Benjamin Mancroft: Why is it considered an offence to criticise nurses?

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The Independent Online

During the hundreds of hours spent debating Lords' reform and the House's role as a revising chamber, very little attention has been given to its other role. It is an important platform in which members can raise, either through debate or by seeking to amend legislation, any issue they believe should be brought to the public attention, and which, for one reason or another, may have slipped through the net.

I used the House in such a way last week. In a debate on standards of care in the NHS, I described the wonderful care that I had received (and continue to receive) in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I also made some general comments on my observations over several months, in various different departments, where I think things are not running as well as they might, and where they could perhaps be improved.

I also recounted what had happened to me when I first fell ill last summer, and was rushed into A & E near my home in the country, where I spent a truly horrible week in a hospital which appeared to me to be about as awful as it could be. I commented on the lack of hygiene and the doctors' inadequate diagnosis and treatment of me. In particular, I made some highly critical comments about some of the nurses that I encountered.

I think it is fair to say that my comments touched a nerve. Apparently, you are not allowed to criticise nurses, in the same way that for years you weren't allowed to mention immigration. Nurses are national treasures and anyone who criticises them must therefore be mad, bad or a liar.

Certainly one nurses' spokeswoman on television implied that I was just plain wrong and should apologise immediately. Did she honestly think I had made it all up to amuse myself? Another of my critics suggested I had not thought the matter through before making my speech. So I just sort of sauntered into the House, did I, on the off-chance they were debating the NHS, and then let fly a diatribe, off the cuff?

A spokesman for the Conservative Party, of which I have been a loyal member for over 20 not always easy years, disowned me before you could say Jack Robinson (clearly not having seen the speech), as my words were not, apparently, party policy. So is it now our policy not to try to improve patient care, or do we just not talk about it for fear of offending someone? I do hope not. Somewhat obviously, I prepared my speech with great care. Of course, I knew that in describing some of the nurses on my ward as "drunken and promiscuous", it might just attract a bit of attention. And it sure did. But if I had not used those words, I doubt the debate would have merited a single column inch in any newspaper.

As it was, my little speech got about as much coverage as it is possible to imagine, both nationally and locally, on television and radio and in the printed media. With the exception of the reaction of the red-tops – verdicts such as "Potty Peer" etc – I received almost universal support. I have also received an enormous post-bag, including corroboration from people who have been through similar experiences, and even support from officials within the NHS.

I had no real idea when I raised this thorny issue how big a problem it was, but it is increasingly clear that it is a very serious problem. Like most people I have the greatest respect for nurses, and appreciate all they do in trying circumstances – indeed my sister-in-law is a nurse, and she is pretty wonderful, too. But something was badly wrong in that hospital, and while writing letters of complaint might just have earned me an acknowledgment or a grudging apology (I'm not interested in either apologies or compensation), it would not have brought the problem into the public arena.

Ben Bradshaw, a junior health Minister with an over-active ambition, attacked me as an un-elected Hereditary peer abusing his position by using the House in this way. Actually I'm an elected hereditary Peer, and I believe that this is exactly how the Lords should be used, to raise difficult issues like this, and I would not hesitate to do the same again. What is going to be a great deal more difficult is sorting this mess out, and that is very definitely little Mr Bradshaw's job.

My speech was not party-political, but I did make one general party political comment, which I repeat again here. When Labour came to power on a wave of enthusiasm in 1997, one of its central pledges was to safeguard and improve the NHS. No one doubts that it has spent an awful lot of our money, but it is not always easy to see the improvements. I'm afraid that, like too many of our public services, the NHS is, for a country of our wealth and standing, embarrassingly inadequate.

The writer is a Conservative peer