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Access To Information

Volume 131: debated on Wednesday 13 April 1988

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'(1) Subject to subsection (2) below, the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1986, shall apply to Regional Health Authorities, District Health Authorities, Health Boards, Special Health Authorities and boards of Governors as they apply to local authorities.

(2) The Secretary of State shall by order made by statutory instrument establish regulations for the interpretation of the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act to the extent that is necessary for the Act to apply to the bodies specified in subsection (1).

(3) A statutory instrument under subsection (2) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.—[ Mr. Fearn]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause seeks to bring open government into the Health Service. Health authorities spend billions of pounds of public money and comprise people of whom only a small minority are directly accountable to the public. The formal accountability to Parliament, through the Secretary of State, is remote and capable of being enforced only in a pinprick manner.

The clause seeks to establish a less formal but more effective form of public accountability, achieved by publicity. There is no justification for Health Service decisions being taken behind closed doors, except in the circumstances recognised by the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.

At present, different health authorities have different traditions of openness or otherwise, but in too many cases it remains the case, as used to apply in some local authorities, that administrative convenience or the wish to avoid embarassment is the real reason for choosing to debate an issue in private session.

I have noted the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), which makes similar provision in respect of community health councils. That is fine so far as it goes, especially if the Government are prepared to fund the additional costs which community health councils will incur, but management decisions are taken by health authorities. The public needs access to the proceedings and documents of the health authorities.

It is a principle, therefore, of good administration that decisions affecting people's lives should be taken in an open manner and that decisions on the spending of public money should be taken in public. It is that principle that the clause seeks to put into effect.

In saying why the Government do not feel able to accede immediately to the request of the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), I wish to make the position as clear as possible. As I am sure he is aware, health authorities are already subject to the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960.

but I had not realised that it was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who put that measure on the statute book. That persuades me even further that it must have been a splendid Act.

The 1960 Act applies to health authorities and it requires them to give public notice of the time and place of the meeting with a notice on the door of the health authority office. Secondly, it requires them to supply copies of the agenda to any newspaper that requests it.Beyond that, some health authorities—although we are not sure that this is true of all—routinely send out agendas to newspapers and local radio. Thirdly, under the 1960 Act, they are required to open the meeting to the public.

The slight impression that the hon. Member for Southport conveyed of all health authorities operating without any constraint in a completely hole-and-corner fashion was something of an exaggeration.

Is the Minister aware that some health authorities regularly and routinely use the procedure of going into private session to discuss what are supposed to be private matters but which in some cases are matters that should be dealt with in the public domain? While I recognise that individual patients' rights must be discussed in private, does the Minister concede that there is a case for examining more closely the propensity of health authorities to go into private session to discuss financial matters which should be brought into the public domain?

I was going to conclude by saying that I would certainly not rule out the possibility of giving further consideration to this matter. However, the new clause was tabled only on Monday and therefore appeared on the amendment paper on Tuesday, Frankly, we have not had a great deal of time to consider its implications which could be quite substantial.

I was about to say that if the new clause was accepted, alongside or in addition to the duties that health authorities already possess in respect of public notice and public attendance at meetings, there would be added the following obligations. First, reasons would have to be given for closing a meeting, or part of it, to members of the public. I accept that that is not an unreasonable proposition. Secondly, copies of agendas and reports would have to be open for inspection by members of the public in advance. Thirdly, copies of minutes, agendas and reports would have to be available after the meeting for public inspection for six years. Fourthly, copies of background papers would have to be available for public inspection for four years. Finally, all the four items that I have just mentioned would also apply to sub-committees.

I would not care to rule out one of those conditions within the circumstances of our discussions tonight as a matter of principle. However, the implications, including the administrative implications and the possible costs, are considerable. They would properly need to be carefully considered as there are so many other demands on the resources available to health authorities. I cannot advise the House to accept the new clause tonight.

I want to refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Southport about community health councils. As he said, there is a private Member's Bill before the House at present concerned with applying the provisions in the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 to community health councils. Community health councils, as the representatives of the public in an area, have substantial powers under regulations to receive information from health authorities. That is relevant when we consider how far health authorities can operate in the kind of hole-and-corner fashion to which the hon. Member for Southport referred.

Although I do not feel able, for the reasons that I have given, to advise the House to accept the new clause, I would not rule out further consideration being given to the matter. However, I would not promise that consideration being given at a particular time, for example, during later stages of the Bill.

In view of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.