Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 268: debated on Tuesday 12 December 1995

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

House Of Commons

Tuesday 12 December 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business



Considered; to be read the Third time tomorrow.

Oral Answers To Questions

Social Security

State Pension


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what recent representations he has received about the state pension. [3566]

I recently met representatives of Age Concern and Pensioners' Voice. On both occasions we had a useful discussion that covered matters relating to the state pension.

I can well imagine. Is it not a fact that whereas in the 1970s the state pension amounted to one third of average earnings, it now amounts to one quarter? In view of the widespread poverty that undoubtedly exists among so many pensioners, why will those who are on income support not receive one penny of cold weather allowance simply because the freezing weather lasted less than seven days and seven nights? Does not that show how farcical the scheme is? Many pensioners continue to live in cold conditions, which Ministers would not like to do for one minute.

The hon. Gentleman has argued for the earnings link to be restored, and he has argued today for massive increases in spending. It would cost £10.1 billion to restore the earnings link. If he wants to impose on the working man further taxes of £8.58 a week, he should ask himself whether he should have been one of the honest men who voted against tax cuts last week.

Does my hon. Friend accept that occupational pensions have raised the income of pensioners tremendously over the past 15 years? What would be the impact of imposing a charge on pensions, as the French Government do?

My hon. Friend is right. Two thirds of people retiring now have occupational pensions. Britain has £500 billion of assets—more than the rest of Europe put together—in occupational pension schemes. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) should ask himself whether this Government have enabled pensioners to enjoy a far better deal than they ever did under Labour, when there was 27 per cent. inflation and not even the Christmas bonus was paid.

As one of the 10 Members of Parliament who did vote against a reduction in income tax, I believe that it is possible to find £10 billion for pensioners. The Government are spending nearly £30 billion on keeping people idle, and if that changed there would be more money for pensioners. The Government have had £120 billion from North sea tax receipts and £80 billion from privatised utilities. There is plenty of money in the country. The truth is that pensioners have been robbed blind by the Government, and it is time that the Government were kicked out.

The hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong—as usual. This country now has £16,000 billion-worth of assets invested overseas, thanks to the Government and their policies. The hon. Gentleman should have a word with his Front Benchers and tell them that he wants to see taxes rise, as do most Opposition Members. He is one of the honest men.

Benefit Reform


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what incentives to work will be included in his reforms of the unemployment benefits. [3567]

The key theme of our reforms is helping people back to work. Measures include the jobseeker's allowance, the back to work bonus and the scheme known as employment on trial, which will be extended to enable up to 200,000 people a year to try unfamiliar work without the fear of losing benefit if they give it up after a reasonable trial. We have a number of other measures.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the greatest incentive to work is a low level of tax, and that those who are seeking an incentive to work should compare the reality of a tax system in which one in four pay only 20 per cent. with the mindless mirage of the promise of a 10 per cent. tax rate, accompanied by massive increases in expenditure?

The nation and the House remain confused about how the sums produced by the Opposition would add up. The Government's employment measures have seen United Kingdom unemployment fall by 710,000 since its peak. That is a record of which most other countries in Europe would be proud, and it has much to do with our fiscal measures and our control of tax and public expenditure.

Does the Minister approve of situations in which supporters of the Government can boast that they pay their workers less than £1 an hour? Is that fair on the workers, and is it fair on the subsidising taxpayer?

I do not think that any of us condone poor pay. The Government believe that a job is better than no job, and that those who pay properly get a proper response from their employees. We do not want to see artificial barriers created, such as the minimum wage, that prevent people from coming into jobs. That is the sort of sensible package that most of my colleagues support.

More important than tax cuts, does my hon. Friend agree that the most important incentive to work is a plentiful supply of new jobs? As the market mechanism will not supply all the new jobs in any economic system, including the mixed capitalist system, it is the Government's job to stimulate the economy to provide new jobs. Will my hon. Friend introduce the reforms in a caring way to ensure that the vast majority of people who are not unemployed through their own fault are not penalised?

My hon. Friend speaks a great deal of truth. The Government have ensured that there are very few barriers to people coming into employment, and we have used the benefit system and in-work benefits to increase the number of people in work. For example, some 300,000 people have moved from income support into work, and have obtained family credit. The mixture of controlling taxes and public expenditure and of preventing barriers to work distinguishes the Government from the Opposition, and distinguishes our economy from those of so many of our partners in Europe.

As the Government and the Front Bench of the Labour party are committed to some sort of workfare, will the Minister tell the House whether he honestly feels that it is acceptable to starve people into submission by withdrawing their benefits? Surely it would be better to create proper jobs and proper training.

I do not think that we are signing up to workfare or starving anybody into work. The Government want an economy that will encourage the creation of jobs. Despite the hon. Lady's frequent protestations and her demands for increased public expenditure, I recall very few job-creation measures coming from her or her colleagues.

Housing Benefit Fraud


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures he is taking in respect of housing benefit fraud; and if he will make a statement. [3568]

As I said in my recent social security statement, I am stepping up the fight against housing benefit fraud. In particular, from next summer, I am setting up a central computer register to make it possible to cross-check people claiming from more than one local authority. I am strengthening the financial incentives for local authorities to crack down on fraud and I am introducing challenge funding to encourage them to develop innovative ways of tackling fraud.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to combat fraud, the savings that he has made in his budget for housing and his efforts to direct money to those in greatest need. Will he contrast his policies with those of the Opposition, who have opposed all benefit reform and refuse to make any savings? Does he agree that taxes would have to rise to meet the bill run up by their policies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will recall how, during the social security statement, the official spokesman for the Labour party condemned and opposed every single measure that we proposed to reform social security, including the housing benefit measures. That means that a Labour Government, if ever there were one, would need to meet extra expenditure of more than £1 billion from higher taxes. The Opposition, by and large, have not been honest enough to admit that, unlike the honest 10, one of whom, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), has declared that he recognises that a Labour Government would have to put up taxes, which is true.

Why should anyone take the Government seriously in their supposed crackdown on fraud? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that some time ago I asked him a question about the number of officers in his Department who had been reprimanded, sacked or prosecuted for fraud? Does he recall that he told me that such information could not be gathered without undue cost to the taxpayer? Why, therefore, when The Sunday Times asked his Department for that information, could it be provided within four hours? He told The Sunday Times that about 200 officers were involved in fraud, but why should we believe that answer when I am informed that in one London office alone 79 staff have been reprimanded, sacked or prosecuted for fraud? If he was serious about fraud, he would know those figures immediately.

I certainly regret it if any information was made available to the press but not to the hon. Gentleman. I will certainly look into that.

We obviously take fraud immensely seriously. As I have often said before, the hon. Gentleman is probably the only member of the Opposition who takes it seriously, and probably the only one who, at the end of the Budget, wanted to vote for tax cuts, whereas the rest of them all wanted to vote for higher taxes—10 of them brought themselves to do so. Unless we are prepared to crack down on fraud, as we have, and therefore save considerable sums of money to the taxpayer, we must either reduce benefits to those in genuine need or put up taxes. We take the matter extremely seriously.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision to introduce a new central register for housing benefit, which will stop people claiming benefit from more than one local authority. Does he agree that it will help to tighten the social security housing package?

Yes. We believe that the introduction of the register could be an important measure to enable local authorities, which handle and administer housing benefit, and often have different and incompatible computer systems, to consult the central register and to cross-check whether anyone is claiming housing benefit in more than one local authority and whether there is any inconsistency with the central record, for example, of income support claims. That should help local authorities to improve greatly their savings in respect of fraud, which I am glad to say they have already doubled as a result of the measures that we have taken so far.

The Labour party obviously supports actions that combat benefit fraud, but it is a little surprising that it has taken the Government so long to act. Of equal concern, however, is the Government's planned cuts in housing benefit to people under 25. Did the Minister read the excellent speeches given at Centrepoint last week, which highlighted the plight of homeless young people? Does he not recognise that the increase in the non-dependent addition, and the limit on housing benefit, will force many more young people on to the streets or into multiple-occupation houses, with the consequent danger to their health as well as their physical and moral safety? Will he not therefore immediately scrap that plan and accept what the Princess of Wales said when she described the appalling dangers and vulnerability of young people who have been forced out on to the streets because of changes in housing benefit?

The hon. Gentleman said that it is obvious that Labour Front Benchers supported action against fraud, but anyone who has heard them sneer at, deride and describe as purely notional any measures to combat fraud would know that they do not support action against it. Anyone who heard the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) say that the Labour party had for too long been associated with freeloaders would agree that Labour has been too slow to get round to the need to attack fraud.

I deprecate the attempt of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) to bring the royal family into party political debate. He entirely misrepresents what was said. He equally misrepresents the policy change that we are introducing, which will limit benefits to those on income support aged under 25 to the average for shared accommodation in an area. We shall thereby end the absurdity of someone out of work being able to afford better accommodation than those in work. I am surprised that the Labour party wants that situation to continue.

Identity Cards


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to choose pilot areas for the introduction of the new cards for social security claimants. [3570]

The Benefits Agency is working closely with Post Office Counters Ltd. on the implementation of the new system of benefit payment. Consultations with groups representing customers are also under way. I expect to take a decision on pilot areas once the private sector service provider is selected early next year.

As the Isle of Wight Liberal Democrat-controlled council has repeatedly called for the early introduction of identity cards and has recently scrapped the direct payment of housing benefit to good landlords, which has given rise to unconfirmed reports of an increase in the fraudulent encashment of cheques, will my hon. Friend consider introducing new cards for social security claimants to the Isle of Wight as a pilot study? After all, its boundaries are finite and I think that I can promise him that he would have the support of the entire community and that the pilot study would lead to a thoroughgoing success.

No one fights harder for the interests of the Isle of Wight than my hon. Friend.


I shall consider early next year the benefits paid on the Isle of Wight when considering pilot areas. The new benefit payment card is one of several measures to deal with instruments of payment fraud. These measures are succeeding and the new card will save about £150 million a year when fully implemented.

Will the Minister guarantee that it will not be possible for smart cards for social security claimants to be used as general-purpose identity cards? Will he confirm that he, unlike the Home Secretary, has a regard for civil liberties and that he and his colleagues at the Department of Social Security would not agree to the concentration of large amounts of personal information about individuals in a form dangerously convenient to politicians and officials of an authoritarian bent?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the cards are designed for those who wish to receive their payments through the Post Office. It will be a much more cost-effective, efficient and safer way of providing funds to them. If individuals wish to use the cards to assert their identity, that will be entirely up to them. That is freedom of choice. There is nothing illiberal in the proposed measure.

My hon. Friend has referred to the role of Post Office Counters and the use of the cards. Will he confirm that the private finance initiative will extend and improve services? Will he consider the possibility of using the cards in sub-post offices?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The cards will be used in sub-post offices. The private finance initiative will give us a system that, in many ways, will be far better than the present one, not least in combating fraud. The new system will provide the customer with immediate information and improvements in his or her benefit should that be required.

Deduction Of Earnings Orders


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the imposition of deduction of earnings orders by the Child Support Agency. [3572]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
(Mr. Andrew Mitchell)

Such orders are imposed only when all other efforts to obtain maintenance payment have failed.

Does the Minister recognise that that is a superficial approach to deduction of earnings orders? Does he understand that in many instances the orders are imposed when there is still considerable disagreement and that they have a devastating effect on the families concerned? Is he aware that quite often the agency's figures are found to be wrong? Will he comment on reports that the agency is proposing to introduce DEOs for clients when they have not returned their forms for assessment, even after as short a period as two weeks? Will that not give rise to considerable injustice and have a devastating effect on many families' finances?

The hon. Gentleman, who has taken a considerable interest in a number of technical aspects of the Child Support Agency, misunderstands the way in which deduction of earnings orders are used. They are imposed as a last resort to secure payments to the parent with the child or children. They are very effective in achieving that and are lifted if the absent parent complies and co-operates. The hon. Gentleman should recognise, therefore, that they are a most important mechanism within the power of the CSA to enforce maintenance payments so that they get through to the mother, the parent with care and the children involved.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the distress caused to my constituent, Mr. Andrew Collier, whose employers were openly contacted by the CSA about his fathering a child, long after he had had a vasectomy? Will my hon. Friend ask the CSA to take off its clodhoppers and urgently review its procedures?

I am aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers. He is right to say that, where a mistake is made, his constituent is entitled to a full apology from the CSA, and my understanding is that such an apology has already been given.

Will the Minister comment on the annual report of the chief child support officer—an independent officer—and in particular his finding that complete accuracy of the maintenance assessment is achieved only in 29 per cent. of cases? What proposals does he have to improve accuracy quickly and significantly, and therefore to improve public confidence in the workings of the CSA?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make it clear that we are determined to improve the accuracy of the agency. The Secretary of State has set demanding targets for accuracy this year of 75 per cent. of all cases. We reached 71 per cent. accuracy last month, which is a very steep increase on the figures for last year. I think that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in making the point that this year the agency is increasing its accuracy significantly, but it still has a long way to go.

Personal Pensions


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has to improve the flexibility of personal pensions in retirement. [3575]

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has to improve the flexibility of personal pensions in retirement. [3581]

We will introduce age-related rebates for personal pension holders who have contracted out of the state earnings-related pension scheme, which will make such pensions attractive across a broader age range.

Personal pension holders will also be allowed to draw an income from their fund each year and defer buying an annuity until a time of their choosing up to age 75. In addition, unmarried personal pension holders will no longer have to buy annuities that make allowance for a widow's pension.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that one of the greatest threats posed to the viability of personal pensions would be the guaranteed minimum pension, as proposed by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Opposition's proposals would not only undermine personal pensions but would impose a further tax. Sooner or later, the Labour party really must come to terms with the fact that all its policies involve increasing taxes, and that is what the honest men showed the other night.

Has my hon. Friend seen the June 1995 economic outlook of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development? Is he aware that it concluded that the United Kingdom is the only country with a sustainable and affordable pensions policy? Does he agree that that is due to the fact that the Government have given encouragement to the pensions industry to provide such policies?

Yes, the OECD study confirms that the UK will be the only country with a sustainable state pension scheme in the next century. That is a tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in reforming pensions in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom also has more assets in pension funds than the rest of the European Union put together, and we now have 8 million personal pension holders.

Will the Minister confirm that the total cost to the national insurance fund of low earners opting out of SERPS into personal pensions has been more than £4.3 billion? Is not it true that many of the people on low incomes with personal pensions will now receive an even lower pension than they would have done under SERPS once insurance companies have taken their cuts, fees and charges? How can the Minister justify the typical Tory incompetence that has wasted taxpayers' money and cut pensions all in one go?

We have had taxation; now we have nationalisation. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should nationalise schemes that have provided security for 8 million personal pension holders and have put this country in a better position than any other country in Europe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absurd for Opposition Members to talk of a national insurance fund? There has never been such a fund; the money is spent as soon as it comes in. Would we not do better to follow the example of countries such as Chile, which set up a fully funded pension system as long ago as 1981? Pensions in Chile are now 50 per cent. higher and other benefits nearly 100 per cent. higher than they would otherwise have been, and Chilean workers can choose between 18 different pension management funds, thus securing finance for their old age in a way that will not be possible in any western country apart from Britain.

My hon. Friend is right. Funded pensions have a part to play in providing for pensioners in Britain. In this country, however, we have private funded provision, of which I think my hon. Friend might approve. Only Opposition Members believe that every solution must involve nationalised state endeavour.

Incomes Gap


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what estimate he has made of the gap between the richest 5 per cent. and the poorest 5 per cent. of the population in the United Kingdom. [3576]

The vast majority of people are better off as a result of the Government's policies. Average income, which is up for all family types, rose by mor than a third between 1979 and 1992.

I am not sure where the Minister obtains his figures. Would he care to comment on the fact that, statistically, it is accepted that the gap between the richest and the poorest is now wider than it has been at any time since records began, and that the gap has grown faster in Britain than in any other industrial country? Would he care to comment specifically on the fact that the number of people officially living in poverty has trebled since the Tories came to power in 1979, and now include one child in every four? How would the Minister respond to the Rowntree commission's damning conclusion that the combined effect of the Government's tax and benefit policies has simply served to make the rich richer by turning the poor into paupers?

The hon. Gentleman should know that the easiest way of helping people out of poverty is to get them back into work. Why, therefore, does he not hail the Government's success in knocking 750,000 off the unemployment total? Why does he not tell the House that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 12 per cent. in the past year? If he believes in increasing benefits, why did he not join the honest 10 the other night and vote for an increase in taxation—as he said he would on the radio—rather than remaining a member of the Mandelson muzzled majority?

Is it not inevitable that, after years of socialism and penal taxation policies, the gap between the rich and the poor should increase? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that every income group is better off now than in 1979? Will he also confirm that the Rowntree inquiry, cited by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), excluded benefits in kind, thus invalidating its study?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He emphasises a point that I made earlier about the importance of getting people back into work. He might well also have mentioned the significant improvements in family credit, which have made a great deal of difference to 600,000 low-paid families on work benefits.

Does the Minister not recognise that from 8 January the very poorest people in the country will be the 13,000 seeking asylum—in many cases, legitimately and genuinely—who will be deprived of any benefit? Does he accept that, when his officials appeared before the Select Committee on Social Security last week and were asked, "How are these people to live? How are they to feed their children?", they gave no substantive answer? Will the Minister now give an answer? Are those people to starve? How are they to live?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Social Security Advisory Committee is considering the plans put to it by the Government. He will have read the Home Secretary's outstanding speech in the House yesterday, which dealt with those points, and will know that only 4 per cent. of the people seeking asylum are ultimately found to be genuine. The Government have a duty to deal with that point. The Bill that received its Second Reading yesterday ensures that Britain remains a safe haven, as it has always been, and not a soft touch.

Benefit Expenditure


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the total annual spending on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers; and what was the equivalent figure in 1978–79. [3577]

In 1978–79, under a previous Government, the nation spent £2 billion on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers. This year, we expect to spend more than £20 billion. That represents an increase of more than 280 per cent.

Do not those figures demonstrate that, by targeting help where it is most needed and by cutting unnecessary spending, it has been possible for this Conservative Government to target help on the most vulnerable people in society—in this case, long-term sick and disabled people? Does he agree that, if one wishes to extend benefits to a wider band of people, one should be prepared to say how one would pay for that, something that the Labour party, with the exception of 10 hon. Members, is not prepared to do?

Yes, my hon. Friend has got it absolutely right. The way in which we have looked after the economy over the years has enabled us not only to honour our commitments to long-term sick and disabled people but to increase the range of benefits offered. It was this Government who brought into effect in 1992 the disability living allowance, which has so far brought some 460,000 people, who would not previously have qualified for support from the state, into some sort of benefit support. Only a Government who manage the economy properly can afford to take such care of long-term sick and disabled people.

We welcome the increase in money spent on the care of long-term sick and disabled people, but how much has been spent for and on carers? Will the Minister recognise that many of them have never looked for it, but that some of them require more financial help, especially if they are young women with no husband looking after disabled children, or spinsters looking after elderly parents?

Some years back, the Government significantly increased the invalid care allowance's coverage to married women. It is one of the fastest-growing benefits. Yesterday, I had a meeting with Francine Bates of the Carers National Association to discuss caring matters. Over the years, the Government have maintained substantial support for carers. We consider that matter constantly to find out whether we can make any further improvements. We welcome and value the care that families provide for the people whom they look after. Over the years, we have been able to expand our provision for them. We keep the matter under constant review.

Following the excellent supplementary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that carers are the unsung heroes of our society? They take the major burdens in respect of people who have been put out into the community. Does he accept that the encouragement that we give them in respect of payments or in fiscal terms is minimal and that, if we need to do anything further to our social security system, it is to recognise the voluntary carer's vital and growing role?

We recognise that role. The amount of care that we have provided through invalid care allowance has grown substantially. The Government expanded its coverage to a great extent. We value and welcome families' role in looking after people who need care. As I said to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), we keep that matter firmly under control but, in a variety of ways over the years, we have expanded that provision, and we meet regularly with people who support and encourage other carers.

Child Support Agency


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what further representations he has received in respect of abolishing the Child Support Agency. [3578]

Representations from the Liberal Democrats and other irresponsible groups seeking the abolition of the CSA are far outweighed by those from parents with care seeking stronger agency action in arranging and collecting maintenance due.

I thank the Minister for that answer. All hon. Members on both sides of the House are hearing about distressing cases of people who are willing to make a contribution to their families, who are invariably in second families, and who are simply unable financially to make such a contribution. If the Minister is not prepared to abolish this Act because it is too inflexible, recognising the importance of the principle of parents making contributions to their families, will he consider those people who want to help but financially cannot, and who are being put into personal bankruptcy or perpetual debt as a result of the inflexible implementation of the Act?

Obviously, I shall look at any case that the hon. Gentleman brings to me. What he said today ignores the changes that Parliament made earlier this year. He will know that the Government have brought in a 30 per cent. limit, which means that no absent parent can pay more than 30 per cent. of his net income in current maintenance. Parliament has made changes, and there are further changes to come. There will be 90 technical changes to the work done by the child support computer in January and 10 days ago, we took 64 regulations through the House of Commons. Those changes will ensure that the Child Support Agency delivers the sort of service that absent parents and parents with care have a right to expect.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to ensure that the maximum amount of money goes to parents who are living alone with children, we must do all that we can to continue improving the credibility of the CSA? We can do without the irresponsible ideas of the Liberal Democrats and the irresponsible comments from those on the Labour Front Bench who have suggested that they would not rule out the abolition of the CSA. Is it not time that those hon. Members supported the all-party consensus on CSA policy, and that we continue to support the CSA?

I do not believe everything that I read in the Observer, and I am sure that the Labour Front-Bench team will remain true to the principles of the Child Support Act 1991. The CSA is improving significantly. Last year, it collected six times more in maintenance payments than in the previous year, and this year it has collected 100 per cent. more in maintenance support. The CSA is tracing absent parents, and it is making certain that its performance is improving in a whole range of areas. That is what the figures showed last month, and I have every confidence that they will continue to show that in the months to come.

Disabled People (Poverty)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he next expects to meet the Disablement Income Group to discuss the problem of poverty among disabled persons. [3579]

I regularly meet groups representing disabled people. I plan to meet the director of the Disablement Income Group on 17 January.

When the Minister next meets the Disablement Income Group, will he seek to explain why poverty among disabled people will increase savagely when the new incapacity allowance comes into operation in April while, at the same time, income tax has been reduced for the better-off?

Probably one of the points that I shall raise with the director of the Disablement Income Group will be the 280 per cent. rise in the amount that we have been able to spend on benefits for the long-term sick and disabled since 1979. A further point might be to compare and contrast the range of benefits provided by this Government with those provided by the previous Government, which would show a substantial increase in income for those people. Also, in four crucial areas—the disability living allowance, the disability working allowance, the independent living fund and Motability costs, on which we now spend £3.5 billion—we could not make a comparison with the previous Government because those benefits did not exist.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has been a giant step forward in the interests of disabled people and comes on top of a threefold increase in benefits? Does he further agree that those who have opposed the Act have done nothing more than play politics with people's lives?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely fair point. Now that the Act has been passed, it is important for all parties to seek to ensure that its implementation is successful. Even those who have previously opposed the Act cannot have anything to gain by obstructing its workings. It is one of the most significant advances for disabled people ever. The Act will certainly fulfil its objective if all those who have the interests of disabled people at heart come together and work for its success.

Is not one means of tackling poverty among disabled people enabling them to gain access to jobs? Although such access should begin to be provided under the Government's Act, why cannot we have a disability rights commission to ensure that it becomes a reality?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are different views about what is needed to ensure that the Disability Discrimination Act works properly. We have taken the view that we do not need a commission in this particular case. There will be plenty of opportunity to enforce the provisions of the Act. I ask those who share the hon. Gentleman's view about a commission to recognise that the Act has been passed and to work with us to ensure that it is a success. There are significant advances to be made in enabling access to work for disabled people. If we move away from the arguments of yesterday towards the provisions of tomorrow for disabled people, we shall continue to make a real advance in their progress, which is what they deserve and what the nation needs to ensure that we use their skills for all our mutual benefit.

Prime Minister


Q 1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3596]

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Does the Prime Minister share the widespread concern about the release to the press by the chairman of the Conservative party of the text of the Lord Chancellor's speech, which the Lord Chancellor himself had no intention of delivering? Is not it about time that the Prime Minister condemned the action of the chairman of the Conservative party and made a public apology to the Lord Chancellor, to which he is entitled?

If the hon. Gentleman knew the Lord Chancellor, he would not have asked such a silly question. The hon. Gentleman is mis-stating the Lord Chancellor's view and the events.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3597]

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the national health service is treating 1 million extra patients a year as a result of the Government's courage in introducing their NHS reforms? That being so, does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments made by the Labour party think tank that Labour policy on the NHS is dominated by sectional trade union interest and is neither thorough nor well informed—a perfect description of new Labour?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the national health service is treating 1 million more patients, and of course treating them better, with a wider range of services, and more speedily than ever before. I am aware of the Fabian pamphlet, though I have not yet had the opportunity to read it. Perhaps I shall enjoy doing so in due course. The conclusion that I draw from it is clear. Views inside the health service and about the health service have moved on. The Opposition's views have not moved and are out of date and unsuitable for a modern health service.

Will the Prime Minister accept what Ministers have been denying for months—that the public subsidy paid to a privatised railway is set to rise dramatically after privatisation? What is the latest official estimate?

If the right hon. Gentleman tables a detailed question, I shall give him the estimate. I can tell him something else now—that rail privatisation will produce a better service for all passengers and, if he waits for the new franchise decisions, he will begin to see that for himself. He has been trying to smear privatisation when every previous privatisation has produced a better service for the customer. He will find out that that will be the case with British Rail as well.

The right hon. Gentleman can tell that to the customers of Yorkshire Water.

I am not trying to smear. I am simply asking for information. Even if the right hon. Gentleman cannot give me the exact figure, will he accept that the subsidy is set to rise?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman that what is rising is investment in the railways and the standards of service to the passengers. As the right hon. Gentleman neglects to mention each time, the operating services are already offering a range of new services and responding to customers more quickly, and new information services are being provided. That is a sign of a better service under privatisation than we ever knew under nationalisation.

I do not see why, as Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman cannot answer a straight question about privatisation. If he will not answer it, we shall continue to expose the costs and the chaos of the system. The railway network should not be used as a plaything for bankers and speculators. [Interruption.] No. It should be run not for bankers and speculators, but for British business and the British people.

Now we know the soundbite that we were working up to; it was not worth waiting for. If the right hon. Gentleman is as keen as we are on a modern railway service, he had better explain from where, under his plans, the finance to produce it would come. Will he spend more? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Yes, they say. So by how much will taxes go up? Time after time, the right hon. Gentleman pretends that there can be more investment in the public service without higher taxes and a better service without higher expenditure. He pretends that he is a moderniser, but when it comes to trusting the private sector, he is as old Labour as any of his colleagues.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3598]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents are outraged that they are still threatened with the possibility of water cuts by Yorkshire Water in the new year? The problem is that some of the managers of Yorkshire Water still think that they are running a nationalised industry in which customers do not count. [Interruption.]

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the circumstances in which the Government would allow drought orders sanctioning water cuts are almost unimaginable?

I can tell my hon. Friend that Yorkshire Water plans to invest £2.5 billion over the next 10 years and more than £200 million this year for its customers' benefit. That is a substantial increase on anything that we have seen in the past. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government will sanction rota cuts only if no other option is available. We have made it clear to Yorkshire Water that it should use every possible step, as it is seeking to do, to make rota cuts unnecessary. If, over the years, there had been proper management of the nationalised industry, the under-investment might not have occurred.

May I renew my request to the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the plight of my constituent Ms Louise Stack, the mother of four young children, who applied 11 months ago to transfer from a prison in Spain to complete her sentence in this country? Will the Prime Minister now promise me that he will raise the matter when he meets the Spanish Prime Minister this weekend?

I will certainly examine the papers again before Madrid, but I had better do that before I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment. I undertake to study the papers again, and I will let the hon. Gentleman know what action I propose to take.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3599]

After the tragedy at a school in north Westminster on Friday, does my right hon. Friend agree that the letter written by the small son of Philip Lawrence to Santa Claus was one of the saddest and most moving letters ever written by a child? Will he assure me that the Government will do everything that they can to learn lessons from the tragedy in an attempt to ensure that it is never repeated?

I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in sending sympathy to the family and friends of Mr. Lawrence after that dreadful event. The Government are considering what more can be done. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been consulting the Association of Chief Police Officers about whether harsher penalties and further police powers are necessary to deal with the problem of knives. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to announce the outcome of those discussions and, perhaps, new proposals in due course. In parallel with that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is talking to teachers' representatives about a range of issues covering the safety of staff and pupils in our schools.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3600]

Does the Prime Minister agree with the pensioners of Rochdale that the £10 Christmas bonus that they have just received is an absolute insult? If the bonus had risen in line with inflation, it would now be worth £68. Does the Prime Minister realise that £10 buys a small frozen turkey and a box of Christmas crackers—hardly a recipe for Christmas cheer?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady and her colleagues took that view when they cancelled the Christmas bonus—the only occasion that that has ever happened.

I welcome the fact that, at his recent meeting in Italy, the Prime Minister raised the issue of European worries about a single currency. Will he be pursuing those points at Madrid?

Yes. I shall be pursuing a number of the points that I raised in the last European Council meeting about the problems that might occur were a single currency to proceed with a small minority of countries in it and a larger majority of countries outside it. I believe that that raises a whole range of issues which have not yet been properly considered, and I shall be seeking further consideration of those points at Madrid this weekend.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3601]

It has been estimated that, even allowing for the Budget settlement, schools could be £40 per pupil worse off next year. Despite an increase in the school rolls of about 116,000 children, the National Union of Teachers has estimated that there will be 9,200 fewer teachers this term. Does the Prime Minister think that that is clever?

I notice that the hon. Gentleman was not one of the 10 Labour Members who voted to increase taxation and to increase expenditure. He wants increased expenditure without admitting that it would lead to increased taxation. We have made an extra £878 billion available for schools—an increase of about 5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that that is above the level of increased costs and is an increase in real resources.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending sympathy to the millions of people in France who have been affected by the strikes? Is he aware that every Labour Member of the European Parliament has signed a resolution backing the strikers, thereby proving that Labour is still the strikers' friend?

It is certainly true that the Members of the European Parliament did that.

I believe that the deputy leader of the Labour party just muttered, "Well, what do you know about it?" I hope that he knows that the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Members of Parliament, never mind Members of the European Parliament, has also sent a message of support to the French strikers. I will quote from it.

"The Struggle going on in France is one of critical importance to working people throughout Europe",
wrote the group secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Members of Parliament. He went on:

"Capitalism demands that we now dismantle employment rights, welfare benefits and the network of public services built up after years of struggle."
That is real Labour.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3602]

May I thank the Prime Minister for his great kindness last night to members of Chelsea's 1954–55 championship team? May I remind him that during the last war, thousands of civilians were killed in the blitz and that it is appropriate in this anniversary year that there should be a suitable memorial to commemorate those civilian dead? Will he give his support to the moves in the east end to build a suitable memorial to the civilian dead?

First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for a very enjoyable occasion with some guests last evening. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I would not wish to do harm to an old friend. Let me assure the House that when we discussed football, the hon. Gentleman played on the left wing and I played on the right.

On the hon. Gentleman's substantive point, I willingly join him in paying tribute to those Londoners, east Londoners perhaps above all, who endured the blitz. I will invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage to consider the hon. Gentleman's proposal and advise further. The hon. Gentleman, I hope, will be aware that an application could be made to the national heritage memorial fund for consideration for lottery funding. That process is independent of the Government, but the idea that the hon. Gentleman suggests is certainly one that the fund could be prepared to entertain.

Bosnia (Peace Settlement)

3.31 pm

British armed forces have served in former Yugoslavia in support of United Nations missions since 1992. Their task has been difficult and sometimes dangerous. Eighteen British soldiers have lost their lives, and 41 others have been seriously injured in the course of duty. They have helped to save many thousands of lives. We are rightly proud of them, as they can be proud of themselves.

Since the summer, conditions in Bosnia have changed completely. At the London conference in July, the international community declared itself ready to take military action against the Bosnian Serbs. Britain took the lead with France in creating a reaction force, and was involved in the NATO action that followed. Since then, the international community has worked long and hard to support the American-led peace effort. At last, a settlement has been achieved.

The peace implementation conference, organised last week by the British Government, made substantial progress with planning the civilian aspects of the peace agreement. Carl Bildt was appointed to oversee its implementation, guided by a small steering board, which includes the G8 nations and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

We expect the peace agreement to be signed in Paris on 14 December. At that point, the military task will be transformed. Within a few days, NATO will take over full military responsibility from the United Nations and deploy forces to implement the agreement. Our mission is to oversee the separation of the warring factions and the return to barracks of their soldiers, and to provide the security necessary for Bosnia and Herzegovina to establish national institutions and hold free elections.

NATO's mission is rightly limited in scope. It is also limited in duration—to 12 months.

For the first time, we have a comprehensive peace agreement. Its implementation requires international forces that are capable of deterring any breakdown in the peace. Only a NATO-led force can fulfil that mission. It will be NATO's first ever land operation. The plan involves some 60,000 troops, of which over 13,000 will be from Britain. We will supply a brigade, and a divisional headquarters to command one of the three military sectors.

In addition, Britain has the leading role in commanding NATO's Rapid Reaction Corps, a British-led, multinational NATO force. We will provide most of the field headquarters controlling the whole operation, including its commanding officer, General Sir Michael Walker.

Britain's contribution is formidable. It expresses our willingness to fulfil our obligations as a key member of NATO and our international role as a member of the permanent five of the Security Council of the United Nations. It also indicates, in the clearest manner, the strength of our commitment to the security of Europe. Such responsibilities carry a cost which we are prepared to bear.

It is my duty to be sure that our forces are able to carry out their purpose and to protect themselves. Of course, they will use persuasion to implement the peace, and in the British Army even the most junior ranks have experience of making highly sensitive judgements on the spot; but when they need to take robust action, they will be equipped and authorised to do so. We shall be sending Challenger tanks,AS90 heavy artillery and armed helicopters. Our force will include the full panoply of signallers, engineers, medical teams, and logistic troops. They will have with them 7,500 vehicles and 7,000 tonnes of ammunition.

To move those forces rapidly to Bosnia involves a complex operation by sea and air, including, for example, 250 RAF transport flights. Military planners and civil servants have worked long hours to prepare a plan to deliver our forces and their equipment safely and on time.

We have done everything possible to minimise the risks to our people, yet there will be dangers. It will be important to them to know through this House that they have the undivided support of the nation. Once more, Britain's armed forces are deploying far from home, not to conquer, not to make war, but in the service of peace, this time as part of a NATO-led force. The Government know that they will carry out their responsibilities with great distinction.

I hope that the House will take this opportunity to express its support for the men and women of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force, and the reservists and civilians who accompany them. We wish them all success in their mission and, when the task is done, a safe return to their families.

I thank the Secretary of State for Defence for coming to the House to make this important statement. There will hardly be a Member who does not have a constituent out there in Bosnia serving peace, as the Secretary of State reminded us.

I am more than delighted to be able to assure the Secretary of State that he has the full support of the House. Our hearts go out to the men and women who are travelling to Bosnia to try to ensure that the peace sticks.

We have heard the Secretary of State announce what amounts to a new chapter in the sorry saga of Bosnia, a chapter which the whole House hopes will have a happy ending. Some people, especially in the press, have sought to denigrate the role of the UN and UNPROFOR but, happily, no one in this House has done so. As we look forward, may I say how much we are indebted to the men and women who have served with such distinction in the past. As the Secretary of State reminded us, some of them have paid the ultimate price. We all know that they have saved thousands of lives, and they can wear their medals with pride. As we approach Christmas, we think of their families.

Similarly, we wish our troops who will serve on the new mission every success, and we trust that they will all return home safely. As the Secretary of State reminded us, their mission is worth while, but is not without great risks. The history, complexity and viciousness of the situation is there for us all to see. Some of us saw the terrible pictures on television. Within days of villages being transferred back to the other side, there was wanton arson and the burning of decent homes, which serves to remind us of the viciousness of the conflict and the difficulties therein.

The peace will be based on the will of the three parties. One of the new organisation's tasks will be to ensure that the peace holds. Our experiences in Northern Ireland will serve us well in performing the tricky task of brokering peace, and ensuring that peace continues between the three differing factions.

We welcome the strengthening of the rules of engagement, which is much to be desired. We have argued all along that, in those sometimes impossible situations, our troops should not be disadvantaged.

Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the House that this NATO-led operation will be covered by a United Nations mandate, and that, when the current UN mandate runs out at the end of January, it will be renewed? It is important that the operation has the UN's blessing and support.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also say a word or two about the heavy equipment to be transported to Bosnia? If our troops are to protect themselves and do the job, they need their heavy equipment: Challenger tanks, howitzers and so on. As the Secretary of State knows, in the past we could not provide equipment to our troops, because we simply could not transport it in time. I understand from a parliamentary question that we are to borrow two United States ships to transport some of the equipment. Will any further United Kingdom ships be involved in that operation? The House would expect that equipment to be in position when our troops arrive.

Will the Secretary of State also say a word about the delivery of aid to Bosnia? I presume that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will continue to operate. Our RAF Hercules have already taken 26,000 tonnes of food into Sarajevo. Will those mercy flights continue? What advice is the Secretary of State giving to organisations that wish to continue to send relief over land? What protection will be offered to those convoys? What role will NATO play in that respect?

No, it was not part of the statement. I must ask the question, because aid will be provided. British people want to send aid, especially at this time, and the whole House wants to know how we shall co-ordinate separating the warring factions and delivering aid.

However, I believe that we are all conscious that we are sending our troops at a particularly special time. At a time when the rest of us seek to spend time with our families, we shall ask our service men and women to leave theirs and go to serve overseas. Therefore, as we wish the men and women godspeed and pray that every one of them returns safely, it becomes us all to think of the families who will be left behind.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he has given to the statement, and for the words that he has spoken today, recalling that we do all indeed have constituents who will be travelling out to Bosnia.

I join the hon. Gentleman in praising what has been done by the United Nations. UNPROFOR has done much to contain the conflict; it has saved a lot of life, and it may take credit for its part in paving the way towards the peace agreement that we now have.

I also join the hon. Gentleman in condemning the scorched-earth attacks that we have witnessed on our television screens. Those have no part in the peace agreement that has been entered into by the warring factions. I shall now answer the hon. Gentleman's questions.

There will be a United Nations Security Council resolution. It is planned that that should be put into effect immediately after signature of the Paris peace agreement on Thursday 14 December, and would therefore cover the NATO deployment.

I can confirm the importance of heavy weaponry. I do not want to imagine the position in which we would need to use our tanks or heavy artillery, but it is important to face down possible confrontations from warring factions. Heavy weaponry is important for the protection of our people, and ultimately, if any of our people needed to be withdrawn from an area, it would provide the best possible cover for them to do that safely.

To transport that equipment, we shall use the shipping that is best suited to the task. The United States has a certain amount of specialised shipping, which we are making use of, but we may well need to make use of other shipping assets, including ferries. We shall charter ships as they are available to us. That will include a certain amount of United Kingdom shipping, but let me make it perfectly clear that we are not requisitioning ships; we are chartering ships on the open market, and it will be the ships that are available at the time. Their nationality is not the vital point; the point is that they should be available. A great deal of United Kingdom shipping is not available—it is working hard on commercial shipping projects.

Of course there will continue to be aid. The UNHCR will continue its operations in Bosnia. The RAF is available in principle for mercy flights, but much of the aid can now be delivered by road, which is more effective and more cost-effective. The purpose of sending in such a large force is to separate the warring factions, create a zone of separation and create safety and security, so that convoys and ordinary civilians are able to go about their business no longer in fear of their lives. Creating that position of security is a vital task for the implementation force.

Finally, although I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said, what is more to the point is that the armed forces will be very grateful to have the support of the Labour party.

I am sure that the whole House, and all the constituents we represent, will applaud the fact that 13,500 British troops, including about 750 territorials, all of whom are volunteers, will be sacrificing their Christmas at home to enable former Yugoslavs to enjoy, one hopes, theirs in peace for the first time for nearly five years.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that all the implementation forces will have robust rules of engagement? Will he say something about the new phrase that I believe he coined—"mission creep"—and say how far that NATO mission must creep to make it necessary for the NATO forces to be withdrawn before the 12 months are up?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I should perhaps emphasise that many of the forces going to Bosnia will still be able to enjoy Christmas in the UK. Given that the heavy equipment takes some time to move by sea, they will often fly out to join their equipment. and they will fly out in the days between Christmas and new year or in the new year. Some, however, are already in Bosnia, and others will be there in time for Christmas. I anticipate that the reservists will number 460. We will be required to involve a larger number, given that we must allow a margin for unfitness and so on. Those reservists will be most welcome. Generally, they perform specialised functions and will play an important part.

The rules of engagement are NATO-wide. All NATO forces have agreed to the same rules of engagement, which are robust but also sensitive—and they have benefited from a particularly strong British input, given our experience of policing situations in Northern Ireland.

I did not coin the expression "mission creep"— I believe that comes from across the Atlantic—but I am determined that the NATO operation will be limited in scope. We have no business inventing one task after another. The important point is that we have a clearly defined job. We shall do it in 12 months, then come home.

I express my support and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends for the operations that the Secretary of State has described. I share his confidence that our forces will fulfil their responsibilities with distinction and professionalism.

In a careful use of language, the right hon. Gentleman said that the mission will be "limited in duration" to 12 months. May we take it that that is a target and not a deadline? May we take it also that, if the peace agreement is on course for successful implementation, there will be no automatic withdrawal on the expiry of the 12-month period?

It appears from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that there are a number of important distinctions between the force now proposed and that which operated under the aegis of the United Nations. Am I correct in thinking that one of the most important distinctions is that the so-called dual key system will not operate, and that, if commanders on the ground require the full and effective use of air power, there will be no hindrance?

I am most grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks on behalf of his party. The mission defined for the NATO implementation force is perfectly clear and well achievable within 12 months. The separation of the forces, establishment of zones of separation, return of forces to their barracks and holding of elections can well he done within the 12-month period—and must be done. There is no point implying to anyone in Bosnia that they have longer than the 12 months specified in my statement—and by the other countries that are signatories—in which to implement those necessary elements of the Dayton agreement to which they are signatories.

There is a distinction between the United Nations operation and the NATO operation. There is no dual key but a clear command and control structure. The mission can be successful only if the civilian aspects of the peace agreement are implemented, by which I mean the development of the institutions of a free society of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The focus of the London conference on Friday and Saturday was on making sure that, under Carl Bildt's guidance, those civil institutions come into existence—which will enable the NATO force to withdraw and leave behind a satisfactory situation.

It is certainly not intended to inhibit the forces from exercising the rules of engagement, up to and including the use of air power if necessary.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for telling the House so clearly that the operation will be NATO-led. I assume that he and the House understand that the difference between a UN-led operation and this NATO-led operation is that the latter is a peace enforcement operation to implement an agreement, whereas the other was a peacemaking operation.

Can my right hon. Friend give the assurance—which I believe he gave the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell)—that there is total confidence in the ability of the NATO-led forces to operate as they think fit, without undue interference from the UN? Although I admire the work done by UNPROFOR working under the aegis of the United Nations, it is imperative to understand the need for an absence of interference.

What will happen if there is no peace agreement after one year has elapsed? I appreciate that there is no absolute deadline, but the House is aware of the pressure put on the American contribution by Congress—and that if the operation is not completed in one year, the Americans will go. In those circumstances, can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the Government have contingency plans well in mind?

I can certainly give a number of the assurances that my hon. Friend seeks. As he says, this will be a NATO-led force. I remind the House that we envisage possible contributions from 14 non-NATO countries, and that we are particularly pleased that Russia will operate alongside the NATO force. My hon. Friend is right to say that this means no undue interference from the United Nations. The political control of this operation is through the North Atlantic Council, which is the political council of NATO.

On the last point, when we enter and when we leave is not a matter for national decision making. Since this is a NATO operation, we will be all in, all there and all out together. Nobody will peel off halfway through the operation: we will act in concert in arriving and leaving.

I have the darkest misgivings as to whether this force will be able to withdraw in decent circumstances in my lifetime. May I ask a specific question about the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, which will presumably—and rightly—supply the armaments necessary? I am told that its official complement is only 316. If it is to be the tank regiment involved and it is to provide the cover that the House knows will be necessary, surely its complement should be extended very quickly.

The tank regiment involved is the Queen's Royal Hussars, Catterick. I had the pleasure of visiting it yesterday. It has two squadrons of Challenger 1 tanks, and it will take with it about 26 Challenger tanks. The officers expressed no reservations yesterday about the state of the regiment's equipment, supplies, spares and fuel, even though I pressed them on that. Of course, we intend to ensure that our troops are well supplied in the field.

I echo my right hon. Friend's support for and admiration of our troops, and I thank him for the part he has played in the more resolute leadership of recent months. I would like him to make one thing plain. If the civilian population is threatened, will the NATO forces be able to react as if they themselves had been threatened?

They will react, because they are there to implement a peace agreement that does not include the continuation of the slaughter of civilians. Therefore, the NATO forces will deal even-handedly with violators, from whichever side, who seek to undermine the peace agreement that they have entered.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the crucial date is not some day in December 1995, but some day in December 1996? I understand that the implementation force is required to be even-handed, but—as we have seen in the past—even-handedness can be on one side only. Ceasefire agreements have collapsed by the dozen over the past three and a half years.

What provision is there to review the position in 12 months' time, and is there the prospect of going the extra mile? We know that the United Nations has been criticised by all its member states, which have used the United Nations Organisation as a whipping boy for failing in the past. That has been unjustified, because the United Nations has come of age in the past five years over this issue. Will the Secretary of State do his utmost to ensure that our associated nations are advised that the United Nations may have the problem of picking up the pieces long after NATO has withdrawn in 12 months' time?

I echo my agreement that the United Nations has come under unjustified criticism. It has done the job as well as it could, and some of its failings have been due to its member states rather than to its organisation. This is a robust military operation, and it is not surprising that there is no other organisation like NATO that can do it.

I dare say that there will be many crucial dates. In responding to the hon. Gentleman, however, it would not be right in any way to open the prospect of the operation continuing for more than 12 months. It is critical that NATO should know that it is 12 months, and that we should know that it is in this place. Above all, it is critical that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina should understand that, after a certain period, if there is to be peace in their country, peace must be generated from within; it cannot perpetually be imposed from outside.

Is my right hon. Friend able to give details of forces from Colchester, in my constituency, which are likely to be deployed as part of the operation? May I endorse his guarantee that 12 months is the absolute limit, which, both politically in Bosnia and throughout the NATO countries, is a very important one, and that, if the agreement begins to come unstuck before the 12 months has ended, we shall not seek, in my right hon. Friend's words, to try to impose a peace that the Bosnian and Serb peoples do not want?

In the list of forces that I am reading, I see no reference to Colchester. I do not exclude logistical and engineering units, for example, which are based at Colchester being part of the force. I know that 24 Air Mobile is my hon. Friend's particular concern. The bulk of that force has returned to England. Those who have been left behind will be returning shortly. They will not be part of the operation. They are one of the few exceptions to the otherwise general rule that the British forces that are there with the United Nations mission will remain and be part of the NATO implementation force.

I emphasise again that I think that the 12-month limit is important. I am not getting into any speculation about what would happen if the mission failed. The mission is clear—separate the forces, return them to barracks and hold the elections. All that is achievable.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the biggest problems that we shall have to face among the different warring factions will be the movement of large populations from one area, village or town to another in the implementation of the so-called peace treaty?

Is the right hon. Gentleman really asking us to believe that he is requesting support from all hon. Members for a so-called 12-month operation, which is not clearly defined? It might extend a month or two, but we do not know for how long. We know that it is in some way connected to the American presidential election next year; it is probably connected as well to the election in Britain. If that is all true, and we have that knowledge, the Serbs, Croats and Muslims know that as well. Therefore, will the operation end in 12 months?

The chances are—it may as well be put on the record because many in this place know and understand this—that the operation will continue for much longer than 12 months, based on everything that we have known has taken place in the Balkans over the past centuries, and certainly over the past few years.

In this place, we are supposed to speak the truth. That being so, why is it not said from the Dispatch Box that British soldiers are facing an operation this Christmas—we are all worried about them—and that they could be facing it next Christmas and much longer after that?

I do not say that because that is not the position. We have a NATO operation, which has been defined as lasting 12 months. A number of us have committed ourselves to that position. For example, the German equivalent Minister has made a commitment to his Parliament of 12 months. He has authority from his Parliament for 12 months.

It is true that Serbs and Croats take account of what goes on in the House. That is why I think that it does no service to the House, to the country or to our troops for the hon. Gentleman to start opening up doubts about 12 months, and especially to imply that the operation might extend by a month or two; I said no such thing.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that this is not the first time in history that British troops have been involved in peacekeeping operations of this sort. Is he able to assure us that the supremacy that is required in the air to ensure that the troops on the ground carry out their tasks properly will he a continuing requirement throughout the period that our troops are involved?

Yes, domination from the air is essential. Operation Deny Flight, as it is known, will continue, and the role of the air forces and, indeed, sea aviators will continue to be extremely important. Although we are talking today mainly about land forces being committed to Bosnia, we should never forget that there are already about 3,000 service men—mainly from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force—serving outside Bosnia but connected to the Bosnian operation, many of them afloat but some of them at Italian bases.

Having helped to deliver aid to refugees from what were supposed to be United Nations safe areas, I think that it is a tragedy that this action was not initiated before the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa, and some of the other atrocities; but better late than never.

Will the Secretary of State accept that it is absolutely essential, not only for the people of Bosnia but for the credibility of NATO, the United Nations and the international community, that the operation, the peace, should succeed, even if it involves staying there into 1997 or beyond? Can the Secretary of State say anything about what may have been done to minimise the risk of casualties from friendly fire from the Americans or any members of the international force?

There have been many tragedies along the way. I came to my position only in July and, from my perspective, I would say that only after the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa was it possible to put together the international consensus, which coalesced at the Lancaster house conference in July, to enable a more robust attitude to be taken against the humanitarian atrocities that we were witnessing.

The credibility of NATO is involved here, but as I have said, ultimately the people of that area have to love peace more than they love war for the peace to succeed. I do not think that it is possible for the international community to give a guarantee that peace will last. We can go any distance to create the conditions in which peace can be given a chance, and I believe that the international community is doing that on this occasion.

As far as avoiding friendly fire is concerned, that is of course an important matter. One of the attributes of the NATO operation is that we have the full panoply of intelligence provided by the United States and others at our disposal, and that means aerial photography, satellite photography and the most sophisticated forms of intelligence, so that we should be able to manage the battlefield—if we are involved in a battlefield—and have a good understanding of where our forces are, as well, of course, as the enemy forces if we found ourselves in that position. I still very much hope that it will be an operation of persuasion and peace implementation, not an operation of fire—friendly or otherwise.

Although we must hope that the process works and that our troops are safe and free from danger, the troubled history of Yugoslavia must cause us to exercise some caution. Will my right hon. Friend ignore the siren voices from the Liberal Bench and the Labour party, and make it absolutely clear that one year means one year as far as we are concerned?

At every level of the planning of the operation through NATO, it has been understood that it was limited to 12 months, and that is the understanding of every participating country.

While we wish the entire force success and safety, can the Secretary of State say what arrangements are in place to facilitate the exchange of prisoners, both military and civilian, and what determination there is within the force to bring to justice those who stand accused of war crimes?

The Dayton agreement makes provision for the exchange of prisoners, both military and civilian, and the implementation force will play a role in supervising those exchanges.

As far as war criminals are concerned, NATO is currently drawing up guidance for its forces. I think it inconceivable that, if wanted war criminals fell into the hands of the implementation force, it would not hand them over to a competent authority for trial. One of the things that we need to establish is what precisely is a competent authority, in all the areas in which the implementation force would be operating. It is a difficult legal question, with which NATO is wrestling at the moment, but with the intention that, if the implementation force is in possession of war criminals, they will be brought to justice.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the Canberra aerial photography reconnaisance squadron from Marham, which has been flying over the former Yugoslavia on very long missions day in, day out? Does he agree that the security of Europe and NATO are synonmous? Surely these events vindicate the Government's line that NATO must be the key pillar for Europe's security and peacekeeping.

I happily join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the aerial photography reconnaisance flights that have been carried out—as he says—day after day, in difficult conditions, bringing vital data for our forces.

As for my hon. Friend's second point, it is remarkable that we should recently have seen Russia's willingness to co-operate with NATO and French willingness to draw closer to it. When we need to carry out a robust military operation in Europe, it must be NATO that undertakes it: only NATO is capable of that. Moreover, for as far ahead as we can see, only NATO will be capable of performing such a function.

Will the Secretary of State give an absolute guarantee that the arms embargo will not be lifted while British troops are out on this mission? Will he also give a guarantee that the defence exports part of his Department will not be busy trying to make arms sales while another part is looking after the security of British troops?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important subject—the question of arms control. The Dayton agreement foresees that one of the conditions for lasting peace will be a better balance between the armaments possessed by the different warring factions. It is clearly preferable for that balance to be achieved through the disarmament of the Croats and Serbs to a level close to that of the Bosnian Muslims; if, however, we fail to make progress in disarming those factions, the Dayton agreement envisages the possibility of training and weapons being provided for the Bosnian Muslims.

There will be a conference on arms control in Bonn shortly before Christmas, and I think it extremely important for the international community to use all its resolve and muscle to ensure that we adopt the former rather than the latter route. Particularly with our troops on the ground, we want a reduction rather than an increase in the number of arms in theatre.

My right hon. Friend may recall that, several years ago, before he became Secretary of State for Defence, I pointed out in the House on a number of occasions that British troops were being sent to Bosnia to police a United Nations—as it then was—ceasefire, and not to take part in guerrilla warfare.

As each Parliament goes by, even the youngest among us recognise that the House contains fewer and fewer right hon. and hon. Members who have any experience of service life, let alone active service. Given that a safe area is safe only if it is militarily safe—and given that the provision of aid, and other matters raised by some hon. Members earlier, may well be laudable aims—will my right hon. Friend not lose sight of the important fact that there is a long way to go before we attain a proper peace?

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, through the rules of engagement, service men on the ground will be empowered to defend themselves adequately if they come under attack in the days and months ahead, as they may well do?

The present situation is different, in that we now have a peace agreement to which the three parties have signed up, and we are going there to implement the peace agreement into which they have entered. The implication of that is that we shall use persuasion to ensure that they meet their obligations; but, if persuasion does not succeed, we shall use force. Certainly, if we come under attack ourselves, we shall respond robustly.

Of course, the rules of engagement cover self-defence, as they always have, but now they also cover the ability to implement the peace agreement to which those people have signed up. I very much hope that persuasion will be enough, but we are sending the weaponry that is necessary to give persuasion the best possible chance, and, if persuasion fails, to ensure that other methods succeed.

Although I have not conducted any sort of survey among Scottish soldiers destined for Bosnia, I am confident that our service men and service women would much prefer the heavy equipment that they will need to be carried in ships flying the red duster, rather than flags of convenience.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will do all he can to hire British ships to carry that equipment, even though our merchant fleet has shrunk to a ghost of what it was? Surely that equipment is better carried in our ships than in ships hired on what he calls the "open market". Pehaps he should give less emphasis to the "open market", and show much more confidence in the red duster.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is on a strong point. We are not deploying in a war situation or in an emergency, and we are not requisitioning shipping. We are moving equipment according to a carefully worked out plan, and we will take the shipping that is available on the days that we need to move that equipment.

I am pleased to say that much of British shipping is busy. It has contracts, and it is working. Those ships' owners do not want to be disturbed by British Government demands. We will take the shipping that is available. That will undoubtedly include some British shipping, but what our forces want is their equipment to be delivered to the right place at the right time, which we will do in the most effective manner possible.

The Secretary of State talked about NATO forces' role in implementing the success of the agreement's civilian aspects. Will he acknowledge that that includes the right of return of refugees, as well as the free and fair elections that he mentioned? Is it not essential to NATO's credibility that neither of those be thwarted by force over the next 12 months?

Yes. The right of return for refugees is an important part of the Dayton agreement. Naturally, I have been concerned, as others will have been, at the stories, especially those about Sarajevo, implying that tens of thousands of people will feel it necessary to leave their homes as a result of the peace agreement. The point of that agreement is that people living anywhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina should be able to do so in security.

The point about Sarajevo is that that city should be able to return to its famed previous position as a multi-ethnic city at peace with itself. These are the implementation force's objectives: to ensure that, in the next 12 months, people feel that degree of security and that, where they have left their homes, they felt secure enough to return to them.

Sometimes it is wise to take 12 months at a time, and, although we are all aware of the problems that are faced with paramilitary forces and with the need to control any action or excess that is engaged in by those forces, we also need to realise the possibilities that exist in relation to civil society. Many people in Bosnia have always opposed the violence, intimidation and action that have taken place. The hope is in that civil society being built up and that, in those circumstances, troops go on to he in safer situations and can begin to be withdrawn.

Of course, I try to keep my eyes well open to the realities and to see more than 12 months ahead, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that today the House is concentrating on an operation that has been designated by NATO, and that has a life of 12 months. He is absolutely right, of course, in saying that the success of that mission and of peace depends on the building of institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina that attract the trust of the people and that eventually make them desire peace more than war.

Point Of Order

4.18 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given your secretary notice of exactly where it refers to—column 794-95 of yesterday's Hansard, when, at the end of the debate, I raised the question whether the use of the words

"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.— [Official Report, 11 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 794.]
was the equivalent of calling a person a liar. I raised it in respect of the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe). I raise it again with you. Are those words interpretable as calling someone a liar, and, as such, should they require an apology to the House and to the hon. Member concerned?

I looked at the exchange this morning, and I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I do not accept the interpretation that he has placed on it. I believe that Madam Deputy Speaker dealt with it very well last night. The House does not go in for inquests about what happened the night before. It was dealt with at the time, and we must now move on.

I do not normally take further points of order, but, as it is close to Christmas, I will take this one.

I am grateful, Madam Speaker. Am I now to understand that I can use any quotation—from the Bible or from Shakespeare, for example—to call anybody anything, and that it will be permitted?

Not at all. As the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members know, it very much depends on how the quotation is applied and interpreted at the time. The hon. Gentleman is making a great deal of last night's exchange, which I looked at carefully this morning. In the light of what took place, I believe that the Minister of State, Home Office was indicating that the hon. Gentleman had made a poor or a false point. As I have said, we do not go in for inquests. I interpret each comment as it is made, and I am sure that that is the right and just way to do it.

Delegated Legislation

With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation)

Education (Scotland)

That the Education (Assisted Places) (Scotland) Regulations 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 1713) be referred to a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation.

Social Security

That the Training for Work (Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise Programmes) Order 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 1752) be referred to a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation.

Civil Aviation

That the Civil Aviation (Aerial Advertising) Regulations 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 2943) be referred to a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation.— [Mr. Wells.]

Question agreed to.

Orders Of The Day

Health Service Commissioners (Amendment) Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1993-94 on the Powers, Work and Jurisdiction of the Ombudsman (House of Commons Papers No. 33-1 and II), the Fifth Report from the Committee of Session 1993-94, containing the Government's Reply thereto (House of Commons Paper No. 619), the Sixth Report from the Committee of Session 1993-94 on the Report of the Health Service Commissioner for 1992-93 (House of Commons Paper No. 42) and the Third Special Report from the Committee of Session 1994-95, containing the Government's Response to the Committee's recommendations on the Reform of the NHS Complaints Procedures (House of Commons Paper No. 334).]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.21 pm

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

As you are only too well aware, Madam Speaker, the House is often the cockpit of rather violent debate. It is sometimes the focus of international attention and the seat of controversy. I do not think that this debate is necessarily going to be one of those occasions and perhaps you will welcome that, Madam Speaker.

I was slightly concerned to note in the Peterborough column of The Daily Telegraph that this measure is the subject of no controversy at all, and that

"Silence, it is hoped, will descend on the House of Commons"
from about now until about 6.30 this evening. We are enjoined to be quiet because "Gardener's Question Time" is apparently being recorded in the Palace of Westminster's Terrace Restaurant. On this important measure, however, I do not think that we will be quiet.

I was somewhat concerned to learn, however—I am sure that the House will share the concern—that you, Madam Speaker, have an interest in what is happening in "Gardener's Question Time" because you have a

"sickly Busy Lizzie which has been struggling unpromisingly on the kitchen windowsill."
If we lose your presence during this important debate, we will understand why.

Although it may not be in the cockpit of controversy, this Bill is extremely important. It extends the jurisdiction of the health service commissioner. It is one of the main planks of our reform of the national health service complaints procedures. The Bill will touch not only on all those who work in the NHS but on patients. The Bill will introduce the most significant change proposed to the role of the health service commissioner—or ombudsman, as he is better known—since the inception of that post in 1973.

If Parliament approves the measure, patients and their relatives will, for the first time, be able to complain to the ombudsman about all aspects of the care and treatment provided by the NHS. The statutory bars that operate to prevent the ombudsman from investigating complaints about the exercise of clinical judgment and about family health services will be removed.

The Bill in essence would amend the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993. That Act provides that there shall be a health service commissioner for England, for Wales and for Scotland. For the sake of clarity, I should say that the Bill and the notes on clauses refer to commissioners, in the plural, or to a commissioner. All three offices have always been held by the same person, so I shall avoid such artificial language in this speech and refer to the commissioner or the ombudsman, which I think the House will find more comprehensible.

I turn to the origins of the proposals. If one works in the health service, I suppose that the understandable personal reaction to receiving a complaint is to feel negative and defensive. NHS bodies are also understandably institutionally nervous about encouraging people to complain because of the often simplistic, blame-oriented exposure given to complaints' numbers by the media.

The handling of complaints in a responsible and sensitive way is one of the services that patients and their relatives ought to expect the NHS to provide. If complaints are investigated fully and objectively without automatically finding fault with staff, valuable information can be gained on how to improve services for other patients. That is why we want a new system for complaints in the NHS.

As the House will know, an independent review of NHS complaints procedures was commissioned in 1993 by the then Secretary of State in response to continued and growing concerns about the complex and unfriendly systems in place. Different procedures apply to different parts of the NHS, making it difficult for patients to know how to complain at all. It was a maze through which patients were expected to travel and difficult for them to undertake.

The review committee, which was chaired by Professor Alan Wilson, vice-chancellor of Leeds university, considered more than 250 pieces of evidence before reaching its conclusions. The committee's report, "Being Heard", was published in May 1994. One of its main recommendations was to extend the health service commissioner's jurisdiction to cover all NHS complaints. The proposed extension of the ombudsman's jurisdiction was also recommended by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in its first and sixth reports of the 1993-94 Session.

Following an extensive consultation exercise on the report, the Government announced their acceptance of its main recommendations in "Acting on Complaints", published on 22 March 1995, and, at the same time, responded to parallel recommendations made by the Select Committee, which were later published as its third special report of the 1994-95 Session. Copies of these documents are, of course, in the Library.

The proposal to extend the ombudsman's jurisdiction and the other main recommendations made by the Wilson committee were widely welcomed in the 600-plus responses. The fact that there were 600-plus responses shows just how important the matter is. I am especially pleased by the broadly positive response of professional bodies to the Wilson proposals. The drive to improve complaints procedures sits well with the basic clinical objectives of ensuring the best for patients, rigorously auditing results and seeking to apply lessons from that audit.

I turn to the principles that will underpin the new system. The system is built on nine principles, which were all set out in the Wilson report. They arc all fairly straightforward: responsiveness, quality enhancement, cost-effectiveness, accessibility, impartiality, simplicity, speed, confidentiality and accountability. One extra principle emerged from our discussions on "Acting on Complaints": thoroughness. Those principles will be embodied in the new system.

The new complaints procedure will focus on satisfying complainant concerns, while being fair and being seen to be fair to practitioners and staff. The same basic procedures will apply to all parts of the NHS and to all types of complaint, with the minimum number of different features necessary to reflect different contractual arrangements, the need for professional advice, and so on.

Will the Minister confirm that the ombudsman does not have any power to inflict any kind of sanction against an organisation or individual guilty of, say, gross negligence? May I give him an example to consider? The day before yesterday, medical records concerning abortions carried out at the Rankin hospital in Greenock were found by a member of public. They had been left by administrative staff in the derelict hospital. I have brought the matter to the attention of the office of the Minister of State, Scottish Office with a view to making a formal complaint.

In this case of gross negligence, the health commissioner will not be able to impose any penalty on those found guilty. He will just issue recommendations and utter soothing words to those poor women, who will be terribly distressed by the affair.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, there are other ways in which redress can be sought in such matters. He understands, I am sure, the purpose of the ombudsman's jurisdiction. The ombudsman has to report to the House and to make recommendations. Indeed, he can lay special reports if he feels that the circumstances warrant it. That is the purpose of the procedure and it is not the intention of the Bill to change the purpose of the ombudsman, as set out originally in the National Health Service Reorganisation Act 1973. If the hon. Gentleman is looking for further redress, he should realise that other avenues are open to people who feel that they have been affected in different ways and who need different forms of redress. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office, who is sitting beside me, has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I return to the outline of the new system. It will deal only with complaints, not with disciplinary matters; that underpins the point I made to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). We are discussing with the professional representative organisations how to separate the existing terms of service procedures for family practitioners from complaints procedures.

The reforms to the NHS complaints procedures will improve the way in which complaints are handled at every level. There will be a three-tier approach throughout the health service. The first stage—local resolution—will involve the local health care provider seeking to resolve the problem directly with the complainant, wherever possible through a speedy and effective informal approach. Clearly, that is by far the best way. If the complainant remains dissatisfied, he or she may ask a non-executive director or convener of the trust, health authority or health board involved to decide whether a three-person independent review panel should be set up to review the complaint, with independent professional advice on clinical issues. If both those measures fail, the third tier is for the complainant to refer his or her complaint to the ombudsman, who is completely independent of both the health service and the Government, and who is answerable directly to the House.

Many concerns have been raised about the implementation of the proposals; I now turn to the implementation timetable. The reforms to the internal NHS complaints procedures will be implemented on 1 April 1996 by means of subordinate legislation separate from the Bill. If Parliament supports the measure, and subject, of course, to Royal Assent, we hope that the provisions can be brought into force as close as possible to that date so that all patients have access to the third tier of the reformed complaints system.

Is the Minister satisfied that, by 1 April 1996, staff will be well aware of how the system will operate? If required, will training have been provided before 1 April?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It is important that staff are trained. It is important that proper guidance is given to them and that they have the tools with which they can implement the procedure. I attended a conference at which staff learned about the introduction of the proposals and I was much reassured not only by the well-developed interest with which staff were taking the matter forward but by the fact that software systems had been well developed so that management of the system could be eased in. I know that the timetable is tight, but in the interests of all—both those who work in the health service and patients—it is important that we stick to a rigid timetable. We have in place all the necessary training aids and procedures. The deadline is tight, but we shall make it.

I come now to the detailed provisions of the Bill. Clauses 1 and 2 deal with family health service and independent providers. They add GPs, dentists, pharmacists, providers of NHS ophthalmic services and independent providers to the list of those whom the commissioner may investigate and set out his remit in respect of the investigation of complaints about these providers.

The point of bringing independent providers within the commissioner's jurisdiction is to put beyond any doubt—although I do not believe that any doubt was justified—the existing presumption that his jurisdiction already covers the services which they provide to NHS patients. The measure makes it clear beyond peradventure that an NHS patient will fall within the provisions of the complaints procedure, whoever is providing the service.

Ever since the National Health Service Reorganisation Act 1973—under which the commissioner's office was first established—the legislation governing the commissioner's procedures has been intended to allow him to investigate complaints about services provided to patients by independent providers under contracts with the NHS.

We are taking the opportunity in the Bill to clarify the existing powers of the ombudsman in section 7(2) of the 1993 Act by bringing independent providers expressly within the ombudsman's jurisdiction. Independent providers are covered only in so far as they provide services to NHS patients. Clause 3 brings schedule 1, which deals with supplementary and consequential provisions relating to family health service providers and independent providers, into effect.

Clause 4 brings the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland within the commissioner's jurisdiction and specifies certain functions of that body which are excluded from investigation. This restores the position in Scotland to that in England and Wales, where the Mental Health Act Commission is already within the commissioner's jurisdiction.

The functions of the Mental Welfare Commission relating to visiting detained patients and investigating their complaints would be brought within the commissioner's jurisdiction. Those functions relating to the review and discharge of detained patients, which in England and Wales are carried out by the mental health review tribunals, would remain outside the commissioner's jurisdiction. This again reflects the position in England and Wales. Parity will now be restored across the three nations beyond any doubt.

Clause 5 deals with the availability of another remedy, and secures that the new NHS complaints procedures should have been exhausted before a commissioner can investigate a complaint, subject to his discretion to investigate where he considers it unreasonable to expect the complainant to exhaust the other procedures. There is nothing new in the measure, which reiterates a power that is expressed in a different way in earlier legislation.

The new complaints procedures will provide an opportunity for independent review within the health service, and it would normally be reasonable to expect a complainant to have attempted to resolve his complaint through this procedure before it could he investigated by the ombudsman. Although the ombudsman is keen to take on whatever work is put his way, all the procedures should be exhausted within their proper context. That will ensure that the proper number of cases get through to the ombudsman, but that the other routes are properly used.

It is recognised that there may be circumstances in which it would be unreasonable to expect this—for example, where there had been excessive delay in considering the complaint locally or, on certain occasions, where a member of staff wanted to refer a complaint to the ombudsman on behalf of a patient unable to act for himself or herself. It is possible for the ombudsman to use his discretion in reasonable circumstances to hear the complaint directly.

Clause 6 deals with the important issue of the exercise of clinical judgment—one of the fundamental changes brought about by the legislation. Clause 6 removes the statutory bar on the commissioner investigating complaints about action taken in consequence of the exercise of clinical judgment. When the office of commissioner was set up in 1973, complaints about actions arising directly from the exercise of clinical judgment were explicitly excluded from his jurisdiction.

The reason given at the time was to avoid impinging on doctors' freedom to treat their patients as they thought best; but the House will agree that the world has moved on considerably since those days. Of course we fully respect the independence of the medical and other clinical professions, and the special expertise and training which members of those professions hold, but it is very hard to explain to patients who simply do not understand that they may not ask the ombudsman to investigate the very complaints about which they often feel most concerned—those relating to the clinical decisions made about their care and treatment within the NHS.

In extending the ombudsman's jurisdiction to allow him to investigate complaints about clinical judgment—by any of the recognised health care professionals in the NHS, including doctors, nurses, midwives, family health service providers and others—it is necessary to ensure that the professional expertise involved in such judgments is fully respected, and also to ensure that those investigated are treated with scrupulous fairness. It would not be right to criticise professional judgments simply because they happened to result in hardship or suffering through no fault of the person who exercised the judgment, understandable though it might be for the patient to wish to complain in such circumstances.

Will my hon. Friend say a little, before he moves on to the next clause, about what action can be taken if the ombudsman finds that something has gone wrong which has left someone in a much worse state after surgery than before it? People, and certainly constituents of mine, have found it most difficult to take action in such cases.

I shall deal with that point later in my remarks. If it is appropriate to pass any information that is gleaned by the ombudsman to another forum where it can be used, that will be possible.

Before we deal with the process of the ombudsman, let us consider the case of a GP who is found guilty of professional misconduct. He appeals and, after appealing, is enabled to continue practising until his appeal is heard—perhaps for six or 18 months. What might the Government do to help assuage the fears of members of the GPs' panel?

On the hon. Gentleman's last point about the GPs' panel, I am not sure. We are discussing powers that we have taken in recent legislation to empower the General Medical Council to deal with such matters in a far more flexible way, as the hon. Gentleman knows, so that the outcome satisfies patients' rights and interests. That is a slightly separate, although parallel, matter to that which is before the House today.

I return to the detail of clause 6. In considering whether to uphold a complaint about a clinical judgment, the commissioner will need to take account of clinical advice. That is a central element in the changes that are before the House in the Bill. For example, the commissioner will need to take account of whether the judgment was of an acceptable professional standard. The commissioner has been helpful by making available to the House a paper setting out how he proposes to exercise his new jurisdiction, should Parliament approve the Bill. I commend the paper to right hon. and hon. Members, for it sets out in some detail—and, unusually for documents of this kind, in straightforward English and with clarity, which I welcome—how he proposes to approach questions about clinical judgment and other issues arising from the provisions in this Bill. I commend it to the House.

The 1973 Act which set up the office of health service commissioner made provision to enable the commissioner to receive independent advice. Those provisions are preserved in the 1993 Act and enable the commissioner to obtain advice from anyone who, in his opinion, is qualified to give it. The commissioner's paper sets out the principles that he is minded to follow in seeking such advice.

Clause 7 deals with general health services. It removes the statutory bar on the commissioner investigating complaints about family health services and provides that he cannot investigate action taken by a health authority or health board in investigating alleged breaches of terms of service by family health service providers. This is entirely in line with the existing provisions in section 7 of the 1993 Act which prevent the commissioner from investigating personnel or disciplinary matters relating to service in the NHS.

Clause 8 deals directly with personnel matters. It amends the provision in the 1993 Act which provides that a commissioner shall not investigate action taken in connection with personnel matters in relation to service under the National Health Service Act 1977 or the National Health Service (Scotland) Act 1978, to include service under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990. This is simply a tidying-up measure. Clause 8 also secures that a commissioner can investigate action taken by a health service body in operating a complaints procedure.

The general public have access to the commissioner to complain about, among other things, the way in which NHS complaints systems have treated them. Clause 8 ensures that NHS staff, family health service providers and independent providers and those working for them are given the same right to complain about the way in which complaints systems operated by health service bodies have treated them, in the interest of equity. Employees of health service bodies would, by virtue of the provisions in clause 5, normally need to invoke and exhaust established grievance procedures for dealing with such complaints before the ombudsman could investigate.

Clause 9 abolishes the requirement that a health service body should be given an opportunity to investigate a complaint. This is overtaken by the provisions in clause 5 about the exhaustion of the NHS complaints procedures.

Clause 10 requires a commissioner to send a report of an investigation to the health service body which is the relevant one when the report is made. This is simply a tidying-up measure to take account of the fact that health service bodies can be reconfigured during the period of an investigation.

Clause 10 also fulfils the Government's commitment to legislate on certain recommendations about reports made by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. It removes the requirement to inform the relevant health service body where the commissioner decides not to investigate a complaint, and requires the commissioner to lay special reports and annual and other reports on the performance of his functions directly before Parliament, rather than via the Secretary of State, thus enhancing the direct link between the commissioner and Parliament and, in particular, the House.

Clause 11 extends the exemption from giving evidence in proceedings to a commissioner's advisers. That is necessary because of the greater need to obtain advice from external advisers once the commissioner's remit is extended to include clinical judgment. The clause also allows a commissioner, at his discretion, to disclose information—this is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) made in relation to an earlier clause—to the appropriate regulatory or health service body or employer where he considers it necessary for the protection of the health and safety of patients.

At present, the commissioner is somewhat in the position of a confessor. Any information that he discovers during an investigation may not be passed to any person other than for the purposes of the investigation and any report of it, or for certain other very limited purposes. Therefore, if, during an investigation the commissioner discovers information that does not fall to be disclosed for those purposes, but indicates that a person constitutes a threat to the health or safety of patients—for instance, on grounds of health or conduct—he may not disclose it to any person outside his own office. Clause 11 corrects that defect in the 1993 Act. In the interest of natural justice, the clause requires the commissioner to inform any person about whom he discloses such information.

Clause 12 makes financial provision for the Bill. The Bill's provisions would increase expenditure by the health service commissioner's office under the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993. The cost of this is to be met by transfer from the relevant votes of the Department of Health and the Welsh and Scottish Offices. The costs arising from the Bill will be met from existing resources.

The Minister says that the additional costs arising from the Bill in relation to the health service commissioner will be £5 million in the first year, rising to £6.5 million the following year. Taken as a whole, this change to the NHS complaints system will clearly have considerable costs across the system beyond those occasioned by the new role for the health service commissioner. Could the Minister say how large those costs will be and why they are going to be taken only from existing resources?

The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware from previous discussions in the House about the Wilson report that the view is that, once the Bill is implemented, it will, over time, be cost neutral. When it is implemented effectively, it will reduce the complexity of the diverse complaints systems in the health service. That will be very much a saving. He will understand that we have a whole family of complaints systems, which are frequently difficult to administer. take substantial time and often result in people taking complaints through all stages in the process because they do not get satisfaction. We are replacing that system with a more streamlined, single system which will serve the whole national health service.

I take this opportunity to set it on record that I hope that the Bill will result in far more complaints being resolved quickly within the body that is responsible for dealing with the complaint so that fewer complaints are passed up the system to the second tier and, eventually, to the ombudsman. That is the purpose of the Bill and the assessment is that, should the system he implemented in the way that we foresee, over time it will he cost neutral—and a better system, too.

The Bill is part and parcel of our reforms to the way in which complaints are handled throughout the NHS. It will, as I have said, improve the efficiency of the way in which we handle complaints and enable health care providers to learn valuable lessons from investigating complaints and so improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services generally.

Clauses 13 and 14 deal with repeals and commencement. Clauses 15 and 16 deal with the extent of the Bill and citation.

There are two schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 deals with amendments to the 1993 Act, which are supplementary and consequential to the main provisions of the Bill on family health service and independent providers. Schedule 2 sets out the repeals to the 1993 Act provided for in the Bill.

I shall briefly outline the main provisions of schedule 1. Paragraph 2 enables the commissioner to investigate contractual or commercial transactions that relate to the purchase of services for NHS patients from independent providers by GP fundholders, who are newly brought under the commissioner's jurisdiction as family health service providers. That is simply a logical extension of the powers that the commissioner previously enjoyed in other areas. In addition, paragraph 2 excludes from the commissioner's jurisdiction complaints arising from disputes between family health service providers and health authorities or health boards about the arrangements made between them for the provision of family health services.

Paragraph 3 of schedule 1 provides for family health service or independent providers, or those working for them, to be given an opportunity to comment on any allegations in a complaint and ensures that family health service and independent providers are able to take action, such as disciplinary action, against a member of staff in relation to matters under investigation. In essence, it means that, when a complaint is made, other possible lines of redress will not close down while it is being dealt with.

Paragraph 4 extends the commissioner's powers to require information and documents to be supplied to cover the investigation of complaints about family health service and independent providers.

Paragraph 5 makes provision for reports about the investigation of complaints about family health service and independent providers closely following the existing provisions for complaints about health service bodies. Paragraph 7 adds family health service providers to the list of those who are ineligible for appointment as a commissioner.

I make no apology for going through the measures in the Bill in some technical detail because, although it is uncontroversial, it is fairly complex in its way. I have tried to give a thorough and businesslike review of the Bill's detailed provisions. It is an important measure and one which I have great pleasure in bringing to the House.

It is also a fitting occasion for us to set on record our appreciation of the work done by the health service commissioner and to look forward to the extension of his role. It is a role that will be brought to hear for the benefit of the patients. I believe that the measured way in which the Bill is drafted will be found to be for the benefit of not only patients but all who work in the service.

4.55 pm

I acknowledge the Minister's comments about the health service commissioner, Mr. Reid. The House will agree that the work that has been done so far has been excellent. He retains independence and impartiality. I hope that, as the Minister suggested, the new powers will be used with the same wisdom as were the previous powers.

It is important to state at the outset that we welcome the Bill. We embrace its principles and support its ideas but we believe that it can be strengthened in Committee. We shall wait for it to go into Committee before discussing strengthening measures.

While I praise the health service commissioner, it is also important to quote his words from his third annual report, for 1994-95, in which he states:

"aspirations about more effective complaints handling are hot air. They need now to be matched by performance."
While progress has been made, the Government would agree that we could make more progress. Clearly, the commissioner shares that aspiration.

It is also right to pinpoint the fact that this is all about complaints procedure and the rights of patients. It is also about a service that needs to be responsive, accessible and, as the Minister rightly said, accountable. It is important to stress that we owe it to the professionals in the service to have a fair system. Part of any complaints procedure is the worries, fears and concerns that professionals have, especially if investigations take place over a lengthy period. For all those reasons, this is an important debate.

The Bill builds on the Medical (Professional Performance) Act 1995 which, in its way, extended the competencies of the General Medical Council into new areas of performance. That is in the patient's interest. The Bill complements the 1995 Act and goes a great deal further in terms of complaints procedure.

I endorse the Minister's comments about the new procedures that will be implemented in April 1996. I share the concerns of some people that the timetable may be too tight, but we need ambitious timetables if we are to make progress. Obviously, the Government will want to implement the measures with sensitivity and take on board some of the criticisms made by some health groups. The two-stage process, which will be complemented by the new work of the health service commissioner, will help the whole process. There is nothing better than a set of procedures that gain the confidence of patients and professionals and, at the end of the day, improve what is now an important part of the changing face of the health service.

The Minister also pinpointed the important areas into which the jurisdiction of the commissioner has been extended. We welcome the measures on clinical judgment. That is an important development. From the comments so far by the commissioner and others, including the British Medical Association, that will have to be approached very cautiously indeed because while huge sensitivities govern the activities of professionals, there is a great number of complaints about clinical judgment.

We welcome the fact that the commissioner's jurisdiction has been extended to family health service practitioners, whether GPs, dentists, pharmacists or optometrists. That is important and brings consistency to the application of his work. The fact that the commissioner's jurisdiction will be extended formally to independent providers is also important. As the amount of money flowing into the private sector increases, it is vital that NHS patients using private sector facilities are covered by the ombudsman. We shall look into that in much more detail in Committee and explore how it will work. The proposals build on the three-step complaints procedure, but the first two steps do not exist with private health care. If NHS patients are to be part of that process, we must ensure that we know what is happening in private hospitals. Vital public resources now go into those hospitals through the Government's reforms and it is crucial that we understand what is happening.

The Minister rightly pointed out that these proposals are built on some substantial reports, including those of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Wilson review, which started in 1993 and has come up with proposals for a two-stage complaints procedure to begin in 1996. That review flags up the new powers that have been given to the commissioner.

The BMA and others feel that it is important for the ombudsman to deal with the question of clinical judgment and they have expressed a number of genuine concerns. Labour Committee members are concerned about inconsistency in the jurisdictions. In terms of maladministration, the merits of a decision taken in this process cannot be the subject of an investigation but, in terms of clinical judgment, that concern is waived and the commissioner can look at process and clinical judgment.

The Minister nods. We may want to see whether the commissioner's responsibilities could be extended fairly and squarely to administration and clinical judgment.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the Bill, on which there is cross-party unity in principle.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point, he will be interested to read the paper published by the commissioner, which runs to some 70 paragraphs and sets out in detail how he proposes to tackle those matters. That paper will form part of the debate in Committee, as it sets out most of the commissioner's thinking.

The Minister makes a fair point. We shall read the paper with interest, and will make a stab at reading it all before Committee stage. There must be consistency in any extension of jurisdiction and I shall read the commissioner's comments.

May I deal with the first two stages of the complaints procedure? Stage 2 of the new procedure has an interface with the commissioner's role. The public, as patients and family representatives, are concerned about impartiality. At stage 2 of the complaints procedure, a non-executive director of a trust, for example, will be instrumental in screening a complaint to decide whether a panel should be set up to investigate it further. Although the commissioner will expect normal procedures to have been exhausted before he enters the frame, he has the ability to override those and enter the complaints procedure at an earlier stage. The Minister can ensure that public fears about partiality are allayed by going beyond having a non-executive director of a trust, for instance, as the key person who screens a complaint and decides whether it should go further. He must clear up any confusion that might arise if the commissioner decides to enter early into the complaints procedure rather than wait until all normal procedures have been exhausted. Clarity is the issue and I hope that the Minister who winds up will deal with that point.

The private sector's inclusion in the complaints procedure is an interesting development. We agree that there should be fairness throughout the system in relation to NHS patients. I imagine that, apart from a tiny minority of people, complainants will be NHS patients. Are we to believe, then, that the commissioner will have jurisdiction over those NHS patients? Whether they are treated in a private hospital through private health care insurance or because they have been referred by a fundholder or district health authority, they should be covered by the health service commissioner's extended jurisdiction. It would be a fundamental change if everyone were included in that extension. I hope that the Minister, who is writing feverishly, is responding at least mentally to my comments.

The complaints procedure in the NHS is a three-step process but, in private provision, two of those steps do not exist. In Committee, we shall seek to find out how complaints are processed in the private sector. There is an important interface between private sector patients and patients referred to private hospitals by the national health service. If the Minister's assurance that NHS patients will be covered by this measure is to be taken at face value, will he assure us that virtually everyone in Britain with access to independent provision will be covered? Will the Minister clarify that point when he winds up?

We must ensure that there is no confusion in terms of the patients charter and targets for accident and emergency and ambulance provision. Some people say that the new system should clarify current procedures, be effective and provide quality and fairness. Given the interface between the new procedures, we must avoid problems with existing Government targets and standards.

Professionals in any walk of life find change difficult to accept. Those in the national health service are no different. Any complaints procedure must generate trust and confidence and, at this stage in the development of the NHS, transparency is vital. Constituents who complain to me about the health service are often as concerned about the process and how they are treated as they are about the issue about which they wish to complain. That shows that, within any organisation, the culture is crucial. As the Government move towards implementing the new proposals, including extending the commissioner's jurisdiction, the issues of trust, confidence, transparency and accountability will become front-line issues for the public. We want to avoid confusion and delay, and the commissioner is concerned about the time that inquiries take. It is therefore important that we look closely at that matter.

As we have argued before, any procedure must he about quality. People will never be 100 per cent. satisfied and the rising volume of complaints within the NHS shows that we shall not satisfy huge numbers of people. Ultimately, the system must he not only fair in its application but seen to be fair. The commissioner, Mr. Reid, made a vital comment when he said, in an important paragraph:

"The best way to deal with a complaint is to handle it quickly, politely and effectively at local level."
The Minister said that earlier, and I endorse that. Mr. Reid continued:

"I would be the first to applaud if the new complaints procedures reduced the number of complaints which had to come to my office. The effective involvement of lay persons as well as professionals in complaints arrangements locally should generate greater confidence in the objectivity and rigour of an internal investigation. It will help if staff in all professions look upon complaints not as a personal affront but as a valuable contribution to audit and to the improvement of service."
That paragraph contains several thoughts. First, Mr. Reid wants problems to be dealt with locally and effectively solved. That is what we should like. Secondly, he emphasises the crucial fact that, in a complaints procedure, people should be treated with civility and politeness. Far too often, the way in which people are treated is what generates aggravation, and that is often unnecessary.

I know that the Government and the Opposition cannot build that consideration into the culture of the NHS from the centre. Professionals owe it to patients to act with their best judgment, but it requires a commitment from Government to ensure that the complaints procedure is properly resourced and is applied consistently throughout the country. That will inform the confidence of professionals, which in turn will help the patient.

Last year, 90,000 people decided to write about their treatment in the national health service. Complaints to the commissioner have increased by nearly 28 per cent. in one year, to 1,782. Unfortunately, we are on a rising curve of complaints in the service. As the commissioner said, that does not necessarily mean that there are more problems in the national health service; it may mean that more people are aware that they can complain. That strikes at the heart of another consideration—the size of the NHS, and the need, in such a large organisation, for access points so that people may use the service complaints procedure.

The system should be simple for people to use. People need to know that their concerns will be treated sensibly by the professionals involved. However, one of the problems that the Government's reforms in procedures might involve is the issue of how the managers police the professionals in the NHS.

I return to the stage 2 process, identified earlier. I hope that the Minister accepts that it cannot be right to leave it entirely to a non-executive director of the NHS, in the instance that I quoted, to decide whether someone's complaint goes further than it currently does. Independent observers, community health councils and consumer councils are aware of the sensitivities in the NHS, but they want their fears allayed. The concerns of patients must be treated with the utmost seriousness. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, will be able to tell us that in Committee we may consider widening that stage 2 process, because it interfaces directly with the commissioner's role.

That leads me to the question of what role the community health councils will play in the procedure. In a system that will have been significantly changed, we shall need organisations with an advocacy role; organisations that are able to advise independently and, at each local level, organisations that can monitor objectively and feed that information back into the system for the benefit of all.

A readily accessible, understanding system is required. Without mentioning the community health councils, it seems to me that the Government have a vehicle that might be substantially improved in relation to the patient complaints procedure. I hope that, in Committee, we shall be able to consider ways in which those organisations might be better deployed in the process.

I have mentioned the perception of fairness. We all have a heavy responsibility to ensure that people consider the system to be fair. I believe that, in Committee, we must carefully consider ways in which to achieve a balance. I reiterate that we want to protect professionals, but the system must be transparent and accountable. It is crucial for patients to be able to obtain redress if the treatment is not what they believe that it should be.

An issue that affects the complaints procedure is the increasing fragmentation of the national health service. In some respects there has been no particular acrimony in the debate, and I do not intend to start any on that issue.

My comments do not cover some of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), and that is healthy for democracy.

The increasing fragmentation of the NHS makes it more vital that complaints processes are simple and effective. Many organisations are worried about the uncertainty created by the reforms. The fact that more confusion and uncertainty exist, and that more paper is being pushed around than previously, does not help us to create a simplified complaints procedure.

I urge the Government to be aware, when we speak about resourcing those changes without extra funding, that obviously the funding will come from somewhere. It is important for the Government to remember that we cannot proceed with substantial reforms in complaints procedures without adequate resourcing, adequate energy and adequate commitment from the Government. Those are vital. That does not require a specific answer, but the Government must acknowledge the problems that lie ahead.

The other crucial issue is consistency throughout the country. The commissioner made some comments about the way in which complaints are handled throughout the regions. In the Health Service Journal on 13 April 1995, he was interviewed by a Mr. Matthew Limb, who says:

"One area Mr. Reid has earmarked for further investigation is what he calls the 'mystifying variety' in complaints handling from region to region …
In the former Oxford region in 1993-94, for example, there was only one formal investigation from a total of 4,268 complaints.
By contrast, in the former North Western region, which received 5.338 complaints, there were 66 independent committee inquiries.
Mr. Reid accepts that the discrepancies are 'very remarkable'… 'How they had exercised that discretion is not always explained and that is unsatisfactory,' he says."
The Government should be aware, not only that there is a general issue of a new complaints procedure and access to it, but that certain authorities are not doing as well as others in achieving effective outcomes of the complaints procedure. The systems may differ widely, and that must be acknowledged, but, wherever people live, they should have the same access to a fair system, regardless of the circumstances of the local health service. The Government should take that issue seriously.

I accepted, and I believe I agreed with the Minister, that the time scale is ambitious. However, we must ensure that we get it right. I welcome the fact that the commissioner has published that information document on what he will do, but the implementation of his proposals will probably coincide, in April 1996, with implementation of the wider complaints procedure. I urge the Minister not to dismiss some of the criticisms that are being made. He should keep on trying, but ensure that every possible area is explored, so that the complaints procedure, when introduced, serves the purposes that it is intended to serve.

My final comments are about my experience as a local Member of Parliament. I am sure that the Minister has shared that. Tragically, when a Member of Parliament receives complaints from constituents, it is often at the most sensitive time for any family. It may involve a death or serious accident. It may be a minor affair, but nevertheless it generates real passions—strong feelings in families, and often patients. Communication matters at such a time. Every professional must be able to communicate to patients what is going on.

If communication were qualitatively improved, it would prevent many complaints reaching a Member of Parliament's office, a complaints procedure or the ombudsman. I do not know how that may be achieved, but we should send a loud message from the House to everyone involved in the process that, in spite of the pressures under which they may operate, those are human beings whom we are dealing with. Sensitivity is critical in any service but, as I tell my constituents, it is a two-way process. Things are said in the heat of passion or bereavement, but professionals are human as well. We can legislate all we want, but unless patients and professionals have a common goal, the system cannot succeed. Self-regulation carries a tremendous responsibility. Independent advice is needed, but we also want the whole process to be successful. If there is good will, a commitment by Government and understanding on the part of professionals, the new process can work.

I look forward to the Committee stage. I hope and believe that we can improve the Bill. If the Opposition have been generous this evening in embracing the Bill, I hope that the Minister will be equally generous in Committee in confronting and accepting common sense and logic.

5.20 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) on many of his points. He was particularly right to emphasise the importance of communication. In many cases that came before the Select Committee, poor communication was the essence of the complaint. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to "Gardener's Question Time". For a moment, I thought that a significant concession had been made to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner), and that his robust views on Europe had at last been recognised by the granting of his own question time. I was disappointed to realise that my hon. Friend's reference was to a radio programme, which I thought had been transferred to Classic FM.

My hon. Friend the Minister made a thoughtful speech. If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Committee, I will look forward to developing many of the themes that my hon. Friend outlined.

I welcome the Bill, which is in many ways a tribute to the hard work of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. The Committee's recommendations have overwhelmingly been accepted and are incorporated in the Bill. The Committee is playing an increasingly important role in the national health service and in the resolution of complaints. I am pleased that several members of the Select Committee are present, and I have no doubt that we shall hear from them. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for Fife, Central say that the Bill will enjoy the support of Labour Members. I believe that it will have the support of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House.

My hon. Friend referred to communication and the work of the Select Committee. Does he agree that the Committee sees some of the worst cases that come before the Parliamentary Commissioner—some of which represent the most appalling treatment of extremely sick and sometimes elderly people in hospital through maladministration or mismanagement? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good thing if more people knew of their right of complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner and that everyone who works in the health service knew of that right? That might produce improvements, which would avoid dreadful cases coming before the Select Committee.

The House will understand why my hon. Friend makes such an outstanding contribution to the Select Committee's work. He is right in all that he says. It is necessary for more members of the public to understand the complaints machinery. I endorse my hon. Friend's points.

The post of health service commissioner was established in 1973, and it is held by the person who is also the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—a case of two commissioners in one body. The Bill's background is the existing NHS procedure, which the Committee believes is

"designed for the convenience of the providers of the service rather than that of complainants."
The citizens charter task force stated:

"Complaints systems should be simple to understand and use … Procedures, where possible, should be consistent across different parts of an organisation and should cover the whole organisation."
The Select Committee argued that the NHS

"falls woefully short of that standard."
The patients charter maintains:

"Patients must always come first."
The charter has heightened expectations that may not always be realised. The public do not always get that which they have a right to expect. The Select Committee noted long delays in dealing with complaints, grudging apologies and general inadequacies that take a great deal of overcoming. Complaints are a benchmark of service that often identify poorly trained staff or bad management. Complaints can and should improve service, and there ought to be changes to the philosophy of protecting one's own. From that reality of the NHS complaints procedure. the Select Committee and Professor Wilson recommended a comprehensive complaints system. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, that will be introduced in April next year.

The health service commissioner is established as the independent appeal mechanism above the health service's internal system. The commissioner's reports do much to improve and validate the internal system. In 1994-95, 91 per cent. of complaints to the commissioner were upheld. Even today the Select Committee still finds evidence of gross delays and failures in handling complaints—that, after procedures were introduced in line with the patients charter. The Bill will do much to improve complaints handling.

Currently, the commissioner can investigate complaints where he feels that maladministration has occurred and the complaint falls within his jurisdiction. As we heard this afternoon, that is unsatisfactory because many areas of the health service cannot be subject to the ombudsman's scrutiny as they are outside his jurisdiction. The Bill remedies that defect and represents a major step forward in the treatment of NHS complaints.

Clauses 1 and 2 add family health providers to the commissioner's jurisdiction. They include general practitioners, community dentists, opticians and pharmacists. The Select Committee maintains:

"The current exclusions deprive the public of a right considered necessary in all other sections of the NHS. We believe this should be changed."
That important and far-reaching recommendation was endorsed by the Wilson report on NHS complaints procedures. The principal contact that most of the public have with the health service is through their GP, dentist or optician. It seems strange that those have so long been outside the ombudsman's reach. My only concern about their inclusion, which may be shared by some of my hon. Friends, is the great and rapid expansion in the number of complaints that are likely to reach the commissioner. When the public discover their new and necessary right, there will be a flood of complaints. In the early days, they may not be dealt with as expeditiously as we would wish. I will return to that warning note later.

The Bill also enables the ombudsman to investigate complaints about family health services, their staff or those who have been given delegated powers. As with all complaints, the complainant should first exhaust the new NHS complaints procedure.

The second, and perhaps the most controversial area to be added to the commissioner's jurisdiction, is action resulting from the exercise of clinical judgment by doctors and other health professionals, when they provide services in or for the national health service. The Select Committee is convinced that a lay element must be introduced into any clinical complaints procedure. That will certainly help to convince members of the public that the procedure is both fair and impartial.

Doubtless, the Standing Committee that considers the Bill will wish to decide how those lay members will be appointed, and what their qualifications should be. I believe that this will be a key matter and that the lay members will have an important role. I believe, therefore, that such appointments should be carefully considered.

The ombudsman has powers to obtain advice from any person who is appropriately qualified, and who will assist him in his investigations. That is particularly important in matters relating to clinical judgment, when the medical evidence may be very technical and more controversial than is usual. Those giving such advice can be paid fees or allowances as determined by the ombudsman, but by agreement with the Treasury. I hope that the Treasury will be forthcoming, because when the ombudsman's powers are widened, as envisaged in the Bill, that professional advice will be an absolute necessity.

I repeat that I am concerned about the impact that the Bill will have on the commissioner's work load. From my constituency experience, I know how many people come to my surgery or write to me to express their concern about their GP, or the way in which they—or, more usually, a relative—were treated in hospital. The Wilson committee urged the introduction of clinical judgment to the health service commissioner's remit, and when the Select Committee referred to the issue in the sixth report of Session 1993-94, it concluded that the extension was necessary.

An important by-product of the reforms may he a reduction in medico-legal cases. I believe that the public will soon come to realise that justice can be found more easily, and certainly more cheaply, by having recourse to the ombudsman than by going to the courts.

The changes contained in the Bill will have enormous implications for the NHS. Complaints about NHS care, wherever it is delivered, will become potentially subject to the scrutiny of an independent and impartial ombudsman. That constitutes both a major and a beneficial change.

I have little doubt that the two reforms will bring great changes, both to the work load and to the office of the health service commissioner. The reforms will improve the NHS, because complaints are "jewels to be treasured", as one witness said when examined by the Select Committee. I suspect that those two measures will uncover, if not a king's ransom in jewellery, certainly that of a duchess. [Interruption.] As ever, my hon. Friend the Minister shows the speed of his wit.

We should remember that, in the majority of cases, the ombudsman will not investigate complaints until the health service's procedures have been completed by the complainant. Incidentally, NHS staff may use the complaints machinery if they believe that they have suffered injustice as a result of the procedures operated by health service bodies.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said earlier, the commissioner can pass information arising from his investigations to appropriate regulatory authorities. This should mean, for example, that when a doctor or a surgeon has an infectious disease, that information can be given to a professional body or to his employers. The reason for this is that the infected person is likely to constitute a threat to the health and safety of patients. In all such cases, the ombudsman has a duty to inform the relevant person that such information has been passed to a third party.

All the proposals will significantly change the office of the health service commissioner, and will, as I have mentioned, substantially add to his work load. According to the explanatory memorandum, the cost of the changes will he about £5 million in the first year, rising to £6.5 million, in real terms, in subsequent years. That seems to me to be a relatively small amount for the enormous burden of work that I believe will result. I hope that that sum will prove adequate for the reforms, which are the most radical since the office of commissioner was established in 1973. I am sure that the Select Committee will keep a watchful eye on finances, because it is not a job that anyone should try to do on the cheap if public confidence in the commissioner is to be maintained.

My hon. Friend has raised the point that the population as a whole has a high level of trust in the health service commissioner, as opposed to any internal inquiry, however honourable. In those circumstances, it is important, as the Bill spells out, that there should be the opportunity to take further action after an internal inquiry. The essence of the Bill is very democratic and therefore it should not be underfunded. Sacrifices should be made in other directions rather than underfunding the health service commissioner.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am sure that the House and the Standing Committee will take careful note of what he has said. The Select Committee, some months ago, took evidence from one of the Warwickshire health authorities about a case from his constituency, so my hon. Friend is knowledgeable about those matters.

The Bill suggests that approximately 130 or 140 extra posts will be required to discharge the new duties. That explosion of new staff will pose a challenge to the ombudsman. Certain of those posts will be filled by medical staff able to provide advice on complaints relating to hospital specialities and, separately, on general medical services. My predecessor, Sir Anthony Buck, when he was Chairman, used to remind the Committee that justice deferred is justice denied. Therefore, it is essential that the new staff are trained as quickly as possible to deal with the expected avalanche of cases. The training must be thorough and comprehensive, as I believe the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) mentioned.

The need for new staff to come on stream quickly is underlined by the fact that, in 1994-95, the time taken to complete an investigation was almost 60 weeks—a figure that compares unfavourably with 45 weeks in 1991-92. The principal reason for that increase in investigation time was the growth in the number of cases received by the commissioner's office. The number went up from 1,112 in 1989-90 to 2,226 in 1994-95. If, as a result of the reforms, the number of complaints increases to the degree that I envisage, that will substantially increase the work load of the ombudsman's office.

I was pleased that other recommendations made by the Select Committee have been accepted. For example, the commissioner will now present his reports direct to Parliament, rather than to the Secretary of State for Health. That will help to underline the commissioner's total independence from Government.

I would be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend, who is one of the hardest-working members of the Select Committee. I would welcome his contribution.

My hon. Friend is too kind. Does he agree that the Select Committee, as well as the Standing Committee which will consider the Bill, should he only too well aware and sensitive of the extra time that will be involved when the clinical element is included in the investigative work of the health commissioner?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. The Select Committee will keep a watchful eye on the time involved, and I hope that the Standing Committee will also give some consideration to it.

Currently, the Select Committee uses the reports of the ombudsman as the basis for its work. That procedure will continue. The Committee may well decide to take evidence from, for example. the family health services or indeed other independent providers where they provide services under arrangements made with various health authorities.

The ombudsman and the Select Committee are moving into uncharted waters with the two additions to existing powers. The specialised areas involved are likely to be highly technical and complicated, and they will require a careful introduction—the very point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves). I am pleased and reassured that Mr. William Reid, the current ombudsman, will be overseeing matters. He is careful, prudent and knowledgeable and has acquired enormous expertise in the administration of his high office. Those qualities will be needed to the full when the Bill is enacted. The avalanche of work that I foresee may, at first, be slow in coming, but come it will.

I acknowledge that resources have always been adequate for the efficient discharge of the ombudsman's duties. He has not had cause to complain about them. The reforms are designed to provide a comprehensive complaints procedure for the NHS in order to make it work even better and to give an improved and more reliable service to patients. Those are high ideals. I recommend the Bill to the House.

5.42 pm

I am conscious of the Christmas spirit in the Chamber, so I do not want to be unduly critical of the Bill.

I welcome the broad ideas behind the Bill. My particular concern—I am sorry that the Minister left the Chamber as soon as I stood up—relates to the tact that I do not believe that the Bill addresses some of the weaknesses in what the Government have termed as stages l and 2 of the complaints procedure. I hope that the dialogue in Standing Committee will cover some of the wider points that have not been picked up by Conservative Members who have spoken in the debate.

In a debate on the role of the health service commissioner, it is particularly important to consider the implications of the changes to the health service as a result of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990. That Act fundamentally changed the procedures that must be followed by individuals who wish to complain about their treatment by the NHS.

Although the Bill relates to complaints, I should like to put it on record that, despite what the Government have done to the NHS—I am as critical as anyone else of their changes—the vast majority of people in my area receive a reasonably decent response from it. Today, I do not want to appear critical of those who try to give a reasonable service—GPs, nurses, hospital doctors, consultants or whoever.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, generally, we all get an extremely good service from the NHS. About six weeks ago, I was taken to the accident and emergency department of the hon. Gentleman's local hospital on a Sunday evening after an accident, and I received excellent care. I received it not, as the hon. Gentleman might think, because of who I am—no one knew who I was; I was just another casualty brought in on a Sunday evening.

My worry is that the hon. Lady might not have had such good service had the hospital known who she was.

We need to evaluate stages 1 and 2 of the complaints process before we consider in detail what is contained in the Bill. I was struck that the Minister used the word "maze" when describing what the public face when they want to make a complaint. As a result of the changes—or the reforms, as the Government describe them—in the NHS as a result of the 1990 Act, the simple fact is that the public are baffled about where they should go when they have a complaint about the NHS.

In my area, we have a community health trust and a community health council. If I were a betting man, I would wager that 99 per cent. of the local people do not know the difference between that trust and the council. They must understand those subtle differences, however, if they wish to make a complaint of whatever nature about the NHS. The purchaser-provider split introduced under the 1990 Act has confused vast numbers of people about who is responsible for what when they want to make a complaint.

As an example of such confusion, I should like to cite the case of a young lady in her late 20s, who came to see me in September. She had a complaint about the circumstances that led up to the surgical removal of her right breast. I felt that that young lady had a justified, serious complaint about the manner in which she had been treated by various elements of the NHS. Her complaint related to the role of the GP, and his initial diagnosis, when she consulted him about a lump in her right breast. Her complaint also related to the role and diagnosis of the hospital consultant; the seven-week delay before she was given a mammogram; and the delay before she received surgery for a serious condition. She also had cause to complain about the lack of proper follow-up arrangements provided by the community health trust, which is responsible for the provision of district nursing services, on her discharge home.

In the circumstances, and given the involvement of different elements of the new NHS, I thought it was appropriate to write one letter to the purchaser of the services. I expected to receive some assurance that a proper investigation would be carried out. I wrote to the purchaser and set out the young lady's complaints in detail.

In reply, the health authority said that it assumed that I had made representations to the various other elements of the NHS involved. That meant that I had to write separate letters to the hospital trust responsible for the treatment at hospital; the health authority about the role of the GP— the authority now undertakes the role of the family health services authority; and the community health trust concerning the lack of follow-up district nursing services. The letters were sent and the health authority advised me that the lady was out of time in lodging a complaint against her general practitioner because the normal limit of 13 weeks had been exceeded.

The woman had consulted her doctor in 1993. By the time that the process had been completed, there was talk of an operation in September 1994. She was excluded from making a complaint against her GP, because of the time taken by hospital diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Surely that was profoundly unfair. I make no judgment on whether the GP was right or wrong, because that is not my role. I am not an expert clinician. At face value, however, I feel that the woman had reasonable grounds for concern about the way in which she had been treated.

I do not know whether the Government have considered the impact of the internal market within the health service on the work load of Members. Having been in this place since 1987, I have seen a marked increase in the work that I have to undertake in dealing with complaints about the national health service. I could make a political point, and say that my increased work load is the result of the internal market. It is clear that it has more than duplicated the agencies to which we have to write as Members to establish on behalf of our constituents whether they have had proper treatment within the NHS.

In the case to which I referred, I had to write two letters to the district health authority, one to the community health council, one to the hospital trust and one to the community trust. I wrote five letters on the back of one specific complaint. In addition, there was correspondence with the constituent and her solicitor.

I have had experience of similar cases where the local authority has been involved. In some of those cases, there has been the issue of community care—in other words, a person has been discharged into the community, and the social services have been involved. The Government must be aware that the complaints procedures arising from the implementation of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 have resulted in a huge amount of additional work. That would be unnecessary if we introduced a clearer and more sensible local NHS complaints system.

I, too, have noticed a huge increase in the NHS work load that results from my mailbag. I am sure that other hon. Members have shared the same experience.

I return to the difficulties that were experienced by the hon. Gentleman's constituent as a result of a mammogram. A close member of my family went through the same experience slightly more than a year and a half ago. There were exactly the same problems. It is my impression, however, that the Bill will enable the commissioner to examine the sequence of events from beginning to end, and to investigate it thoroughly and properly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker
(Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)