the uncertain future of the hospital, has made it difficult to attract staff. But the audit office has suggested a new argument. The term 'best practice' is much bandied about by MPs and councillors, and normally used against the left. But surely no PFI arrangement can possibly be 'best practice'? PFI is a way of squandering taxpayers' money, forcing us to pay exorbitant rates of interest as well as profit to the private consortia. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the law than I am could explain how they are managing to get away with such profligacy, apparently unchallenged?

Muriel Hirsch
Crawley