On 20 July 2009, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) announced the outcome of the joint Department of Health and UK Border Agency review of the rules on overseas visitors’ access to the national health service in England, and the Government’s intention to consult publicly on the change proposals. Today, on her behalf, I am fulfilling that commitment by launching the consultation.
The proposals in the consultation strike a balance between public health needs, managing migration and upholding humanitarian principles, ensuring that we continue to deliver high quality care to all those with a legal right to it while protecting our NHS from those who would take advantage of it.
The consultation includes proposals to increase the time that UK residents can regularly stay outside the UK before losing automatic entitlement to free NHS hospital care, and to protect unaccompanied children who arrive in the UK. We propose to exempt from charges failed asylum seekers who are co-operating with, and are supported by, the UK Border Agency prior to returning to their own country, but to charge all other failed asylum seekers.
In my hon. Friend’s earlier statement, Official Report, column 97WS, she said that the Government were attracted to the principle that some visitors should be required to pay for their NHS treatment through personal health insurance, as is already the case in some other countries. Although developing a scheme that is fair and effective will be challenging, we are determined to take this forward. We will now seek views on the merits and feasibility of key principles and mechanisms for making this work, which have the potential both to increase the income that the NHS receives from overseas visitors, and to act as a deterrent to those seeking to abuse the NHS.
We have also taken the opportunity to consolidate the current regulations that underpin the policy on the charging of visitors, and to improve the supporting guidance that we provide for the NHS. Neither of these updates reflects any change in entitlements or operating practices, but they are provided in draft form for people to examine and comment on prior to them being launched.
The Minister of State for Borders and Immigration is today also launching a consultation on the proposal to refuse entry to the UK to those who have significant outstanding debts for NHS treatment. This will help the NHS to recover debts and discourage further those visitors who travel to the UK to seek treatment without paying.
The period for responding to the consultation will run until 30 June 2010. I have placed the consultation document in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote office.