Janet Street-Porter: Dignity is the right of every NHS patient

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Shortly before Christmas I received a hand-written note from Sarah Brown, wife of the Prime Minister, asking me to support Maggie's Centres, the charity of which she is patron, which supports people living with cancer. Maggie's is a thoroughly worthwhile cause, and one that has worked with internationally renowned architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid to build award-winning day centres where cancer patients and their families can relax and get help.

If only my own sister, who died from cancer in December 2006, had been able to visit such a place instead of being stuck in a mixed-sex NHS ward during the final stages of her illness, watching a male patient in a neighbouring bed wander around naked and masturbate in front of distressed elderly female patients.

Mrs Brown is a thoughtful, caring woman and must find it embarrassing that her husband's government has just admitted that it will not be able to honour its commitment to end mixed-sex wards in NHS hospitals.

Tony Blair once said it was "not beyond the wit of Government and healthy administrators to get rid of them" – but now, after making it a manifesto pledge in 1997 and 2001, the Health Minister Lord Darzi admits it has had to abandon what most people would consider a basic human right.

Of course I support cancer charities – but first and foremost I want to know why our health service cannot provide that most basic need of all patients – dignity. Politicians can tell me till they are blue in the face that waiting times are reduced, that NHS targets are being met and that patients are more satisfied than ever before. The fact is that the NHS under-spent its budget last year, with more money squandered on administration than ever.

The Government says its new guidelines recommend single-sex accommodation, not single-sex wards. There has been a lot of talk about whether a curtain or a bay constitutes a room or "accommodation". According to Lord Darzi, single-sex wards were an "aspiration that cannot be met... because medicine has moved on". What has not moved on since 1997 is what most patients want – the right to visit the bathroom without having to go through mixed areas, and to be able to sleep in single-sex units with doors on them rather than flimsy bits of fabric.

I fully accept that, after being admitted in an emergency, men and women may need to be placed in an assessment ward for 24 hours, but for pre-booked admissions there is simply no excuse for not segregating the sexes. The NHS now says it will provide single-sex units – with three sides – in mixed sex wards, and that partitions defining these areas need not meet the ceiling. How disgusting is that?

Over the past couple of years, NHS trusts have dealt with outbreaks of infection that have claimed the lives of hundreds of patients – and yet not one executive has been prosecuted.

Mr Brown's much-vaunted "super-clean" just turned out to be using existing money. New figures show the number of cases of infections contracted in hospital is decreasing, which is good news but, for most people (and the majority of patients are elderly), a stay in hospital remains a distressing experience.

It pains me to say it, but until this government realises that the major priority in healthcare is putting the patient first, I cannot commit my time to raising cash for Maggie's Cancer centres. What I want is for all patients to be treated as special, regardless of whether they have cancer or not.

We've lost our appetite for dining rooms

Only recently, a social networking page was seen as a bit of a generation-divider. But the real test of whether you are on-trend is not the time you spend at a keyboard but whether your home still has what was known as a "dining room".

Halifax Home Insurance predicts 500,000 of these will disappear during 2008 as home-owners knock rooms together to make more space. Families eat together less often, and so there is no need for a posh room (generally used only on Sundays) with a table made of some special wood, matching chairs and that totally redundant piece of furniture so beloved by my parents' generation – the sideboard. All we kept in ours was a collection of table mats used on special occasions, featuring watercolours of British birds, plus fish knives and forks (totally passé in 2008) and a stainless steel cruet set– another highly unfashionable item. Soon, you'll only see dining rooms in National Trust properties.

* I have employed plenty of researchers, but none with the qualifications of Henry, the son of the MP Derek Conway. Obtaining an MA from the Courtauld Institute on the history of clothing well equipped him to earn £32,000 from dad for 17 hours of "research" each week over three years. Perhaps he investigated suitable attire for televised PM Questions? Or what suit to purchase for the State Opening of Parliament? Henry described himself as "Queen Sloane" on an invite to a party he threw last November called "F*** Off I'm Rich" and has written a book about knitting. MPs pass laws about equal opportunities in the workplace and then employ their relatives without any formal selection procedure. Talk about double standards.

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