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Last Updated: Friday, 29 December 2006, 14:10 GMT
Minister backs Blears on protest
Protests over NHS reforms
Protests have been held throughout the country about cuts
Health minister Ivan Lewis has defended Cabinet member Hazel Blears over her protest at the closure of a maternity unit in her constituency.

Mr Lewis, who has himself protested against NHS cuts in his constituency, said every MP has the right to make a case to the secretary of state.

The Labour Party chairwoman has been criticised for protesting at a local level while agreeing to central policy.

Mr Lewis has protested about Fairfield Hospital in Bury, Greater Manchester.

He has responsibility for care services, including children's health and maternity services.

Responsibilities

Other senior government members to protest include chief whip Jacqui Smith, who has protested at the Alexandra hospital in Redditch, and Home Secretary John Reid, who protested in his Airdrie and Shotts constituency.

Their actions and his own were defended by Mr Lewis, who told BBC 4's Today programme: "We are elected to fulfil our responsibilities to our constituents first and foremost."

Hazel Blears
Ms Blears said she was representing Salford constituents

In terms of his Bury South constituency, he said the decision process had taken two years.

None of the recommendations had been made by ministers or civil servants in central government, but by "NHS professionals", he said.

"I fully support the need for change - the status quo isn't right in terms of safety or quality - but in terms of geography there remains a strong case for... a unit to remain at Bury."

He said every MP, including ministers, could approach the secretary of state, Patricia Hewitt, if they felt a decision was not right for their area.

Democracy

"That's absolutely right that we have first of all public consultation, then an opportunity for MPs - who after all are democratically elected and accountable - to make representations and the secretary of state can decide if she feels it's right to refer it to the independent review panel.

"What's wrong with that? That's surely right in a democracy," Mr Lewis said.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley questioned how Mr Lewis, as a health minister in charge of maternity services, could let units be closed down.

"If Ivan Lewis says that ministers have a right to complain in their constituencies, why as a health minister is his department proceeding with hospital cutbacks and closures in a way that lacks justification on clinical evidence?" he said.

Ms Blears took part in a protest at Hope Hospital, Greater Manchester, before Christmas, about proposals to close and relocate its maternity unit.

Health chiefs want to concentrate maternity services in the region in three centres providing high-quality intensive care for babies.

She too defended her participation, saying her job was to represent her constituents in Salford.

'Hypocrisy'

She said she had also raised the matter with Mrs Hewitt, but was yet to make a formal representation.

"This is a normal consultation, it has been going on now for two years and quite right and proper. I am a constituency member of Parliament and I have been putting forward the views of the people of Eccles and Salford,'' she said on Thursday.

Critics accused Ms Blears of being hypocritical by focusing on local cuts, rather than the effects of cuts across the country.

Campaign group Health Emergency said it looked like a case of "not in my back yard".




SEE ALSO
Hospital closure 'inflicts pain'
15 Sep 06 |  Manchester
Maternity units may now be saved
13 Sep 06 |  Manchester
Protests over maternity unit cuts
19 Dec 06 |  Manchester
Labour accused over hospital cuts
15 Sep 06 |  UK Politics

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