Devon Conservative machine backs Health Scrutiny travesty, blocks my last-ditch attempt to defend our hospital beds
Yesterday the Conservative Party machine defeated my final attempt to get Devon County Council to take action over the closure of community hospitals beds. My motion, seconded by Claire Wright, asked the Health Scrutiny Committee to look again at the issues it failed to scrutinise properly in July, and asked the Council to write to the Secretary of State for Health to alert him to our concern about hospital beds. I highlighted widespread NHS concern that there will be too few beds if there is a flu epidemic this winter. My speech is printed below and you can watch it here.
The Tory response was an amendment, moved by the leader, John Hart, which took the guts out of the motion. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it said that Health Scrutiny had ‘extensively considered the issues and concerns from members of the public, elected members and others, including medical professionals, all matters relating to the closure of some community hospital beds in Honiton, Okehampton, Seaton and Whipton.’
Instead of my proposal to write to the Secretary about the beds closures, the amendment proposed to write ‘seeking reassurance that appropriate funding is provided by government to deliver the necessary health and social care services in Devon’. Not a dicky bird to the minister about community hospital beds, the whole point of the debate.
In reply I told the Council (at 3.10) that if they passed this amendment, they would be ignoring East Devon opinion just like Kensington & Chelsea Council ignored the residents of Grenfell Tower; and the Conservative Group as a whole would have made itself responsible for the failure of scrutiny.
The result Although they were not formally whipped, 40 Tories fell dutifully in line to support the amendment. There were 16 votes against (these were Liberal Democrat, Labour, Independent and Green members, together with only one Conservative, Ian Hall of Axminster).
Claire made a valiant attempt to put some guts back into the motion, with another amendment – but the Tory machine squashed that too.
During the Council meeting, the overhead display announced the date as ‘5 Octobe’, losing an ‘r’ in apparent tribute to the recent successful Tory conference, on which Steve Bell comments in today’s Guardian:
Text of my speech:
I represent a large division in East Devon. 2 years ago Seaton, Axminster and Honiton hospitals had in-patient beds, universally appreciated by patients & doctors, and supported by local communities. Today large parts of each hospital lie empty – nurses and other staff are dispersed – volunteers have been told they are no longer needed. We don’t even know whether the buildings will survive as centres of health services or be sold off.
This is the biggest crisis East Devon & Okehampton have faced in many years. Local communities have been united in their opposition; councillors of all parties have opposed the decisions.
After a biased consultation and unjust decisions, we looked to the Health Scrutiny Committee to hold NEW Devon CCG to account, and they have failed us. My proposal today is not a motion of NO confidence in any councillor or party. It is a motion to RESTORE confidence in this Council’s ability to represent Devon communities and stand up for their interests.
The tragedy is that Health Scrutiny started sensibly by asking the CCG 14 questions, in order to decide whether it should use its legal power to refer their decision. This proposal had cross-party backing, with the support of more Conservatives than members of any other party. A minority of the committee were, however, determined from the beginning to disregard public concern and voted not even to ask the questions.
The CCG replied to the questions but the Committee found their answers inadequate and wrote back detailing areas of concern. So far so good – a model of scrutiny. But things started to go wrong when the issue came to the new Health & Adult Care committee in June. The new Chair argued that members were insufficiently experienced to decide the issue and recommended delaying a decision until September 21st. It escaped no one’s notice that this was after the date given for permanent closure of the beds. It was seen as an attempt to prevent effective scrutiny.
Fortunately, the Committee agreed instead to a special meeting in July. For this meeting, the County Solicitor prepared a guidance paper outlining 6 issues outstanding with the CCG. Councillor Ian Hall, Councillor Mike Allen who is a Conservative District councillor, and others joined me in pressed the local communities’ case.
However the CCG gave a long powerpoint presentation which simply did not address most of the 6 issues, and before any debate could take place, Councillor Gilbert proposed there be no referral. In case anyone believed that he still wanted to scrutinise the issues, he made a point of emphasising that not referring would ‘save the committee a huge amount of work ’.
Councillor Diviani then told the committee that referral would be a waste of time, because ‘attempting to browbeat the Secretary of State to overturn his own policies is counter-intuitive’.
The Committee never discussed most of the remaining issues that the guidance paper had identified. Let me mention just one, the surprise decision to close Seaton’s beds, removing all provision from the Axe Valley. Neither the CCG nor any member gave any reason for believing this decision was justified – yet the committee voted for it anyway and the empty wards of Seaton hospital are the consequence.
There was no broad support for the anti-scrutiny motion: it was supported only by 7-6 ; 4 members abstained or were absent. The meeting was widely seen as an abdication of scrutiny. The Standards Committee says it ‘may not reflect well on the Council as a whole’. I would go further: it did not reflect well on this Council.
Since then, it has become obvious that cutting beds to the bone brings great risks. The Head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, has called for more beds to be urgently made available this winter in face of a possible flu epidemic. Expert bodies like the Kings Fund, the College of Emergency Medicine and NHS Providers have backed the judgement that the NHS is cutting too far, too fast. These are new reasons to question the CCG’s plans.
This motion therefore proposes that
- The Scrutiny Committee should look again at the issues which were not satisfactorily addressed.
- The Council should tell the Secretary of State that the CCG’s decisions and the wider STP process have aroused great feeling in Devon, that people are not happy with either the decisions or the way they were made , and we are worried that we simply won’t have enough beds for the coming winter.
- Finally, following a more constructive Health Scrutiny meeting on 21st September, this motion welcomes the Committee’s help in securing community hospital buildings.
Some of you may still wonder if Cllr Diviani was right, and all these proposals will be a waste of time. The answer to this is given in a recent letter from the Secretary’s own office: ‘As you may know,’ it says, ‘contested service changes can be referred to the Secretary of State, who then takes advice from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel.’ So a referral is not something the minister deals with personally; it is a legally defined procedure.
The letter continues, ‘However, as you are aware, Devon’s Health Scrutiny Committee … passed a motion … in favour of not referring the CCG’s decision to the Secretary of State.’ Cllr Diviani suggested that referral was pointless because of the minister’s opinions: the minister’s office implies it WOULD be meaningful, if only Devon would take action.
I ask you to restore this Council’s reputation and take the action which it is within your power to take, even at this late date, to save our community hospital beds.
There WILL be a debate at the County Council on Thursday on my motion calling for Health Scrutiny to look again at the issues it failed to scrutinise properly
There WILL be a debate at the County Council on Thursday on my motion calling for Health Scrutiny to look again at the issues it failed to scrutinise properly in July, and for the County to let the Secretary of State know of the concerns about the CCG’s decisions and the process. The Leader, Cllr John Hart, has told me that they will agree to a debate rather than having the motion forwarded first to Cabinet, as is the normal procedure.
The agenda for the meeting is here.
Shock proposal to close Axe Valley Sixth Form is the result of the ‘reduction in government funding for sixth form provision in schools’
I am shocked to hear of the proposal to close the Sixth Form at Axe Valley College, blamed on the ‘reduction in government funding for sixth form provision in schools’ in the first line of the consultation statement.
Turning the college into an academy, as part of the Vector Learning Trust which runs Holyrood Academy in Chard, was supposed to be a means of saving the Sixth Form, but it obviously has not worked. I look forward to hearing the views of parents and others at this serious blow to local facilities.
After the failure of the July Scrutiny meeting, I am asking Devon County Council to look again at hospital bed closures on 5th October
After the failed Health Scrutiny Committee meeting in July – which has led to repercussions in the County’s Standards and Procedures Committees as well as at EDDC – the full Devon County Council will be asked to look again at the issues on Thursday 5th October. I have proposed the following motion, which Claire Wright will second:
The County Council regrets the failure of the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee on 25 July 2017 to be seen to scrutinise the decision of NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group to close community hospital beds in Honiton, Okehampton, Seaton and Whipton, especially in the light of the subsequent urgent recommendation by the head of the NHS in England, Simon Stevens, which is supported by evidence from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and the King’s Fund, that more beds need be made available for the coming winter.
Noting also the Standards Committee’s conclusion that events at the Scrutiny Committee meeting ‘may not reflect well on individual members of the Council or upon the Council as a whole’, its recommendations for the Committee’s Chair and its general recommendations to both members and chairs of Scrutiny Committees, the County Council therefore
- requests the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee to scrutinise those issues identified by the County Solicitor in her paper for 25 July which were not directly and fully addressed at the Scrutiny Committee in that meeting;
- consistent with the Council’s ‘community champion’ role, alerts the Secretary of State to the strength of feeling in the locality at the overall STP process throughout the County and the significant numbers of objections made by the public to the CCG’sproposals and that in the interests of democracy and democratic accountability he might wish to satisfy himself that all relevant process were properly undertaken and assessed and that the CCGs subsequent decisions are supported by the evidence; and
- welcomes the agreement of the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee to examine, subject to the advice of the County Solicitor, means of safeguarding community hospital buildings throughout Devon as facilities for the provision of place-based health services.
Seaton and Axminster – combined health hub?
As I have reported before, Seaton Town Council, the League of Friends and I have been discussing the future of Seaton Hospital in the light of the removal of the beds. Full details of the proposals have not been finalised, so I can only quote the report of Councillor Jack Rowland, Mayor of Seaton, to next Monday’s Town Council:
‘The next campaign is to ensure that the site is retained with a compelling case for retaining the existing services and extending these. To this end I attended a meeting on 6 September to discuss the next steps. I cannot give fuller details at this stage, but broadly the idea is to set up a Steering Committee for an Axe Valley Health Hub and to work in conjunction with Axminster to build a case for retaining both sites with complementary services.’
When will the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership (LEP) offer something to small town, rural and coastal Devon?
This was the question I asked Chris Garcia, of the Heart of the South West LEP, when he appeared before the Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee (CIRS) at Devon County Council yesterday. Mr Garcia said that Government funding was geared mainly to urban areas, but the LEP has a ‘rural growth commission’ which will publish a report shortly. I shall look out for it.
Mr Garcia didn’t reply, however, to my criticism that the LEP is itself skewed by the ‘white elephant’ new nuclear power station at Hinkley C in Somerset. This project, rashly endorsed by Theresa May who had a chance to halt it, will cause British consumers pay over the odds for electricity for decades to come, based on an unproved type of nuclear station which is not supported even by many who believe nuclear energy is necessary for national energy needs, and in the control of French and Chinese state companies! As renewables get cheaper and electric storage becomes viable, this is a project we don’t need. True, it will bring some jobs to Somerset, but not to most of Devon.
Mr Garcia came with a powerpoint and brandishing the LEP’s latest glossy annual report. I asked that in future, we had proper written reports circulated in advance which members could scrutinise.
Mr Garcia didn’t mention the word ‘devolution’. HoTSW is leaving all that to Devon and Somerset county councils, who apparently now planning to establish a Joint Committee. What that will involve is something else county councillors will need to scrutinise carefully.
I will be a member of a new task group which was set up yesterday to examine congestion and air pollution in the County’s urban areas, especially Exeter. The group was proposed by Exeter Labour County Councillor, Emma Brennan, to the County’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee (CIRS) on which I sit. I made the point that congestion is partly produced because towns like Seaton are losing town centre shops and public facilities like day centres and community hospital beds, and people from outlying areas like ours are losing bus services into Exeter, all of which force more people into Exeter by car. I shall be pressing for this broad approach to congestion, not just treating it as an urban problem.
The County’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee (CIRS), on which I sit, has set up a standing Task Group to monitor rural broadband and mobile phone coverage. Roll-out of broadband by Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS), which has public funds to fill the gaps where commercial providers will not go, has been slow, they say because of the providers, and CDS is not sufficiently open to public scrutiny. At the November meeting, East Devon broadband campaigner, Graham Long, complained about the issue being dealt with by a task group which meets in private. I urged the committee to be aware of the frustration felt by those still without access to reliable broadband and the need to be seen to be urgently seeking progress.
Mobile phone coverage is of great concern in Branscombe and other rural parishes in the division. Unfortunately the committee was told that mobile phone providers would not agree to talk to us. However it emerged that the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership (LEP) has earmarked £2.5m to address phone coverage issues, although they have not yet decided how.