Dead girl's family to sue Bottomley over 999 delay

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The family of Nasima Begum who died last June after waiting nearly an hour for an ambulance is to sue Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health.

Muhammed Haque, spokesman for the dead girl's parents, said proceedings for negligence would be launched. Health officials made no admission of liability although an official inquiry into the death in January had described the delay as "inexcusable".

The legal action was disclosed as Tom Sackville, the junior health minister, admitted that ministers had allowed under-investment in the London Ambulance Service in the run-up to the collapse of its computer-aided despatch system (CAD) in 1992.

His admission came as MPs on the Commons Health Select Committee challenged Mr Sackville over what they described as a real terms cut in the service's expenditure between 1980 and 1990 when demand was rising and as Mr Sackville detailed the extra spending that has gone into London Ambulance since 1992.

Staff numbers fell well below establishment down to 1,343 in 1993, Mr Sackville said but were now back up to 1,759. Ambulances had not been replaced, producing an "ageing fleet" and "we probably did allow some underinvestment to take place".

Hugh Bayley, the MP for York, said the committee had been told that its introduction "on the cheap" had contributed to its failure. It had been introduced too quickly, he said, amid "dreadful industrial relations" which were now much improved.

The steep rise of more than 10 per cent in calls to London Ambulance - which the service says has contributed to the wide margin by which it is failing to hit official response times - included inappropriate use of the service he said.

"We do know of some GPs who had answering machine tapes saying `please dial 999' and when you get to that point the health service is suffering from people failing to accept their responsibilities."

People had made calls because "they had toothache and can't sleep" or "had an eyelash in their eye," he said. "These are the extreme examples". It was, he said, "a delicate point because we don't want to discourage people who should be dialling 999, but some people do take advantage and that is a particular feature of inner city areas".