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NHS (Foreign Nationals)

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2012

Thank you, Mr Streeter, for calling me to speak. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship.

I very much appreciate having the opportunity to speak on the issue of foreign nationals’ use of the NHS today. I know that it is of concern to all Members of the House, regardless of political party, because for many of us it is a huge issue for our constituents, who are genuinely concerned about the NHS, which is free at the point of use.

Obviously, the constituents I speak to accept that we should never turn away at the door anybody who is in genuine need, whether they are asylum seekers or not. Obviously, there are big public health issues and I welcome the fact that the Government have extended HIV treatment to those people in need regardless of nationality, because that will benefit the whole of our society. However, we cannot get away from the fact that there is a large issue, and one that is growing, regarding the use of NHS facilities by foreign nationals who are ineligible for free care.

As a member of the Health Committee, I am particularly concerned about this issue and I have put down several parliamentary questions, dating back to last year. The Government responded that roughly £35 million had been written off by hospital trusts, in terms of debts that had been accrued by foreign nationals and that had neither been paid back nor claimed back. The trusts involved did not include foundation trusts, so I made a freedom of information request of all trusts across the country. The data that I received back from the 118 NHS trusts that replied to me showed that just over £40 million of debt accrued by foreign nationals had been written off.

Those data also showed that there is a huge variation in relation to the collection of debt accrued by foreign nationals. The highest figure for such debt was for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, which had written off almost £6 million of such debt since 2004. My own local trust, North Bristol NHS Trust, had written off £1.7 million of such debt. The data showed that some trusts were acting contrary to the regulations and the current guidance, which

“place a legal obligation on the trust providing treatment to identify those patients who are not ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom; establish if they are exempt from charges by virtue of the Charging Regulations; and, if they are not exempt, make and recover a charge from them to cover the full cost of their treatment.”

That is what trusts should be doing when foreign nationals who are ineligible for free care come through their doors. However, it was clear from the information that I received in response to my FOI request that many trusts were not even collecting those data, which is contrary to the guidance. Of those trusts that were collecting the data, some had gone back to 2000 to collect them and some had gone back to 2004. There was a large variation in the data that cannot simply be explained by the fact that some trusts were more willing than others to claim back the debt that they were owed from foreign nationals.

There is anecdotal evidence, too. I have heard from some Members who wanted to be in Westminster Hall today for this debate but were unable to make it, and they asked me to raise some issues. In particular, one MP had a constituent who had come to them regarding an American visitor who was staying with them. During their holiday, the American visitor became ill and attended NHS facilities for treatment. They then contacted their medical insurer in the US, which suggested that they provide proof of the cost of their treatment; the American visitor would need a receipt from the NHS, so that they could claim back the money from their medical insurer. However, when they contacted the trust in question, they were told that no such receipt was available and the trust itself had not collected the data about the nature and cost of their treatment, even though this visitor was a foreign national and ineligible for free NHS care, and actually wanted to pay the bill because they were very grateful for the fantastic treatment that they had received. Consequently, a receipt could not be provided.

So there are examples of how trusts are clearly not following the guidance and collecting NHS debt from foreign nationals. It is particularly worrying that a 2008 survey of NHS managers suggested that a third of them did not even bother to ask patients whether they were eligible for free treatment when they arrived at hospital.

Is the hon. Gentleman now talking about those foreign nationals who arrive here specifically to receive treatment, or those foreign nationals who come here as visitors, become ill and are then unable—for whatever reason—to pay for their treatment? We must not mix the foreign nationals with political asylum seekers, overstayers and others who, for whatever reason, live here for many years but are not eligible to receive NHS treatment. Is the hon. Gentleman mixing those two groups, or separating them?

No, I am certainly not mixing them and I will come to the issue of eligibility that is defined around the term “ordinarily resident”. I want to talk about that in terms of the historic issues that determine whether foreign nationals should be charged for treatment. Obviously, there have been various reports in the past decade, including a 2007 report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that examined services available to asylum seekers, and those reports have raised that very issue. If access to care and treatment was denied to those who are vulnerable and in genuine need of care, that would undeniably make the situation worse and cause them far greater distress and harm. In those circumstances, we have a right and a moral duty to ensure that people are treated.

On the other hand, we have what some red-top newspapers might call “health tourism”. I use that phrase with some trepidation, because the situation is certainly more complicated than that phrase implies; it suggests that people are simply flooding in across our borders to ensure that they can receive NHS treatment, and that is certainly not the case. There are eligibility criteria that apply, but my concern is that they are not being applied strictly enough by various trusts. On the back of the previous Government’s consultation on this issue, between February and June 2010, the current Government have now decided to tighten certain eligibility criteria, particularly regarding asylum seekers and specifically when asylum seekers have their right of asylum refused.

There is obviously an issue with border security as well, and I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced measures, through the Home Office, in relation to those who have left the country with unpaid debts to the NHS of more than £1,000. I put down a written question that suggested that each year there are 3,600 foreign nationals who accrue such a debt for their NHS treatment and that they should not be allowed re-entry to this country unless those debts were paid off. There is a spectrum through which one has to view who is a foreign national and who is “ordinarily resident”.

I do not deny that establishing the difference between those two groups can be very difficult and that there is a very fine balance to strike. Nevertheless, it is clear from the data that I have received in response to my FOI request that the current system is not working. If there is a situation, as there is at the moment, whereby debts are being accrued and not reclaimed, and whereby a third of NHS managers are not even asking patients whether they are eligible for free treatment or whether they are a foreign national, that is a very big issue.

In many ways, one can understand why someone working within an NHS trust would not want to ask someone about their nationality; it might simply be easier to provide treatment. That is because of the simple fact that, once someone has been categorised as a foreign national and therefore they must be charged because they are ineligible for free care, those charges must be recouped. The costs of recouping those charges could far outweigh the charges themselves.

Moreover, I do not deny that some patients will turn up at an accident and emergency department or trust with a particular complication, which becomes severely worse. For whatever reason, they happen to die and there is no way in which the charges for which they would have been liable can be recouped. All those particular situations need to be taken into account.

In the Health Committee, we looked at how different trusts operate and collect their debts, or even monitor which people coming through their doors are eligible for free care and treatment. West Middlesex University hospital has what is called a “stabilised discharge system”. If a foreign national is admitted to hospital, the doctor first establishes whether there is a need for urgent life-saving treatment, which is obviously a priority for the NHS. If that is not the case, the person is told what treatment is required and how much it costs. If they are unwilling to pay, they are asked to leave. That policy in the hospital nearest Heathrow airport has saved the hospital £700,000 in each separate year. Even within the existing guidance and criteria, there are the means and possibilities by which trusts can ensure that the criteria are followed correctly and that savings can be made. I am sure that if every trust acted in the same way as the West Middlesex University hospital, we would see the amount of debts incurred by foreign nationals drop significantly.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) mentioned the criteria around a foreign national and who is and is not eligible for care. The context of this debate, as I mentioned, is an historic one. It was not until 1989 that the British Government began to require certain overseas visitors to pay for hospital treatment. That was defined in regulations in 1977, when legislation permitting persons not ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom to be charged for NHS services began to be looked at.

How we define someone who is not ordinarily resident, as opposed to someone who is ordinarily resident, is interesting. In a way, it is a common law concept, but in NHS health care legislation there is no definition of “ordinarily resident”. The only definition comes from a 1982 judgment in the House of Lords, which was actually in the context of the Education Bill that was passing through the other place at the time. The definition of “ordinarily resident” was:

“living lawfully in the United Kingdom voluntarily and for settled purposes as part of the regular order of their life for the time being, whether they have an identifiable purpose for their residence here and whether that purpose has a sufficient degree of continuity to be properly described as ‘settled’ ”.

That means that UK citizenship and past or present payments of UK taxes or national insurance contributions, contrary to what many of our constituents might think, are not directly taken into account in the way that “ordinarily resident” has been defined.

In the review that they are currently conducting, I urge the Government to consider how we will define “ordinarily resident” in future. The NHS is a contributory system that people pay into to receive free care at the point of treatment. That is right. The NHS is free for citizens who have paid into the system. It cannot be a free-for-all for everybody to use. Our constituents wish us, as legislators, to address that concern.

It is clear that the current rules and regulations, having been addressed and re-addressed over time, have caused some confusion. In 2007, the Joint Committee on Human Rights produced a report on services to asylum seekers. It suggested that the new rules introduced in 2004 regarding asylum seekers and whether they were eligible for free care—or, once their asylum application had been turned down, whether they were still eligible for free care—caused confusion about entitlement. It suggested that the interpretation of the rules appeared to be inconsistent, and that in some cases people who were entitled to free treatment had been charged in error.

At the time, the Labour Government began a consultation looking at the use of primary care by foreign nationals using the NHS. It is clear that in acute and secondary care, charging regulations apply. The problem is that the implementation of those charging regulations has not been effective, and we need to be more stringent about the implementation of current guidance.

Currently, there are no charges for primary care, whether people are eligible or not. People can register with a GP for primary care, regardless of status. The Labour Minister at the time, in 2004, held a consultation on whether there should be charges for foreign nationals and people who were ineligible for free care. He suggested that the consultation was necessary because

“the rules about entitlement to primary care are best described as a muddle.”

I agree. In my own experience as MP for Kingswood, I have found a firm of lawyers in Bristol—Deighton Pierce Glynn—that has been writing to doctors urging them to register patients and saying that if they do not, it will take legal action, regardless of the patients’ nationality and eligibility for free care. I raised the matter in the local media, in the Bristol Evening Post. It is wrong, and I am concerned that our NHS will become a legal paradise for lawyers piggy-backing on doctors who are doing the best that they can with the resources that they have. They know that NHS resources are stretched and need to be rationed and that there is a big problem.

One lawyer responded in the Bristol Evening Post by saying that lawyers were not trying to change the law:

“We are trying to apply the law as it is. Nobody is excluded from GP treatment. It is very clear. Hospital treatment is different. People come to us when they have been refused registration with a GP. There is nothing in the law that permits them to do that. Refusing them isn’t lawful.”

This particular case concerned asylum seekers who had had their asylum applications refused. When the GP in question received the letter from Deighton Pierce Glynn, an unnamed member of staff said:

“Someone at the PCT read the letter and panicked. Do we just register everyone who is illegal?”

There is clearly confusion being stoked by certain members of the legal profession who seem to be taking advantage of the uncertainty of eligibility within primary care so that they can profit when their clients wish to apply to the NHS.

On the situation in primary care, I was interested in a question asked by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) on 23 April 2012. He asked the Secretary of State for Health

“(1) what documentation a foreign national who seeks to register with a GP is required to provide;

(2) whether a foreign national on a six month visitor's visa is entitled to register with a GP;

(3) on what grounds a GP whose list has not been closed may refuse an application to register from a foreign national.”

The reply was:

“Under the terms of their existing contract, general practitioners (GPs) have discretion in accepting applications to join their lists. However, they cannot turn down an applicant on discriminatory grounds. They can only turn down an application if the primary care trust has agreed that they can close their list to new patients or if they have other reasonable non-discriminatory grounds.

There is no formal requirement to provide documentation when registering with a GP. However, many GPs, when considering applications, request proof of identity and confirmation of address, but in doing so they must not act in a discriminatory way.

A decision on whether to register a foreign national who has a six-month visitor visa is therefore currently for the GP to consider.”—[Official Report, 23 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 701-02W.]

That raises issues. I do not like to quote Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of Migration Watch UK, but he stated:

“What this means is that someone getting off a plane with a valid visitor’s visa is, in effect, able to access the GP services of the NHS without ever having paid a penny into the system. Over one and a half million such visas were issued last year.”

Once someone is registered with a GP, the regulation and guidance mean that if they need further secondary care, it is the relevant NHS body’s duty and not the GP’s to establish the requirement for free hospital treatment. That raises the issue of the extent to which that takes place. Once someone is on the GP’s books, that is almost a rubber stamp into receiving secondary care.

I am not suggesting that GPs act as pseudo-immigration officials checking people’s eligibility for free care, but there clearly needs to be a more joined-up approach between the people who end up on GPs’ books and who are then referred by GPs to secondary care specialists, and what that then involves in terms of charging. When it comes to the issue of primary care and foreign nationals, I do not believe that foreign nationals should be entitled to free primary care. We should extend the charging regulations further.

I apologise; I should have congratulated the hon. Gentleman earlier on securing this debate, which is important not only to his constituents but to people all over the country, who take the issue seriously. It is also important in my constituency, where it is discussed every day.

I am a bit confused; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will clarify. He is mixing foreign nationals and those who have been here for many years. As I see it, in this debate, foreign nationals are those who come especially to register themselves for a few days, who receive treatment and who disappear without paying, due to system failures, although I will not get into that debate. For those already here, if GPs act as immigration officers or work on behalf of the UK Border Agency, that will mean health problems.

I certainly do not mean to confuse or mislead. When I say foreign nationals, I mean those who come to this country requiring care who are not defined as ordinarily resident under the current regulations. Personally, I think that we should consider the definition of “ordinarily resident”. I have no problem with people’s nationality, whether they are British or a citizen of whatever country. If they work in this country and are contributing to society, it is right that they should receive the free care towards which they have contributed.

Equally, exemptions apply for matters of public health and vulnerable groups. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, if denying access to treatment could worsen the health of the community, let alone the individual, it is right that we should act responsibly. However, that should not preclude the creation of a clear definition of who is and is not eligible for care. One reason why we are having this exchange is that there is no clear, black and white definition. There will, obviously, be shades of grey, as there always are in health care. Health care professionals have a moral obligation to treat people in need, the sick and the vulnerable. I do not deny that, but we also have a moral obligation to our taxpayers to ensure that NHS money is spent as well as it can be.

A few people have come to me and said, “Mr Skidmore, it’s only £60 million out of a budget of £110 billion. Surely you’ve got to factor in debt. We should be able to expect that amount of debt to be written off.” I do not accept that argument. My local community hospital, Cossham hospital, is undergoing a £20 million refurbishment at the moment, and my constituents are so excited that it is taking place. That £60 million is a lot of money; it could have paid for the refurbishment of Cossham hospital three times over. We must count millions in order to save billions. During this efficiency drive, when we are trying to reinvest 15% to 20% of NHS resources in front-line care, it is a key aspect of the Nicholson challenge that we look for waste in the system and for instances where regulations are not being applied effectively.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must be careful about how we define a foreign national. I do not want this to be seen as a xenophobic campaign, because it certainly is not. It is based on the conviction that the NHS is a national health service that provides free care at the point of use, but should not be abused; it should be free at the point of use, but not at the point of abuse.

The GP situation includes the lawyers at Deighton Pierce Glynn, who have been contacting GPs, and the Minister of State’s answer to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead about the issue of visas and documentation, which raises an issue that I think GPs would welcome.

Part of the consultation involves clarity about what GPs must look for when patients register in their practices, and whether they can say, “I’m afraid I cannot register you, because you don’t have the necessary data documentation.” As far as I understand it, the lawyers have been writing to GPs saying that by not registering patients, they are applying a discriminatory process. However, I was interested to read that paragraph 5.16 of the guidance on charging, in the section on GPs in primary care, says:

“It is important to see that all patients are treated the same way, to avoid allegations of discrimination.”

That is also clear in the Minister’s answer. The guidance goes on to say:

“It is not racist to ask someone if they have lived lawfully in the UK for the last 12 months as long as you can show that all patients—regardless of their address, appearance or accent—are asked the same question when beginning a course of treatment. The answer to that question may result in others needing to be asked, but again you will not be breaking any laws as long as those questions are asked solely in order to apply the Charging Regulations consistently.”

It is in the guidance that GPs have the right to ask, as long as they ask everybody. They will not be applying a discriminatory process.

As I said, in 2004—they reported in 2009—the previous Government began to consider whether we should extend charging to primary care and how eligibility criteria should be tightened. The review suggested that charging would not be extended to primary care. I hope that we as a Government might be able to reconsider. I know that this Government are committed to ensuring that national health care resources are spent in the right way. My constituents appreciate that, as I have said.

The Home Office has introduced measures so that anyone owing the NHS £1,000 or more will not be allowed to enter or stay in the UK unless the debt is paid. When that is implemented, the Home Office hopes to capture 94% of outstanding charges owed to the NHS; hopefully, it will have a significant impact. Encouragingly, the review commissioned on 18 March 2011 suggested:

“The existing system is still too complex, generous and inconsistently applied. While the NHS remains committed to providing immediate or necessary care, it is important that a balance of fairness and affordability is also struck.”

I agree entirely.

The review taking place will now consider

“qualifying residency criteria for free treatment; the full range of other current criteria that exempt particular services or visitors from charges for their treatment; whether visitors should be charged for GP services and other NHS services outside of hospitals”,

as I suggested; and

“establishing more effective and efficient processes across the NHS to screen for eligibility and to make and recover charges”.

I suggest that as part of the consultation, they consider West Middlesex University hospital and the good work being done there. Finally, the review will consider

“whether to introduce a requirement for health insurance tied to visas.”

I was encouraged when the Minister said:

“The NHS has a duty to anyone whose life or long-term health is at immediate risk, but we cannot afford to become an international health service, providing free treatment for all. These changes will begin the process of developing a clearer, robust and fairer system of access to free NHS services which our review of the charging system will complete. I want to see a system which maintains the confidence of the public while preventing inappropriate free access and continuing our commitment to human rights and protecting vulnerable groups.”

I agree with all those words.

I initiated this debate to ensure that Members have an opportunity to put their views as part of the consultation, which, hopefully, will report later this year. To reiterate, the NHS is a national health service, not an international one. Although we all believe that health care treatment must be free at the point of use, it cannot be free at the point of abuse. I urge the Minister to consider carefully what I have said and what other Members will say in this debate. We care passionately about the NHS. We want the NHS to continue as it has for six decades now. This issue is one that I know all our constituents and everyone in the House, regardless of party politics, will wish to ensure is solved.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate. He tried hard to keep a balance—it is important for us to do so—as did the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) during his interventions. However, whenever I read the background information, I cannot but feel shocked. On 3 May, an article in The Daily Telegraph on the foreign national debt stated that official figures suggest that

“more than £40 million is owed to NHS hospitals by foreign patients who were not eligible for free care”

and that freedom of information requests showed that

“the average unpaid debt for the provision of care to foreign nationals was £230,000 in the 35 trusts which responded.”

The article went on to note the doctors’ trade magazine Pulse’s claim:

“If this figure was the same across all 168 English acute trusts, the total debt would be almost £40 million”.

Those are worrying figures. The article continued:

“The FoI requests showed St George’s Healthcare Trust in South London had the largest outstanding debts, totalling £2 million from £3.55 million invoiced to foreign nationals for health treatment from April 2009.”

Everyone present is proud of our NHS and of the high esteem in which it is held, not only in this country, but throughout the world. I do not want to be a scaremonger. I want to keep my comments balanced. It is not in my nature to stir up angst or discontent. As the hon. Member for Kingswood has mentioned, we do not want xenophobia or discrimination, but the figures are unsettling and there are concerns that our health system is being taken advantage of by some people, which is to the detriment of British people who are waiting to be seen and receive treatment.

Anyone who knows me either inside or outside this Chamber will know that I often put my hand in my pocket to help those in Africa, India and other parts of the world. The same is true of other Members and of our great nation, because we are a nation of givers. Our charity contributions in a time of economic restraint are still above the norm—we are holding our own. In Northern Ireland in particular, our charity giving per head of population is second to none. I am all for international development and believe that we as a nation have a role to play in helping others who need it. The UK makes a significant contribution to third world aid, and we continue to do so—our commitment is to give—while other countries are cutting back. We as a nation are making a significant contribution and will continue to do so. I and other Members support the Government entirely on that issue.

I am also a constituency man and know that people are becoming discouraged. I am conscious that I am speaking as a Northern Ireland MP and that health is a devolved matter. Cancer patients talk to me about new treatments that cannot be paid for on the NHS because of lack of funding. I have asked questions on the Floor of the House about whether new treatment will be made available for those constituents of mine who clearly need it. In the past few days, we have heard on the news about the postcode lottery—that terminology is often used—whereby the treatment depends on the funds available where someone lives and the demands on the system. That is not necessarily a criticism—it is a fact of life. My constituents deserve to have the best treatment in the world and I will work as hard as I can to ensure that that happens.

The fact that £40 million is owed by some foreign nationals needs to be addressed. The Minister and the Home Office have indicated that they intend to introduce a £1,000 threshold to

“capture 94 per cent of outstanding charges owed to the NHS.”

I hope that that will be the case.

I hear that people now believe that we have a lax system. Again, we need to keep a balance. We cannot provide a world health service—it just cannot be done; the moneys are not there. We need to draw the line, and I believe that we should draw it in this place and that it should be a straight, firm line. Will the Minister indicate whether there will be a review or a reassessment of the six-month visa that allows GP registration and access to NHS care? That needs to be clarified, so that we can see where we are going.

There is a clear difference, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall has mentioned, between those who are taken ill on holiday and those who come here directly to take advantage of our health system. Again, it is about balance.

I have been encouraged to hear the Government’s proposals, but as a Northern Ireland MP I am concerned about whether they will make their way over to Northern Ireland. I will chat with my colleagues at home to ensure that we implement like-for-like proposals. Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland and the Health Minister is a member of my party. I will certainly have some discussions with him. The hon. Member for Kingswood has touched on this issue, but will the Minister explain what interaction there will be with the regional Assemblies—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly—so that we have a UK-wide policy? It is important that all of the devolved Administrations have a similar policy to that on the mainland in England.

There are so many people in need of our health system at home that if we were to take in every sick person who was able to travel to the UK, it would not take a week until we imploded because of the demands on our system. We have to be realistic about what is expected of us and how we can help others. It about getting the balance right. The NHS is our national health service and one into which we have paid over many years through our tax system.

I had the privilege—some would say that it was not a privilege—of serving on the Health and Social Care Bill Committee, on which both Government and Opposition Members discussed the figures and tried to devise a reorganisation that would save money and still provide a good service. As well as delivering what is best for our citizens in the United Kingdom, it is important that we are able to help those who need it and who come here not with any specific intention to take advantage of the NHS, but who find themselves in need of it due to ill health. Any of us can be taken ill on holiday, so we take out insurance, which covers us for so much. It does not cover for circumstances in which ill health might result in a longer stay than anticipated, but it does help part of the way.

Some have taken advantage of the system. The Government are right to tighten the system and to ensure that there is a good NHS for the whole of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Kingswood referred to the term “health tourism”, which others have used and which sends out signals. Whether that term is correct or not, some people are doing it. We need to make sure that we have a system that can help those when they need it. We are a caring nation—we do not want to turn people away—but our system needs to ensure that that is done correctly. As I have said, this is all about balance. It is about ensuring that we, as a caring nation, can offer help to those who need it. No one who needs help should be turned away—that is clearly where I am coming from—but at the same time we need to tighten the criteria, close loopholes and at least ensure that the £40 million drain on NHS care is restricted or comes to an end.

We are all proud to have such a wonderful NHS in Britain. It is a unique service compared with those available in the rest of the world. Everybody appreciates that, but at the same time we need to consider how much it costs us and how best we can improve it. This debate is not only about the NHS, but about immigration, the role of the UK Border Agency and the Home Office, and the delays in the Ministry of Justice that mean that people have to wait for years before learning whether they can stay, until which point they need the services. That is why I intervened on the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) to ask which foreign nationals he was talking about. My main concern is to control those people who abuse NHS services by coming here especially to receive treatment.

Other foreign nationals, however, have been here for many years, yet their position has still not been recognised. There is no clarification about whether they are entitled or not entitled. We have all heard about GPs who have a dilemma when somebody approaches them and says, “I’m living in this area. I want to register with a GP”, but from a health service point of view, everyone must receive a good quality of health provision. We—and GPs—need to consider whether we can deny such families or individuals the ability to register. That is what needs to be clarified before we can find the solution.

Through the Minister, can we put pressure on the Minister for Immigration to ensure that the Home Office takes such cases seriously and decides on them as quickly as possible? In my experience—and I am sure that of many other Members who deal with immigration cases—people are waiting for many years for a decision. What will happen to those people? We need to clarify that point.

I did not intend to make a major speech, but I was impressed by the contributions made. I can assure the hon. Member for Kingswood that there is no question about his credibility on the subject or about there being any intention on his part to criticise an individual or a particular community. He has raised a serious issue that affects all of us in our constituencies and our lives. I hope that the Minister will note that it is not only a question of the £40 million or £60 million, but of how we can solve the problems relating to immigration and health together rather than separately.

It is a pleasure to contribute to a debate under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate. The use of the NHS by foreign nationals is a growing problem and it is important to take a moment to reflect on why we are discussing the issue today. It is a concern among hon. Members from all parties and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) said, among people representing all communities throughout the country. The issue is of paramount importance to a number of people.

As the previous Labour Government delivered the lowest ever waiting times and the highest ever level of patient satisfaction, along with 44,000 more doctors and 89,000 more nurses, the NHS became the envy of many other countries. The recent Commonwealth Fund comparative study of the state of the NHS makes that absolutely clear. However, a consequence of having one of the—if not the—best health services in the world was, and is, that it became increasingly attractive to foreign visitors. That has brought a number of issues that need to be addressed.

The commonly agreed figure that the hon. Member for Kingswood has mentioned is that the debt accrued by foreign nationals to the NHS is around £40 million. He is right to point that out. It is a lot of money—whether it is £40 million or £60 million—that would buy a lot of medicine and fund a lot of projects in a lot of communities. If the figure is £40 million, it is approximately 0.1% of the £3.5 billion that the Government are wasting on NHS reorganisation now. None the less, that figure is an awful lot of money.

The NHS is built on the principle that it should provide a comprehensive service based on clinical need, not ability to pay. However, at the same time, it is a national health service—not, as has been repeated on a number of occasions, an international health service. There must not and cannot ever be any doubt about that. Therefore, it is right that we impose charges for overseas visitors, who are defined in respect of NHS hospital treatment as people who are not ordinarily resident in the UK.

The previous Labour Government were committed to maintaining the existing system of charges, but they proposed a series of further safeguards, including amending the immigration rules so that anyone who accrued substantial medical debts would not be allowed back into the country if they left without settling their bill. I am genuinely pleased that the current Government have adopted so many of those recommendations. However, we need to look again at the ability to make and recover charges, and we would be happy to work with the Government on that issue. For example, the previous Government considered whether foreign nationals should be charged for NHS services outside the hospital. That issue warrants further close discussion.

We also need to learn from those hospitals that are more successful at recovering charges. The hon. Member for Kingswood referred to some of those. Hospitals have a legal duty to recover any charges made to overseas patients and, frankly, some hospitals need to be much better at that. Sometimes dealing with that problem can be as simple as improving the recording of contact details, so that the patient can be pursued for payment, but I accept that the rules and procedures could be demonstrably improved. The Government should ensure that that is done and, again, we will support them in their efforts to do so.

A relevant issue that has not been touched on today is the Olympics. It would be helpful if the Minister explained what plans are in place to ensure that the NHS can meet the rise in demand from overseas visitors during the games. Will she tell hon. Members what exemptions are in place for athletes and officials? “Newsnight” recently reported that Olympic VIPs could receive fast-track emergency care. With A and E waits already increasing, is there not a danger that taxpayers who are paying for the NHS and the Olympics will be pushed to the back of the queue?

I would have raised the Olympics in my speech had it not been for the fact that I wanted this to be a cross-party debate. The criterion that Olympic officials and athletes should receive free treatment was part of the bid that was successful in 2005 under the previous Government. We would not have been awarded the Olympics if that had not been part of the 2005 bid.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He is obviously aware of the fact that although he, I and other hon. Members are privy to those details, the general public are not. There is a salient concern out there about the perceived emergence of a better standard of care being afforded to people who are involved in the Olympics. I visited Homerton hospital in Hackney, which is one—if not the—Olympic hospital in London. I saw some tremendously innovative professionals there who are developing innovative medical treatments and systems of working. They need to get the message across that local people who use that hospital on a daily basis will not be disadvantaged by the Olympics. We need a clear exposition of why that will not be the case.

Although I have considerable sympathy with the contributions I have heard this morning, all hon. Members must recognise that, under the UN convention on human rights, the UK has an international obligation to provide free NHS treatment to those seeking asylum here. All of the contributions I have heard today indicate that that will not be too hard to achieve, but hon. Members must guard against those Members who advocate that we should not fulfil that obligation, because the temptation will be too much for some. When we produce facts and figures used in support of the arguments, that must be acknowledged.

We must also guard against Members from all parties who advocate that the NHS should turn away pregnant mothers or patients in need of emergency care. Overall, this issue requires a diligent, careful approach. It is not the platform for a weird, xenophobic virility contest. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. There may be little common ground between my party and the Government on the NHS, but we can agree that NHS care must always be based on clinical need, not ability to pay. At the same time, first and foremost, the NHS must serve the people of the United Kingdom—those whose taxes fund the NHS, those who believe in it passionately as the guarantor of a better society and those who expect it to be there for them when they need it. I hope that we can agree on that principle as we continue to debate the issue constructively and develop the fair and appropriate policy responses that the issue deserves.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate, which has provided a useful opportunity for hon. Members from all parties to come together and share their views. I express some disappointment at the fact that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), was somewhat party political, but I commend the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for his generous comments. It is important to have that on the record: we all want clarity and fairness in the system.

I have met my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood before to discuss the matter and, again, I commend his efforts in raising the subject, which has provided an opportunity to put some things on the record. Access to NHS care is very poorly understood—indeed, that is also the case for Members of Parliament. This is about foreign nationals using and potentially abusing the NHS. Like the health system of any country, the NHS provides for foreign nationals. Millions of people come to this country every year for various purposes and stay for different periods of time. Some become ill or have accidents, and have immediate health care needs that need to be met. We have a duty to treat them, just as other countries have a duty to treat British citizens who become ill abroad. I assure the shadow Minister that there is no question of anybody wanting to undermine that duty—nobody has raised that in the debate, it is not being discussed either and that will remain the case. However, we have a duty to taxpayers who pay for the system.

Questions were raised about who should be charged. To clarify the situation again regarding ordinary residence—settled, lawful residency in the UK—access to the NHS is not based on nationality, the payment of taxes or national insurance contributions. I accept that that is not widely understood. The service is paid for by taxpayers, so they have an interest in who has access to it. We exempt some categories of visitor from charges, such as those working or studying and those visiting from countries with which we have bilateral health care agreements. A few services are free to all—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood may have mentioned them—such as treatment in an A and E department, which I have mentioned, and treatment for certain infectious diseases, as there are wider public health reasons for ensuring that people receive prompt treatment.

Under the legislation, charges can only be made for hospital treatment. Charging is not in place for registering with or seeing a GP, although prescriptions are subject to the usual charges. GP registration or the holding of an NHS number does not trigger free hospital treatment. The hospital to which a non-resident has been referred should check separately for eligibility, but I know that that does not happen as it should. Current legislation allows only for charging overseas visitors for NHS hospital treatment. There are therefore no rules of entitlement governing overseas visitors’ access to GP services, and visitors are able to register.

GPs are self-employed and are contracted to provide primary medical services for the NHS. Under the terms of their contract, GPs have a measure of discretion in accepting patients on their list, but they can only turn down an applicant on reasonable, non-discriminatory grounds. My hon. Friend discussed that at length and made it quite clear what the guidance says. In practice, a GP’s discretion to refuse a patient is limited, and a GP cannot refuse to register a patient just because they cannot provide identification or proof of address—that is unlikely to be considered reasonable grounds.

The European economic area confuses the issue further, but our obligations are simple. Each country is responsible for the cost of providing treatment for their own citizens while they are in other EEA countries, unless they are working. Workers are entitled to the same access to health care as that country’s own residents, on the principle that the country to which an individual makes social security contributions is liable for that person’s health care needs. In practice, that means we pay other EEA countries for treating our state pensioners who have retired there, and for the emergency needs of our own citizens who need health care when visiting another country, using their European health insurance card. The same is also true in reverse—other countries must reimburse the UK for treatment provided to their citizens. EEA nationals who come here to work are entitled to free NHS provision.

Overall, we pay out more than we receive, simply because many more of our state pensioners choose to settle in Europe than vice versa. This is sometimes the subject of large tabloid headlines, but it is important to make that point. We may see that change in the coming months. I acknowledge, however, that we need to do more to recover income due to us from other EEA countries for providing health care to their visitors and pensioners. We have an extensive programme of work under way to address that.

As the shadow Minister said, unpaid debts are a small amount of the total spent on the NHS. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, £30 million or £40 million pays for a lot of treatment, a lot of care and a lot of medicine. Although it is a small percentage of the total budget, for an individual it is significant. We need to recognise that in any system that charges, debts are sadly inevitable. Guidance is clear that hospitals should not provide non-urgent treatment until a chargeable patient has paid in full, but they have a legal duty to provide emergency care. When a patient is responsible for repaying a debt, if a debt is incurred, the NHS has a duty to the taxpayer to recover that debt. Audited NHS trust accounts and data from Monitor show that last year, £14 million was written off due to unpaid debts—a small but significant amount for taxpayers. We are determined to reduce that write-off without compromising the provision of urgent treatment. My hon. Friend related the terrible story of the American visitor for whom the hospital could not even provide any documentation for him to claim from his health care insurer. The statistic of a third of NHS trusts not even pursuing debts is shocking. On the other hand, we have the example of West Middlesex, which is clearly doing an excellent job.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall expressed his frustration with some immigration and Home Office issues, and he is absolutely right to discuss the UK Border Agency. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood discussed the fact that GPs do not want to be gatekeepers on immigration issues. We are therefore reliant on UKBA to ensure that people who are entitled to be here are here, and that people who are not entitled be here are not here. He also made a distinction regarding foreign nationals who come here specifically to access NHS care. I remind the shadow Minister, probably because I am significantly older than him, that this issue goes back a great deal further than the previous Labour Government. It probably goes back further than previous Conservative Governments, which have to be thanked for making the NHS such an attractive option that people came here as health-care tourists a long time before 1997.

I share the concern and frustration of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall about immigration status. I have a university in my constituency. A lot of foreign students try to regularise their status in this country and fail to do so—their passports are left with the Home Office for goodness knows how many months and the situation becomes very confusing. I think that the people he is talking about are in the grey area in the middle. We need to address this matter and will continue to work with the Home Office. To repeat for the record, the recently amended immigration rules state that a person with a debt to the NHS of £1,000 or more can now be refused a new visa or extension stay. That should not only assist in recovering more debts, but act as a deterrent against failing to have health insurance when visiting the UK.

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Will the Minister help with a genuine question about the new NHS commissioning arrangements? If clinical commissioning groups procure services from hospitals where that is a particular problem, what advice will the Government give them?

It will bring the focus closer to home. I would expect the shadow Minister to welcome this change, because GPs will now be much more acutely aware that registration with them should not automatically entitle people to NHS acute trust care. We are undertaking a review that I will mention in my concluding remarks. It is early days in respect of the UK Border Agency and the change in the immigration rules, so we do not have sufficient information adequately to evaluate how effective they are, but I think that we will see a significant impact. The shadow Minister asked specifically about the Olympics.

The Minister said that £14 million in debts was written off by the Government. Do the Government contact the countries that people have come from to try to recover some of those debts, or is it too costly administratively to do that? Is it cheaper to write off debts than to chase them up?

That is true of all debts. Trusts are not always aware of the rules and the obligations placed on them. Sometimes, they do not have the infrastructure in place to chase such debts and sometimes the costs of chasing debts are greater than the debts themselves, so they write them off. Either way, it is clearly not fair on the taxpayer. West Middlesex is an exemplar. We in the NHS are not good at sharing best practice, but practice at West Middlesex should be spread more widely.

Back in 2005, when the Labour Government were in power, as part of the UK’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics they committed to provide games family members with free medical care. The games family is a tightly defined group of people—athletes and their support teams, officials, accredited media and IOC members—who are directly involved in taking part in or supporting the games. We have introduced a specific exemption for those people in respect of hospital treatment that might otherwise be chargeable, which will last for only nine weeks around the time of the Games and will be limited to treatment, the need for which arises here, so pre-planned or routine ongoing treatment that can wait will not be free. Normal charging rules will apply to all other visitors, including those coming to see the games.

The NHS has been briefed to be particularly vigilant in screening visitors who seek treatment and in applying the charging rules, given the large influx of visitors to the country. Let me reassure the residents of Hackney—the shadow Minister rightly said that Homerton is one of the designated hospitals—that treatment will be given on the basis of need. Local people should not suffer at all as a result of these rules which, as the shadow Minister will be aware, were an important part of the previous Government’s bid.

My hon. Friend has mentioned some of the details of our review. It is important that there should be qualifying criteria, a full range of other criteria exempting services or visitors from charges, and criteria for charging for services outside hospital, as we move towards more care being delivered outside hospitals. We need to be mindful of costs that could be incurred, thereby ensuring that we have more efficient and effective processes throughout the NHS, including the ability to screen eligibility. Let me reassure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it is important that we work closely with the devolved Administrations, and have close discussions with them, to ensure that there are not unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Once again I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood for introducing the debate, and I thank hon. Members for the balanced, moderate nature of the discussion. It is important that we set an example—all parties desire to do so—and demonstrate to the public that such difficult issues, which can involve distinct communities, can be discussed and considered in a fair and balanced way and are matters of cross-party concern, with all political parties working together. It is not becoming for any politician to score party political points on an issue of such fundamental importance to the taxpayers of this country.

Sitting suspended.