THE concerns of 7,127 Huddersfield people over health services were heard right in the heart of Westminster last night.
Deep in the Palace of Westminster, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt accepted protest letters from thousands of people concerned about hospital plans for the future.
And she told three Huddersfield MPs and The Examiner: "I'm prepared to listen."
Examiner editor Roy Wright and news editor Neil Atkinson delivered a sackful of letters all expressing worries over plans to shift vital services from the Royal Infirmary to Calderdale Royal Hospital.
And those views, gathered over the past month from Examiner readers, were given vociferous support by MPs Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield), Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) and Mary Creagh (Wakefield).
The three had lobbied for a meeting with Ms Hewitt after their disappointment over the decision taken by health bosses last month to move maternity and children's services to Halifax, despite a huge wave of public opinion for them to stay at the Royal Infirmary.
But they emerged from a 30-minute private House of Commons meeting with the minister in optimistic mood.
Mrs Creagh said: "I took the chance to let her know of my concerns over the people living in rural areas like Kirkburton and Denby Dale who are worried about the longer distances they will have to travel if services move to Halifax.
"I am pleased that she listened and that she had been properly briefed about the concerns. What is clear is that we as local MPs will continue to meet together and work out what our next steps will be, because there will be a next step.
"I don't think this is the end of it."
Ms Mountford, who had earlier organised a meeting with junior health minister Liam Byrne on the sensitive issue, said: "I am pleased we have had this meeting and that the minister has listened to us.
"She has taken account of our views and those views we expressed earlier to Liam Byrne and none of this has been a waste of time.
"It was also a good opportunity to tell her that this was not the first time the maternity issue had arisen.
"She was surprised to learn it was not the first time we have gone through this and fought this battle.
"We need to let her know the strength of feeling in Huddersfield and the Colne Valley and that we are not in the business of trying to unpick previous decisions.
"We need to make sure that local people get what they have asked for and they want to hear that the best possible health care is going to be available in Huddersfield."
Mr Sheerman was fiercely critical of the six-month consultation period over the proposed changes, which culminated on a March 22 meeting at the Galpharm Stadium when every proposal was approved despite massive public opposition.
He labelled them "a charade" and added: "It looks so much that their minds were made up before they went through the bureaucratic exercise of consultation.
"Having met the minister, the discussion last night clearly showed there are options.
"The minister now has to go away and consider the views put forward at the meeting.
"We want the best for the people of Huddersfield. The crucial decision needs to be based solely on a clinical judgement, about what is best for the people. So far what has been proposed is not the best.
"We have a fantastic service provided by Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and it should be recognised."
All three MPs believe that a midwife-led service, as proposed for the Infirmary, can work, but only if back-up expertise is available.
Mrs Creagh said: "If more women know how successful such units are in places like the Netherlands, where large numbers give birth, then it can work. But the level of care has to be high and supported."
Ms Mountford advocated a pilot scheme with a midwife-led unit working in tandem with a full consultant unit for a lengthy period.
She said it was vital that key decisions about health care were made locally and not dictated from Whitehall.
But she is optimistic that Ms Hewitt can ask health bosses in Huddersfield and Calderdale to look again at the proposals, particularly on the issue of maternity provision, and perhaps reconsider.
"She may be reluctant to do it and I would be reluctant to let her dictate from Westminster what happens locally. But she can ask them to revisit the debate and that is something to push for."
Ms Mountford said that health officials were within their right to look at the 50,000-strong petitions collected during the consultation period and suggest they were technically flawed and could not be counted.
But she added: "But when you look at what we as MPs and what the local councillors are saying, you get a very strong indication of the strength of public feeling from the area.
"It is important that officials seek the views of the public when dealing with fundamental issues such as health care. But it is more important that they listen to those views.
"I think Patricia Hewitt has listened."
Editor Roy Wright said: "This was probably the fiercest reaction to any story we have run.
"It shows the depth of concern in the town over the health proposals.
"The town is proud of HRI and finds it difficult to understand why change is necessary.
"The overwhelming feeling was anger with the decision-making process.
"There were three marches, a 50,000 petition and strong concerns from political leaders of all shades - yet the reforms were voted through almost unchallenged.
"It felt undemocratic. At least by accepting our readers' letters and listening to our concerns, Patricia Hewitt has indicated this may not yet be a done deal."