Pressure is mounting on hospital chiefs over controversial bed closures.

The 16-bed Aspen ward at Carlisle's Cumberland Infirmary closed last week, and there are plans to shut up to 100 in total.

Local health campaigners have condemned the moves, and called for them to be reinstated.

Bosses insist it is all part of a wider vision to look after more people at home, meaning less beds will be needed.

But protestors remain unconvinced, and continue to demand a rethink.

This week former Carlisle MP Eric Martlew stepped in to the row.

He called on bosses to "stop believing their own propaganda" and admit it is really about cost-cutting.

He used North Cumbria University Hospital NHS Trust's annual meeting to tackle senior managers on the issue.

Mr Martlew flagged up the trust's underlying debts, which now stand at about £185m, and said it was time for politicians to step in and give the county the money it needs to run the Carlisle and Whitehaven hospitals.

The former Labour MP said: "There is a concern that policies like closing the gynaecological ward are cost driven. No government would ever accept that Cumbria needs two district general hospitals

"Perhaps the trust have got to be a bit more candid. We can only do what we can with the money we've got.

"I hope you aren't starting to believe your own propaganda - that this is the best thing to do.

"Let's try to work on the politicians, to write off this debt. When the public are this cynical about what you are doing, you've got to accept that they are probably right."

A petition against the bed closures has also been launched by Carlisle Labour Party.

It calls on the area's MPs to lobby the Government for more funding and reverse the cuts.

However Stephen Eames, trust chief executive, insisted that the bed closures are not cost-driven.

He added, that while he would welcome more funding, it would not change their overall vision to move more care out of acute hospitals, which he insists will improve care for local patients.

"We could always do with more money, but what we are planning to do with the beds is within an agreed financial plan. It's about shifting resources, not cutting costs," he said.

"If people want to lobby for more money for Cumbria, I'd be with them. There are lots of arguments about why that's historically been a problem, but it's not directly related to the beds."

Michael Smilie, director of finance, estates and digital, explained the current financial position.

He said they have managed to reduce the trust's annual deficit over the last two years - from just over £60m, to just over £40m, and this year to £37m. However he said that due to historic deficits, the overall accumulated debt is £185m.

In the past, governments have written off trust debts - which campaigners believe is due to the area not getting enough money to fund two district hospitals in north and west Cumbria.

However Mr Smilie said their focus had to be on improving services and integrating health and social care - but that could in turn strengthen the area's case for funding.

"If we can make services better and join them up, then we would like to make sure there's a better deal for Cumbria, and potentially walk away from previous accumulated debt," he said

To date almost 300 people have signed the petition.

One supporter, Rachael Hubbard, wrote: "When the winter crisis hits, the Cumberland Infirmary will struggle to find beds for patients.

"This will impact on A&E, which will end up over-capacity and unable to cope. New patients will end up waiting in corridors for beds.

"This also adversely impacts on women, including female cancer sufferers, with the gynaecological ward being shut."

The annual meeting was held at the Stoneybeck Inn, near Penrith, on Tuesday.

It was a joint event with the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which runs community and mental health services.

Mr Eames is now chief executive of both trusts, and they are looking to formally merge.

As well as taking questions from the public, trust directors also looked back at the previous year's performance and talked about their priorities for the coming year.

This included launching a new No Place Like Home campaign, to explain the benefits of being cared for in the community rather than an acute hospital bed.