'I do not think the Walsall trio, all nice chaps, will mind if I describe them as the Old Codgers, rather than the Three Musketeers'
Another week of NHS-battering headlines. It is the John Prescott of the public services, always good for a kicking. Sexual assaults on women in mental health units, widespread admissions of failure to meet basic standards of care; even the fact that such shortcomings arose from healthy self-assessment does not prevent damaging publicity.
Patricia Hewitt stoutly defended her many corners on Andrew Marr's Sunday AMprogramme. But she, incidentally, showed an alarming lack of common sense in suggesting that critics of Patti Farrant, who has just had a baby at 62 thanks to World Cup-winning Italy's fertility treatment rules, were guilty of 'gender hypocrisy'. Old men may father babies, minister, but even in 2006 women usually raise them once the photographers have left.
The fertility controversy will doubtless rumble on. Last week the health secretary also pumped up money for community hospitals to save themselves if they can demonstrate public support. Risky stuff this, public opinion.
It reminded me of a more serious case I have been monitoring.
Last month the three MPs who represent Walsall in the West Midlands got together to stage a Commons adjournment debate to put pressure on ministers. They sought clarification about the£160m private finance initiative plans for the borough's much-loved Manor Hospital: 620 beds with a full range of services, the only acute site serving 253,000 people in what is a poor part of Britain. It has one star.
I do not think the Walsall trio, all nice chaps, will mind if I describe them as the Old Codgers, rather than the Three Musketeers. Labour's David Winnick who staged the debate is 73, Bruce George (Lab) is 64 and Richard Shepherd, the gallant libertarian Tory, is a mere 63. But they all care about the Manor, not least because it helped save Mr Winnick after his heart attack in 1995.
A new hospital had been promised since David Ennals' time as health secretary (1976-79), Mr Winnick recalled. An excellent new building was added in the '80s, but most of the site at Moat Road has been developed piecemeal since the 1830s and 'belongs in the Black Country museum', the MP said. He is not a PFI enthusiast - few MPs are - but they know it is the only game in town.
So alarm bells rang when a planned 2007 start on the new building was put on hold last spring. A flurry of meetings ensued at local and Whitehall level, including deputations to Ms Hewitt ('15 minutes each, we were in a queue,' reports one of the MPs). What was going on?
Basically a tightening up of policy governing the cost of PFI contracts to make them more affordable, which must be good news. Last winter, so ministerial sources tell me, both Treasury and EU changed the procurement rules. The intention was to negotiate more detail earlier in the process and to involve the Treasury - and its formal approval - sooner.
Cost pressure and bad publicity
Adding to pressure was adverse publicity for first-generation PFI hospitals in Norwich and Woolwich. For Mr Walsall it meant calling in plans and, as duty minister Ivan Lewis informed the Codgers, telling its executives the scheme is unaffordable. As Ms Hewitt told the trio, Leicester, where she is an MP, has also been told to curb costs of its (larger) PFI plan.
Walsall rejigged its scheme, postponed replacement of the south wing, removed some support and services work from the PFI package and, so Mr Shepherd told me, managed to cut the rate of return on the project. Trust chair Ben Reid is an accountant. 'Our trust is relatively well run,' the MP says.
A final decision on the pared-down scheme is due by the end of July, one of 37 PFI schemes at the strategic outline/preferred bidder stage (21 worth over£100m) and 10 at preferred bidder to financial close stage (seven over£100m).
But I sense optimism because Mr Lewis came up with short-term help -£13m to allow demolition of the old south wing - and its replacement with temporary buildings, posh modular stuff lasting at least five years. It will make the new scheme affordable.
Only a grouch would suggest that MPs will be demanding replacement of those temporary buildings a century from now.
Michael White is assistant editor (politics) ofThe Guardian .