26 FEBRUARY 1972, Page 35

Sodalities ...

Thete could be no doubt about the genuineness of the tributes from all sides of the House of Commons to Sir Keith Joseph last week when he presented his report on administration and conditions at Whittingham Hospital. The revelations in the report were shocking, and the Secretary of State dealt with them, and the remedies he proposed to introduce, in an exceptionally forthright and constructive manner. What, however, must continue to disturb everyone concerned with these things is the fact that the Whittingham situation was so like those at Ely and Farleigh: it seems that reforms in mental hospital conditions affect only one hospital at a time, and that we are still as far away as ever from the kind of general reexamination of the whole situation — and replanning of mental health strategy — which Sir Keith promised by accepting Mr Christopher Mayhew's proposal for "a White Paper on services for the mentally sick setting out a timetable, budgeting and costings, so that these hospitals can be emptied and finished with at most within fifteen years from now." Such a plan is a matter of urgency.

There is one other disturbing feature of the way the DHSS is tackling this and associated problems, and that relates to the question of how soon we are to have some kind of hospital Ombudsman, or Ombudsmen — a subject on which Sir Keith has repeated that he hopes to make an early statement. Sir Keith has had the report on Whittingham since last Novem ber, though he could make no announcement about it until court proceedings against two of the hospital's nurses were completed. He now says he has presented the conclusions of the report to his committee at work on hospital complaints procedure. It is extremely difficult to think of any reason why an announcement of policy and intentions on patients' rights should have been delayed as long as this; and why it should be delayed any longer. On another page this week Alf Morris reviews progress with his Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. Perhaps the best thing about the Act is the fact that, like the Seebohm legislation, it provides a strategic administrative and policy frame work for action in a field in which so much is inchoate and fragmented. So much still remains to be done, nonetheless, that it is gratifying to see that the Department has decided to give £15,000 over the next three years for the development of the information service of the Central Council for the Disabled. The money is to be spent mainly on the production of specialist leaflets on problems likely to be encountered by handicapped people.

Such leaflets are almost certain to be read by the DHSS ministers, though their doing so is far less a matter of course than might be expected. The immense difficulty any politician has in keeping up with the specialist, extramural side of his work, while keeping track of departmental and government business as well, is redoubled in spades for DHSS ministers. Yet they struggle conscientiously on with an increasing volume of specialist literature, magazines, pamphlets etc. Some order will shortly have to be brought into affairs if the burden of reading is not to become an actual impediment to doing the job. That burden is certainly one of the reasons why the DHSS still looks, so long after amalgamation, like two ministries — one for cash and one for care — housed in the same building. Another subject, therefore, for urgent attention must be the production of the report of the management consultants now examining the purpose and organisation of the Elephant and Castle complex.

When the miners' strike is over there is certain to be increased Conservative pressure for a further review of the problem of strikers and social security benefits. Welcome though Tory backbenchers found last year's Bill clearing up some of the anomalies in the situation it was widely felt — particularly by such enthusiastic lobbyists as Jack Page, the ebullient member for Harrow East — that it did not go anything like far enough. Feeling on the subject ran high even among extremely liberal elements of the Conservative party; and it certainly does seem peculiar to allow a situation to arise in which trade unions can avoid paying strike money and allow the state to take up the slack, especially when there is so much else to be done with the money.