THE controversial plan to close the hospice ward at Queen Margaret Hospital is set to be dropped.

Closing the ward was proposed as a cost-cutting measure to save �322,000 a year but sparked a furious reaction with politicians of all parties supporting the retention of the facility when the Press broke the story in May.

The decision to drop the closure plans is not likely to be made public until a meeting of an operations division committee at the end of January.

A consultant's report leaked to the Press during the summer highlighted the flaws in the closure proposals.

This has been confirmed in an update to health board members and the closure threat hanging over the Queen Margaret's nine-bed ward 16 since early this year should be lifted.

That news will be warmly welcomed in West Fife this Christmas but campaigners will be watching closely to see that the threat does not re-emerge in the future.

The palliative care ward at the Dunfermline hospital provides a haven for people at the end of their lives. The staff's work supporting patients and their families during their most difficult days is hugely respected locally.

Inverkeithing community councillor Archie McQueen, whose late wife was in the ward over her final days, spoke for many when he praised the work of the hospice 'angels' when the Press first highlighted plans to shut the hospice.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown handed over a petition of more than 17,000 signatures to NHS Fife operations division chairman David Stewart last week.

Mr Brown said afterwards, "It is clear that people feel strongly about this issue and I hope that NHS Fife will withdraw the threat of closure of hospice beds in Fife.

"I have made a point over many years of visiting hospices and I have always been struck by the level of dedication, care and high level of support available to individuals and families. This highly-valued service must remain in place and this is the clear message from people across the whole of Fife to NHS Fife."

The petition was organised by the Fife Labour group. Councillors, activists and candidates from across the Kingdom have been collecting signatures in town centres and on the doorsteps.

Labour group chairman and Abbeyview councillor Mike Rumney said, "We will continue to support more resources being targeted in our communities to support people who choose to die at home but the fact remains that for many the need to be cared for in a hospice remains the best option and this is why we will fight any reduction in the number of hospice beds and any move to close the hospice here in Dunfermline."

Local campaigner Helen Law, from Steelend, added, "Since NHS Fife first suggested closing hospice beds last May by closing ward 16 in Queen Margaret Hospital, the calls for them to withdraw their proposal have grown and people have queued up in the streets to sign the petition.

"A cut to hospice beds in one part of Fife will impact on people who need this service in all parts of Fife. That is why the operations committee must reject any proposal to cut the numbers of beds and to close ward 16 here in Dunfermline.

"I want to thank everyone who took the time to sign the petition and I hope it will not have been in vain and those who will take this decision will listen to the people of Fife."