Hospital funding issues put local MPs on the spot

Karen Lumley MP
Image caption Redditch's Conservative MP Karen Lumley is fighting closure of the A&E unit at Alexandra Hospital

"It's PFI or bust!" So said the then newly-appointed Labour health minister Alan Milburn back in 1997.

The irony is that the private finance initiative was devised by the previous Conservative administration.

But it was Labour who adopted it with a will, as a way of replacing crumbling or outdated hospital buildings with gleaming 'superhospitals' including Birmingham's 'new QE' and the Royal Worcestershire Hospital at Ronkswood.

And so the wheel of politics goes round and round, because it is now the turn of Conservative MPs to target Labour over what they say is the burden of debts in a lengthening list of NHS trusts caused in no small measure by, you guessed it, PFI projects introduced under Labour.

Critics of PFI warned for years these schemes were, in effect, mortgaging the future of the health service.

But the chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham, Dame Julie Moore, replied that many homeowners would consider they had negotiated a very good deal if their mortgage companies agreed to look after their houses, mend their fences and mow their lawns.

Now though, comes a further political twist.

Many Conservative MPs were elected on a promise to defend their local hospital services. You can see why, after the political trauma in Kidderminster which led to Dr Richard Taylor's election 11 years ago as the Independent MP for Wyre Forest, and the scandal over unexpectedly high death rates at Stafford Hospital which contributed to the downfall there of Labour's David Kidney in Stafford in 2010.

But surely the coalition government promised to 'ring fence' NHS budgets, so that question of 'defending hospitals' need not arise?

Try saying that to the latest MP in the frontline of a developing hospital issue - Karen Lumley, the Conservative MP for Redditch. The closure of the accident and emergency unit at the town's Alexandra Hospital is among the options being considered to achieve savings across Worcestershire's hospitals totalling £50m.

Almost 6,000 people signed a petition last weekend alone as the campaign gathers pace to save Redditch's A&E.

Karen Lumley tells us: "The danger is our people will have nowhere to go in an emergency. Birmingham's QE is 12 miles away. We need to retain emergency services in Redditch."

So how can this be happening when NHS budgets are supposed to be protected?

Local health managers say even within ring-fenced budgets, the measures are necessary to cope with the pressures of an ageing population and with what they call the legacy of debts caused (and I'm sure you are ahead of me here) by private finance initiatives.

I will be talking live to Karen Lumley on this weekend's Sunday Politics.

We will also be joined by Labour's deputy leader in the Lords, and former health minister and, before that, director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.

And I hope you will join me too, at our usual time of 1200 BST on BBC One on Sunday, 1 July 2012.

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