St John Ambulance

Peter Aldous speaks in Parliamentary debate on the restructuring within St John Ambulance and the role of the Charity Commission.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing the debate. I should state at the outset of my speech that I served on the county management board of St John in Suffolk from 1991 to 2010. I am also a holder of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.
My observations are very much Suffolk-orientated. They are based on my direct experiences up to 2010 and feedback that I have subsequently received from former colleagues. It is important that we pause and reflect for a few moments to salute those front-line St John staff who turn out at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers, and give their time to help and support others.
I was with members of St John in Lowestoft on the night of the storm surge on 5 December at the rescue centre set up at the Water Lane sports centre. I saw and spoke to them in the evening and in the morning, although I have to confess that, unlike them, I went home to bed in between, and they were cheerful, committed and resolute. These volunteers are doing brilliant work, notwithstanding the restructuring of the governance arrangements of St John.
My direct experiences of St John in Suffolk took place between 1991 and 2010. I was on the management board and my role as county surveyor was to advise on its properties. With the benefit of hindsight, I look back on a well-run organisation. Yes, problems arose, but when they did, we held emergency meetings and addressed them head-on. We ran a balanced revenue budget each year. We had a successful fundraising programme that paid for capital improvements and equipment, and our fundraisers knew where the pockets were to be picked. We had notional reserves of more than £700,000. The number of cadets and recruits remained steady. We had high standards of clinical governance, as endorsed by the Care Quality Commission. We ran the most successful patient transport in the country. Our properties were in good order and well used. Our senior volunteers were at the top of their peer group, and St John was widely respected throughout the county.
St John in Suffolk, although not without its challenges, was run well and was achieving its charitable goals. That said, I am aware that that was not the situation in all counties across the country and, by 2011, an £8.9 million deficit had emerged. Yes, there was a case for restructuring. There were 41 headquarters across the country. There were probably too many people involved in governance and there was a need for a flatter management structure. There was a need for more co-ordination between divisions with regard to fees and charges, equipment and training. One could argue that the fact that St John is budgeting for a small surplus in 2014 justifies its restructuring, although from the feedback that I have received, it is clear that something has been lost along the way.
The priory has failed to take a significant proportion of those previously involved in the governance of the counties along with it on what was always going to be a difficult journey. I do not know the circumstances, but is it right that at a meeting of the chairmen of the eastern region earlier this week, two of them could not attend as they were suspended?
The feedback from Suffolk is not quite as good as it was. Yes, all are working hard to ensure that the front line is not affected. The ambulance services themselves continue to run well. Equipment is provided efficiently, and patient transport is still being run from the former county headquarters, although the service now covers the whole eastern region. However, charges for attendance at events have gone up and, although I understand the need to maximise earnings, bookings as a whole are down. Although financial performance across the country as a whole is improving, in 2013 the eastern region had a deficit of more than £1 million—£825,000 worse than budget.
Fundraising has ceased, at least in the short term. That is probably the most serious effect of restructuring, as the county structure was well established and well suited to fundraising. Recruitment has been hit by the fact that cadets have to pay for their own uniforms, and the hardship fund—in Suffolk, at least—is not working as well as it should.
Some sort of restructuring was necessary, but the fact that Governments of all colours have received bloody noses when they have set about abolishing county councils should have sent a clear warning to the priory to think carefully before abolishing the county structure. As I said at the outset, we must air our concerns and it is important to be transparent. The restructuring of St John Ambulance must be seen as work in progress. The priory must accept that mistakes have been made along the way and it must not adopt a siege mentality against its critics. It must listen to criticism with an open mind and move on quickly from the agenda of suspensions and disciplinary proceedings.
The Order of St John has a proud and illustrious history that stretches back more than 900 years. It is vital for the United Kingdom that the order continues to carry out its good work. It has an important role to play in 21st century Britain. It works alongside the NHS to provide medical care and it gives volunteering opportunities to young people in areas that are often deprived and challenging. We need to move on, and I hope that this debate can be the beginning of the healing process.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018: 
Lowestoft, Wednesday 8th August



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