Sir Mike Penning leads a debate on the accountability of NHS Trusts

10th July 2018

Sir Mike Penning leads a debate on the accountability of NHS Trusts in which he raises a large number of questions on the management of health services in west Hertfordshire.

It is a privilege to have so long for this Adjournment debate on such an important subject. I know that when other colleagues realise that the debate has started, they will scamper to the Chamber. When I put down the title for this debate, I did not intend it to be a general debate, but when I have raised this issue in the House, many colleagues and those on the Front Bench have acknowledged it, particularly when I have raised it with the Leader of the House at business questions.

The NHS is not owned by politicians. It is not owned by doctors and nurses, and it certainly is not run by the bureaucrats in charge of the NHS. It is owned by the people. The people’s NHS was founded 70 years ago, which we are celebrating today. I would never advocate that we go back to the time when politicians and Ministers ran the NHS, but we are in a situation now where the bureaucrats who run the NHS have very little accountability. Time and again, my constituents say to me, “Why are they not listening to us? Why are they not listening to you, my MP? At the end of the day, you represent us in the House of Commons—you are there to represent our money.” That is the principle of our democracy today and has been the founding principle ever since we first elected people to this House over 900 years ago.

I find it amazing when we question the clinical commissioning group or one of the numerous trusts in my constituency. I never understand why, in a small county like mine, we have so many NHS trusts, acute trusts, mental health trusts and community trusts. The people do not understand it. They just see an NHS. They do not realise or want to know how many chief executives, finance directors or directors of nursing there are. They just want to be looked after by the NHS, which was the promise when the NHS was founded.

There are a couple of examples from my constituency that might resonate with colleagues around the House, as it may have happened in their constituencies as well. A few years ago in my constituency, we lost the NHS trust’s chief executive. The chief executive had been involved in the downgrading and closure of the acute hospital in my part of the world, and once he had done that, he decided to go to pastures new at very short notice. The then regional health authority seconded a new chief executive on what we thought was a temporary basis, but we noticed some time down the line that the role of chief executive of the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust had not been advertised, and there did not appear to be anybody saying that we should have people applying for such a senior position in the trust.

The gentleman’s name was Jan Filochowski. I know Hansard will ask me to spell that name later, and I will attempt to help them as much as I can, but anybody in my part of the world will know who that gentleman is. I did not have any particular gripe with Jan. I completely disagreed with the running down that he continued to do, but I did have one specific gripe, as did the hospital action group in my part of the world. In particular, Mr Ron Glatter picked up the argument, and I fired off several really important questions to the NHS regional health authority: “Hold up a second, has this person got this job now? Has he been appointed, and if he has, when was it advertised, and when was he interviewed?”

Sometime down the line—hidden with lots of mirrors in lots of different parts of the NHS—it was revealed that the gentleman had got the job without it being advertised and without being interviewed for it. However, because he had been given a contract, it would have been too expensive to remove him and to start again from scratch. We eventually found out that his remuneration package was in excess of £300,000, which is well over twice what the Prime Minister of this country earns. I accept that someone does not become the Prime Minister to earn a lot of money—clearly, there are other reasons why someone becomes Prime Minister—but surely, within the NHS of all places, that sort of remuneration package is not only excessive, but actually sick. The money that person was earning! I am sure there are others who are earning close to that, perhaps more or perhaps slightly less.

Does it not get even worse, in that individuals who fail in such jobs are given pay-offs to get them out of the hospital, but in a fairly short space of time the magic circle again fits them up with an appointment in another hospital, where they again fail and again cost huge sums of money?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The gentleman did not stay very long, but he caused carnage in our NHS trust and morale went through the floor. I am sure some of the books might have looked a bit better, but certainly acute care was really struggling. The gentleman left after two years, or something like that, and he went to Great Ormond Street Hospital as the chief executive. I am sure he went on a huge pay cut—no, I am being cynical: I doubt it. He has now retired.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point, before that gentleman there was another chief executive involved in investing in our health, who went off under a cloud. I managed to get him summoned to the Health Committee, when I was a member of it, to find out the truth about what was happening with the closure programmes. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right because, a few years later, he appeared back in my constituency as the chief executive of the community trust. He then had the audacity to ask, “Can we put all that behind us, as this is a new job and a different project for me?” Yes, it goes full circle: just as the right hon. Gentleman said in the previous debate, it is jobs for the boys, and they come back round again.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, in which he is highlighting a very specific issue. Does he not agree that there is a duty of care on Government-funded bodies, which quite clearly pay people from Government funds, to ensure that employees at every level are accountable to trusts? More must be done to inspire confidence in the NHS—this is quite clearly a confidence issue—as well as to provide transparency and clear accountability.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. We have discussed and debated this before, and this must be like “Groundhog Day” for the Minister. I should have thanked him earlier for bearing with me in what may be a much longer debate than he probably assumed when he saw it on the Order Paper.

It is important that there is proper due process when we employ people who work in the NHS, and in relation to salaries. I am sure that the Minister will now go away and check with the Treasury how this happened. My understanding was that such remuneration—and we are going back a couple of years—would not have been allowed even then. Trust in the NHS is vital. There are other examples, which I will produce, that will show that although the NHS is absolutely world renowned, there are errors in it that infuriate the people who it is supposed to be representing and looking after.

This is a timely debate. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar): it seems to me that a game of musical chairs is going on. We see chief executives who leave under questionable circumstances get a job outside the NHS and then turn up at another trust somewhere else. There does not seem to be any accountability.

As politicians, we are often accused of being remote, but nobody is more remote than people at some of the trusts I have looked at. Someone trying to get information from them about their budgets and where the expenditure goes has a job on their hands. It is about time that how the Department is run is looked at; it gives directions to the rest of the chief executives in the country, even on appointments.

I agree almost completely; I would just say that sometimes these people do not even leave the NHS—they stay within the structure of the NHS, but just go to a different trust in a different part of the country. Then they just reappear again and again.

I have often wondered about something. A director of nursing should clearly have come up through the nursing ranks; I understand that. Clearly, also, clinicians have to be involved in the clinical side. But why does NHS management have to be completely incestuous in how it works? If someone started as a nurse or doctor, how on earth do they have the necessary qualifications to run a massive multi-million pound organisation? Yet that is how it seems to happen. It took a long time for Mr Ron Glatter to get the figures when he was challenged. When we eventually got them, it was like pulling teeth: was it a package or a salary? “This is personal information.” This is taxpayers’ money. One of the most difficult things is to find out exactly where the money is going.

My right hon. Friend mentioned nurses, doctors and other clinicians taking on managerial roles. To what extent is that driven by a desire to reduce the number of managers in hospitals—to call them “nurse managers” and claim they are nurses when they are actually fulfilling a management role?

My hon. Friend brings great expertise to the debate, and I thank her for joining us. She is absolutely right. I declare an interest: my mother was a nurse in the days of “sister” and “matron”. Then there were nurse managers and other managers—all of a sudden, we went that way, but we seem to be coming back again. We can change the name on the Titanic, but it is still the Titanic: a manager is a manager, no matter what title we put on them.

It seems to me that we are not reducing the number of managers. I vividly remember that there were 11 primary care trusts in the Dacorum area of my constituency. Then the number reduced to two—one, actually, because there was only one director of finance. When we looked at the head count, the cost analysis, which should have massively reduced, it had actually gone up.

I want clinicians to be involved in the day-to-day care of my constituents, but I am not convinced that a GP should chair a clinical commissioning group, especially given that in most cases they do not seem to be full time in the role. What qualifications do they bring? I know that GP practices are much more business-orientated now than ever before, but they employ practice managers—the partners do not run things.

More recently, there has been an understandable concern in my constituency about the proposed closure of one of the facilities called Nascot Lawn; it is not in my constituency, but was playing a vital role in looking after the most vulnerable children in my community. Brilliantly, the families and loved ones came together to challenge the closure. They got the MPs on board and we were involved. I then scratched my head and said, “Hold on a second, I remember being told that Nascot Lawn was going to provide the respite care for my constituents when they closed a place called Woolmer Drive.” Woolmer Drive was a desperately needed respite centre where young people could go, and where their carers and loved ones could spend a bit of time. So not only did Woolmer Drive close, which meant that patients had to go to Nascot Lawn, but Nascot Lawn was closing. That was challenged, but there was very, very little consultation.

I will talk about consultations in quite a lot of depth. Frankly, most consultations are a sham. The decisions are made before they consult. They make the decision to close, put it in their budgetary regime and then consult. They then come out and say, “We’ve listened to the consultation and we are going to ignore you.” So what is the point of the consultation?

My right hon. Friend echoes our experience in Worcestershire. The Minister will know the deep concern my constituents have about Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust. Exactly the same thing happened before I came to this place. Services were taken away from the hospital and people were told, “You’re being consulted.” All that happened was that services were removed. It was part of a plan, I understand that, but the idea that it was a consultation is really for the birds.

It is a tick-box exercise. Most of the time trusts cannot even get that right. In this particular case—I will come on to another case in a moment—we challenged it. We judicially reviewed it not once, but twice. But why should members of the public have to come together to raise money to judicially review such decisions? There is currently no other process with proper discussion and involvement of patients, which challenges the decisions we hear day in, day out.​

The right hon. Gentleman is being very gracious in giving way. We had a case involving two consultants. With one in particular, the case actually ended up in the courts. We have never been able to find out the cost of the litigation, but it was anywhere between £2 million and £4 million. On the one hand, the public has got to raise the money if they want to challenge something, but within the NHS itself, where resources are very scarce, a lot of money is wasted on litigation. This consultant was taken to task because he was a whistleblower. On the one hand they encourage whistleblowers, but if they do not like what the whistleblowers have to say they suspend them and eventually try to get rid of them through litigation.

I was coming on to that point, but let me meet it head on now. I speak to nurses and other frontline staff who look after my local patients, including some doctors, and they are petrified of telling their own MP what is going on in case of retribution. Perhaps the Minister will help me to get to the bottom of the number of gagging orders out there at the moment in my trust, whereby things have been settled and people have been gagged. The types of threats in the gagging orders that are put on them are very severe.

There was a consultation panel in my constituency about the future of health, and the people allowed on the panel had been gagged. These are members of the general public who have been told categorically not to talk to me. They are not to tell me what is going on in the NHS in my own local community. They will be thrown off the panel if they do, and it is worse for the staff who have gagging orders against them. This is very serious.

We see the amount of money the NHS uses in litigation, whereas our patients have to raise money themselves. The NHS seems to settle very easily when there are threats against it relating to malpractice or when something has gone wrong at the trivial end of things, but when things are really serious and deaths have taken place, down come the shutters. Nationally, we have seen what happens—it has happened recently in Gosport and in Staffordshire when I was a shadow Minister—unless the staff have 100% confidence that they can go to their MP or their line management and tell them what has been going on. Sometimes it can be quite trivial, but often it is very serious, and there is clearly retribution against them should they do so. That is something we need to sort out.

It is extremely important that all health professionals in hospitals are able to report any concerns that they have. I understand that there is to be a whistleblowing champion for each trust. What does my right hon. Friend know of those, and does he think they will help?

It is all well and good saying that those people should be, perhaps in legislation, but unless people have the confidence that their career is not going to be curtailed, or unless they are close to retirement and are not going to put their pension at risk, they are not going to blow the whistle. What really upsets me is that although I was sent to this House to represent people and for them to be able to tell me, in confidence, anything that they needed to, so that between the two of us we could discuss how to take it forward—often without using their name, but if necessary we can—that is not happening. That really worries me an awful lot.

To go back to Nascot Lawn, we went to a judicial review. We have done that before in our part of the world. The judge sided with the patients, but all that happened—it was about process, of course—was that it went back to the CCG, which turned around and said, “We will consult slightly differently. We will address what the court said, and by the way, we are going to go ahead and do it.” It is a sham, and we should be honest about that in the House.

When we tried to prevent our acute hospital from being closed—I pay tribute to my community for that—we did everything in the world. We got a coffin on a trolley, and thousands of us pushed it from my A&E that was going to close to the nearest one at Watford hospital, which it was proposed people should go to, in order to show just how much passion there was. We managed to get the money together to go to judicial review—a lot of money; in excess of £60,000—and the judge said, “You have a moral case. You have an ethical case. I agree with you, but you don’t have a case in law because all the powers are with the trust and the PCT”, as it was then. I ask the Minister: how can it be right that people must be so concerned, not just in my constituency but elsewhere?

Lastly on this part of my speech, let me talk again about what happened when we lost our A&E. I have raised this in the House before, so the Minister knows what I am talking about. To go back a bit further, St Albans, Hemel Hempstead and Watford are covered by West Herts, and at one time all three had A&Es. We are a massively growing population. The largest town in Hertfordshire is Hemel, which will have a projected 20,000 new homes in the next 20 years. St Albans is expanding, and so is Watford. There was a consultation, but the public were ignored. The A&E was closed and made into an elective surgery facility in St Albans. The public promises to the people of St Albans were that Hemel’s A&E would look after them. It is not a particularly long ride—it is clearly not in St Albans town centre, but that was going to be that. However, a few years on, those responsible said, “Let’s shut Hemel’s A&E and move it to Watford, because that can look after West Herts,” so the promises went out the window. The public went mad in St Albans and in our area. They were all on the streets, and what did we get? An urgent care centre, some out-patient services and a fracture clinic. Really and truly, that is all that is left in Hemel.

My right hon. Friend is generous in giving way a second time. Again, the parallels with Redditch are interesting. Does he agree that the problem for the public comes when they see that their town is growing and they feel that trusts have not planned for the future? That is exactly what we have in Redditch as well, because it is a new town and it is growing, and people do not understand how the future demand will be catered for in the trust’s plans.

That is absolutely what I hear every day in my constituency. I also hear, “What are you going to do about it, Mr MP? Get off your backside and do something about it!” I am doing everything I possibly can—I am meeting Secretaries of State and trusts—but what happens? I get ignored, because I have no powers at all; it is all in the hands of bureaucrats.

We have a similar situation in Grantham A&E, which serves my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and I have been working to try to get Grantham A&E reopened around the clock since it was closed without consultation in August 2016.

If the A&E was closed without consultation, that is illegal. I think the Minister will confirm that it is illegal to make major changes to a community’s health provision without consultation.

Hemel Hempstead A&E closed after a bogus consultation, and everything moved to Watford. We were promised that it would all be okay, and that we would have a 24-hour urgent care centre manned by GPs. Let us go back to just before Christmas 2016. There had been chaos—and I mean chaos—at the acute admissions unit in Watford hospital, which has just recently come out of special measures. All the ambulances were getting held up in big bottlenecks at the A&E at Watford. The big, new, bright idea was that we would close the urgent care centre that had replaced the A&E in Hemel Hempstead, and that that would be okay.

I had a meeting with the chief executive of the trust, who told me, “Mike, we are only doing this on safety grounds, because we cannot get the GPs to cover the hours.” That was really surprising to me, because there is a GP drop-in centre in the next room—not across the other side of town or even in a different part of the complex, but in the next room. I was told, “That is a different contract. We can’t touch that, mate; it’s nothing to do with us.” The chief executive said to me, “Don’t worry, Mr Penning, we can’t close the 24-hour service, because we have not consulted. This is just a temporary, emergency measure.” She went on the local radio station—I did not ask her to do that—and reiterated exactly what she had told me. In fact, she went further and said that the centre would be closed for only a couple of months and that it would reopen, because it would be categorically illegal to change the hours without consultation.

Reducing the hours of an urgent care centre—which used to be an A&E—from 24 to 10 is a major thing. Eighteen months later, the trust consulted on a proposal to turn the 24-hour urgent care centre into an urgent treatment centre, which would shut at 10 pm. Perhaps the Minister can explain to the general public the real difference between an urgent care centre and an urgent treatment centre, because I struggled to do so. I know that there is a methodology within the Department, but all that Joe Bloggs, my constituents, saw was a downgrading.

By the time of the consultation, the centre had already been closed for 18 months, so what choice did we have? We could not rewind the clock 18 months. The trust misled us by saying that the measure was temporary. The chief executive promised me that to my face, and she repeated that promise on the local radio station. That commitment was not worth the paper it was written on—or rather the voice that spoke it. My constituents have suffered a massive loss of trust in brand NHS. Their trust has been decimated, because promise after promise has been broken.

Naturally, the vast majority of consultation responses —do not quote me on this, but I think it was about 80%—said that the centre had to be open 24 hours. Guess what, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is not. It has been renamed an urgent treatment centre, and it closes, allegedly, at 10 o’clock at night. Within the last few days, however, a very senior person in my constituency whom I trust implicitly saw someone collapse outside the centre at approximately 9.30 pm—half an hour before it was supposed to close—but the doors were locked. It was only because a member of the public opened them from the inside that the patient was seen. The doors were not opened by the NHS staff who were inside, even though they must have known that the patient was there. I hope and pray that she is okay.

I am now told that the doors are regularly locked at any time after 9 pm. That is disastrous for my constituents when they turn up there, but many of them simply do not trust the centre to be open at night? What is going on? Naturally enough, although sometimes inappropriately, they go to the A&E at Watford, which is causing it even more of a problem—but can we get anyone to listen? No, we cannot.

Watford General Hospital is in the middle of Watford, next to a football club about which a great many of my constituents are passionate, Watford FC. It used to be the home of Saracens, and I am passionate about them as well. The hospital was built in Victorian days, and the best way to describe it is “not fit for purpose”. The people of Watford will probably say, “Please do not run down the hospital, because it might be closed”, and I fully understand that, but the truth is that we all need a new hospital.

Although, as we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), the population is growing massively, we are now supposed to listen to the management telling us what they are likely to provide. I have attended meetings with the Secretary of State and NHS Improvement about the applications from my local acute trust and clinical commissioning group, and it petrifies me that yet again they are not going to listen—I do not mean to me, or to the Minister, who knows that he has no powers and will be treated with the disrespect that I often receive; they just ignore us—but to the people whom they are supposed to be serving, and who pay their wages out of their taxes.

I am not a clinician, although I was a paramedic in the armed forces and I know a little bit, but surgeons, GPs and frontline senior nursing staff have been speaking to me privately. It is fundamentally wrong and dangerous to keep saying that Watford can cope with the ever-growing population of west Hertfordshire.

I have met representatives of NHS Improvement with a delegation from my hospital action group, led by the brilliant Betty Harris, with Edie Glatter and her team, Jan Maddern and others, and we have joined forces with a separate campaign from St Albans. We were promised that the NHS management, as they looked at the applications for healthcare regeneration in my part of the world, would ensure that the CCG and the acute trust had more than one option on the table, rather than just ploughing more money into the Victorian hospital. I know that there have been conversations about a greenfield site, which is owned by us because it is Crown Estate land. It is by the M1, close to the M25, between St Albans and Hemel Hempstead. It is perfect for an acute facility—the infrastructure could not be bettered—but I think we are being ignored again. I cannot prove that, but it is my gut feeling, and it is certainly the feeling of the thousands of people in my constituency.

I am a loyal member of the Conservative party. I was a Minister for seven years in seven Departments, and I was on the Front Bench in opposition for four and a half years. I have to ask myself why I am supporting a Government who are allowing my constituents to be ignored. The Minister must not take this personally, but the present situation is crazy. The Department of Health and Social Care—I was not in that Department, but I have been in many others—actually has very little control over what is going on out there in our wonderful NHS. We have inspections, my local hospital goes into special measures and then comes out of them, it gets into debt and then comes out of it. However, the truth in my part of the world is that if NHS management are not accountable to Ministers or to me as their MP—and, much more importantly, are not accountable to the people whom they are supposed to be looking after—we have a serious problem. If my constituents cannot come to me and express their concern about what is going on in the NHS, there is a serious problem with our democracy, and that is something that I cannot live with.


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