“One of my constituents telephoned his brother to say that he was in Maidstone hospital with C. difficile, sitting in his own diarrhoea, and that he wished he was dead.”
I asked the then Secretary of State:
“Can anyone believe that when that is the standard of nursing, it has nothing to do with the spread of infection?"
That was 10 months ago.
May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to something that I identified at the time, but has not mentioned in his responses so far? It is the crucial role of ward sister. Ward sister, unlike management, matron or the director of nursing, is there all day. She used to fulfil the role of boss: “Nurse, why is that drip empty?”; “Nurse, why is this man in his own diarrhoea?” If she still fulfilled that role— [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I hear the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) saying from a sedentary position, “It is a speech.” We are considering a serious matter, which is why I have allowed an urgent question. Let the right hon. Lady speak because I understand that she has lost constituents.
Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for the length of the question, but we are considering my Trust and I am concerned about what is going on. Does the Secretary of State accept that, if ward sister fulfilled her former role, many of the difficulties might have been avoided? Does he agree that there are three main reasons for her not fulfilling that role? First, short-staffing means that she is nursing when she should be bossing and supervising. Secondly, she has become too much a commissioner of bandages and blankets rather than active on the wards. Thirdly, she spends too much time filling in forms—whether that is related to targets or anything else is not the point; she spends too much time on officialdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that I was right to say 10 months ago that if we get the role of ward sister right we will make a huge impact on the situation?
Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Health: I do agree with that. If the role of the ward sister or matron is got right, we will go a long way towards tackling the problems. The right hon. Lady made important points, and I have no argument with the amount of time that she took to make them. She should be congratulated on raising the issue in January. Of course, as she will accept, the Healthcare Commission was in the midst of its investigation then.
I also agree with the right hon. Lady that the standard of nursing had everything to do with the problem, as the Royal College of Nursing and others have pointed out. We made an announcement a couple of weeks ago. I do not say this with the benefit of hindsight in relation to what happened at Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone. The right hon. Lady made the point that the matron and ward sister should have direct control not only over the cleaning arrangements and the contracts agreed for the hospital, but over the making of a report, at least quarterly, to the NHS trust board. The views of the ward sister and matron could not be filtered through various layers of management because the report, on these and other specific issues, would go directly to the trust board. That was the gist of our announcement.
I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with another point made by the right hon. Lady, because I think it detracts from her point about the standard of nursing at the particular hospital and her graphic account of patients being told “Go in the bed”. That is the term that was used. The right hon. Lady and others will surely accept that that is not the standard of nursing that we find in our hospitals across the country; it is absolutely exceptional.
The excuse cannot be given that the management of the trust did not receive the right support. The right hon. Lady spoke of a staff shortage, but there are now about 85,000 more nurses in our hospitals than there were 10 years ago, and 280,000 more care assistants and the like. As she will accept, there is no excuse for the dreadful things that happened in that hospital.
I accept that there are issues that we need to tackle in relation to ward sisters and matrons. We should give them more power and make them much more assertive, and remove any bureaucracy that they feel is a hindrance to their role. As I said in my statement, I am perfectly willing to shoulder that responsibility. My point is that nothing must detract from the failure that occurred in those three hospitals, and nothing must excuse the appalling standard of nursing that was in operation."
More from Hansard here.