Christopher Booker's notebook

Hospitals must go, to pay for the managers to close them

Two weeks ago today, when I went for a cataract operation at a small community hospital in Westbury, Wiltshire, I little realised I was walking into the centre of a major national scandal. Originally referred to a large general hospital, I had been told the operation might not be possible for a year. On questioning this, I was told that if I went to the special eye unit at Westbury, I could be fitted in just two weeks later.

Arriving at the hospital's clean modern buildings on a Sunday afternoon, I was so struck by the friendly atmosphere and the speed and efficiency with which the operation was completed that I observed that Westbury seemed an absolute model of everything the NHS should be. I was then told that, thanks to a shock decision by West Wiltshire Primary Care Trust (PCT), the hospital was being closed down - starting the following week with the removal of its 12 elderly in-patients. The rest of its wide range of services would soon follow.

Unsurprisingly, news of the closure provoked uproar. A thousand people met to protest. Friends of the hospital have in recent years raised 1 million to improve its services still further. When the PCT lamely tried to explain that the reason for the closure was shortage of money and staff, 19 local nurses immediately offered to cover any shortfall, including one who volunteered her services free.

What made this decision incomprehensible, as Westbury's MP Dr Andrew Murrison pointed out when he raised it in Parliament, was that it flies right in the face of Patricia Hewitt's recent White Paper on community care. Not only had Mrs Hewitt stated that "community hospitals should be retained if needed and wanted by the communities they serve", she urged "Primary Care Trusts to rethink their closure plans, particularly when they were being put forward as a cost-saving measure. Community facilities should not be lost in response to short-term budgetary pressures".

But Westbury is far from alone. Such is the spate of closures and cutbacks taking place all over the country, in a bid to reduce the NHS's current 800 million deficit, that some 90 of our 350 community hospitals are threatened, according to Chant (Community Hospitals Acting Nationally Together), a body formed to fight the closures. In Shropshire alone, protest marches in Bridgnorth and Ludlow each attracted 4,000 people, while another 2,000 turned out to protest at the proposed closure of Whitchurch.

What makes this truly scandalous are the reasons for the closures. Since 1999 the Government has almost doubled its NHS spending, from 40 billion to 76 billion. But 80 per cent of this additional money has gone, not on expanding health care, but on a massive inflation in salaries (with many GPs now said to be earning 125,000 a year); on the increased cost of drugs and compensation claims; and on the soaring cost of interest on PFI building schemes.

One of the biggest increases has been the 66 per cent rise in the number of health service "managers", in what is now said to be the third-largest state-run organisation in the world, after the Chinese army and the Indian railways. Yet it is these bureaucrats who are deciding to close down nearly a quarter of our community hospitals, to meet a deficit which has resulted not least from their own recruitment: precisely the "short-term budgetary pressures" which Mrs Hewitt insists must not be made an excuse for closing community hospitals.

On March 28 Chant will stage a rally outside Parliament attended by supporters from all over the country (details from www.chantonline.com). Among them will be many from Westbury where, last Sunday, in what was described as a "dawn raid", the remaining in-patients, elderly and confused, were summarily removed from their beds, without breakfast, to be sent to other hospitals. Only one remained - Mena Rising, terminally ill with cancer and too weak to be moved. She died on Thursday.

Such inhumanity should prompt Mrs Hewitt to intervene now, to halt a disaster which makes such a mockery of her fine but, it seems, empty words.

If the Commons were 'monitored' like local councils, it would soon be empty

The Standards Board for England last week apologised to five Islington councillors who, after three years, had been cleared of charges made against them by a political opponent. This was the longest-ever investigation by the board, which was set up by John Prescott to enforce new rules on the conduct of local councillors. It cost 1.1 million, including a legal bill of 350,000 incurred personally by the councillors in their bid to defend themselves.

Since I first reported on the workings of Mr Prescott's new system which sets up a "monitoring officer" in each council to enforce his Code of Conduct, I have been bombarded by MPs and councillors with examples from all over the country of the havoc it is inflicting on local government.

When the leader of West Norfolk council, John Dobson, took legal advice which enabled him to reverse a Standards Board ruling in favour of a complaint made against him, also by a political opponent, this left him with a bill for more than 23,000. But politically or maliciously inspired complaints, which have to be investigated by the Standards Board's highly-paid Ethical Standards Officers, are only part of the problem.

Causing just as much confusion and dismay are bizarre rulings by zealous monitoring officers that councillors cannot even be present during discussions of issues on which they are judged to have a "personal and prejudicial interest", although these may be the very issues on which they were elected.

Last week I reported on one such councillor, Alex Riley, who was barred from any discussions of Mr Prescott's plan to build a new town for 20,000 people next to the village of Longstanton which he represents on South Cambridgeshire district council. Living near the site was judged by the council's monitoring officer, Colin Tucker, to give him such an "interest". But this was the main issue on which he had been elected, and the villagers were effectively disfranchised.

I must apologise that because, inadvertently, an uncorrected earlier version of my article was published, this mistakenly alleged that Mr Tucker had personally initiated complaints to the Standards Board against various councillors. It also gave the wrong forename to the council's chief executive John Ballantyne.

The fact remains, however, that many councillors on other authorities have been similarly silenced because they are ruled to have "predetermined views" on contentious issues. An obvious point made by several is that, if MPs were subjected to the same rules, the House of Commons would soon be an empty place.

The issues raised by this crazy system imposed by Mr Prescott are so vital to democracy that I shall return with further examples next week.

Racism in placenames

Ken Perrin runs a construction business in March, Cambridgeshire, and when he needs men to prepare building sites, he advertises through local job centres. Because his workers need transport to the sites, the firm has pick-up points in Peterborough and Chatteris. He therefore specifies that the work is suitable for people living nearby.

Recently, however, Chatteris was dropped from his advertisements. This meant that Mr Perrin received job applications from as far away as Edinburgh and Southampton. Asking for an explanation, he was told by JobCentre Plus Partnerships in Sheffield that by referring to any specific place he could face criminal charges for racial discrimination.

He was warned that "by not wishing to consider jobseekers from a particular geographical area where minority ethnic people may live, you could be leaving yourself open to charges of being in breach of the Race Relations Act 1976". Is there no end to this madness?