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Health Service Joint Consultative Committees (Access To Information) Bill

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 5 June 1986

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

7.17 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill was, in the first instance, promoted in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Peterborough, Dr. Mawhinney. When he joined the Government, he handed over the Bill into the capable hands of my honourable friend the Member for Hornchurch, Mr. Robin Squire. That was highly appropriate as the Bill is, in effect, an extension of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 which Mr. Squire had also introduced into another place and which your Lordships will remember passing through this House last Session.

The principle of that Act, which came into force on 1st April this year, is that, in general, local authority council, committee and sub-committee meetings must be open to the public and the press, and there must be access for the public to agendas, reports, minutes, and background papers relating to such meetings.

This Bill provides for similarly improved public access to the meetings of joint consultative committees of health and local authorities in England and Wales, and likewise to related reports, minutes and other documents. In moving the Third Reading in another place, my honourable friend paid tribute to the assistance he had received in his work on the Bill from the Community Rights Project and the Freedom of Information Campaign.

Joint consultative committees are statutory bodies set up under the National Health Service Act 1977. They consist of nominated local government councillors and district health authority members, representatives of family practitioner committees and of local voluntary organisations. Their purpose is to advise local and health authorities and family practitioner committees on how they can best cooperate on services which overlap or are of mutual concern—services, for example, for the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly and the physically disabled. They also give advice on the spending of joint finance, estimated to have amounted during the last 10 years to some £506 million and during the last year alone to £110·4 million. Joint consultative committees are an important mechanism for the creation of effective and cost-effective coordination of services and the avoidance of duplication of effort. Their work, their decisions and, indeed, their very existence are in many places unknown to the public—and that cannot be good.

This Bill was originally drafted as an extension to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. That approach was found to be flawed and the Bill as it now stands relates directly, as does the 1985 Act, to the parent Local Government Act 1972 covering England and Wales. Clause 1 simply provides definitions. Clause 2 contains the main substance of the Bill. It provides for the extension of Sections 100A to 100D of the 1972 Act so that they apply not only to local government councils but also to joint consultative committees. This clause also provides appropriately modified definitions of offices where papers are available, the officials who have the particular duty to make them available, and the premises where information is displayed. Subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 2 state how Sections 100H and 100I(2) of the 1972 Act must be interpreted in the case of joint committees. Subsection (4) adds a new item of exempt information to Schedule 12A to the 1972 Act which lists a number of areas of information that must remain confidential. The new items relate to information about individuals' physical and mental health, and information about individual doctors, dentists, opticians, and pharmacists and their employees.

Clause 3 requires joint consultative committees to maintain registers with details of their members, a summary of the public's right of access, and where these must be made available. Clause 4 is self-explanatory. It states that the Bill applies only to England and Wales. It was not possible to apply it to Scotland because the joint local authority and health board liaison committees there are of a different nature and not susceptible to the same kind of legislation.

The Bill aims to increase access by the public to only a small area of local decision making. But it is an area in which the public are deeply interested and in which more openness can only increase public understanding of the problems and possibilities and so can only strengthen the work of joint consultative committees. I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a fair wind and a swift passage through the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—( Baroness Carnegy of Lour.)

7.23 p.m.

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill which extends the Local Government (Access to Information) Act of last Session to health service joint consultative committees. Any extension of public access to the meetings of these committees, including the provision of agendas, minutes and background papers, must be very good news for all those, especially in my party, who have campaigned long and hard for more openness in government at all levels. It is little wonder that the public are hardly aware of the existence of these committees, let alone their functions. We hope that the Bill will go some way to make their work better known to the general public and thus increase their accountability.

There is just one small matter which I should like to raise at this point, although I accept that it is outside the immediate scope of the Bill. Community health councils were set up in 1973, before joint consultative committees, to consider matters relating to the operation of the health service within their districts and to give advice to area health authorities on such matters; in other words, to act as a consumer watchdog for the health service. Under the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 their meetings are open to the public but their committees are not.

Some community health councils open committees to the public, but some do not. Similarly, the amount of publicity given to the place and time of community health council meetings varies substantially. This makes it difficult for campaigners to take part in debates on local matters of concern. I wonder whether the Government will consider, in the light of the Bill, amending the regulations governing community health councils along these lines.

7.26 p.m.

My Lords, I should like warmly to congratulate the noble Baroness on introducting the Bill and on the manner in which she did so. On reading the report of the Second Reading in another place it is interesting to note that the mover of the Bill did not indicate its purpose at all. I believe that the House and those who read our reports will greatly appreciate the clarity with which the noble Baroness presented the Bill this evening. I welcome it totally. I can perhaps give two main reasons for doing so. First, there is the general principle of greater openness, to which the noble Earl, Lord Grey, referred. In society as a whole there is an increasing feeling that we have too much secrecy and that the public are not sufficiently involved. Any step such as this that can be taken which enables the public to know what is going on and so enable them to participate more effectively is to be welcomed.

I was glad to hear the noble Baroness refer to the freedom of information campaign. I strongly support that campaign and hope that we shall eventually have a freedom of information Bill. I accept that this is only one step in that direction. But any step is to be encouraged, particularly since there are still some—I am not thinking especially of people at national level or at local level, though there are some at both—who want to hang on to secrecy. They prefer that business should be done behind closed doors, neither reported nor observed, nor open to comment and criticism afterwards.

I was glad to read the statement made in another place by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Services Mr. Ray Whitney, who said, at col. 1247 of Hansard of 31st January:
"We would welcome a greater public awareness of the existence and functions of those bodies, and would like to see their proceedings as open as possible. We feel that the degree of public accountability which such openness would entail would help strengthen the committees and emphasise the importance of their role in successful joint planning that we all seek".
That was, I thought, a good statement. And since I spend more time criticising statements made in another place by DHSS Ministers, I am happy to record my warm appreciation of that one.

The second point that I wish to make concerns the increasing importance of joint planning by district health authorities, social service departments of local authorities, family practitioner committees, as the noble Baroness mentioned, and, in some cases, housing committees, together with voluntary organisations, again mentioned by the noble Baroness. As we move towards more effective community care—we have still a long way to go—we know perfectly well that it will come only as a result of effective joint planning between health authorities and the other services in the community. That is why I added housing as well as social service departments.

The noble Baroness mentioned community care and joint financing in particular. Naturally I have a very special interest in this, as it was when I was Secretary of State that the principle of joint financing was accepted and begun. It started in a small way and it has grown. It has grown under this Government as it grew under the previous Government. I am happy to welcome a matter on which we all agree.

I also welcomed the Statement made by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place when he referred to the joint planning report on progress in partnership. He said that its establishment was promoted largely by widespread feeling that over the country as a whole services were better matched to needs of users and delivered more cost effectively if all the opportunities for joint planning of services had been taken. I should like to emphasise that very much indeed.

I think that we still have a long way to go. Sometimes relations between health authorities, sections of local authorities and voluntary organisations are still inadequate. The presence of the public and the press, and the availability of the documentation to the public and the press, is likely to improve their performance.

Last night in welcoming another modest Bill affecting the welfare of children in care I said I hoped that this would not stand in the way of major comprehensive legislation on child care provision, and was assured by the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, that the fact that we were making progress in a small field would not hold us up from making progress in a large field. I should like to say the same in relation to this Bill. It is a modest but important step forward in public access, public involvement and the greater availability of information in what is a relatively narrow but important field of joint consultation committees. I hope that this again will not hinder the Government's consideration of a wider Bill on freedom of information. I regret that the Government of which I was proud to be a Member did not implement proposals for a freedom of information Bill. I was strongly in favour of it and wished that they had had a little more courage and had done so. As a party we are committed to do so when we are returned to power.

At this stage I hope that the Government will now consider that this is the right direction in which to go and that we ought to have more openness, more availability of information and more access for the public, which will lead to more involvement of the public. In a totally bipartisan spirit I warmly welcome the Bill before us. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, upon the way in which she has presented it to the House.

7.34 p.m.

My Lords, I too am happy to respond to the speech of my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour. I should like to congratulate her on a most clear and interesting introduction of the purpose of this Bill.

In view of the Government's support, both for the principle of the Bill in its original form and for the specific amendments made to it in Committee in another place, it will come as no surprise to your Lordships when I say that we have no intention of doing anything to impede the Bill's progress. Now that the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 has taken effect, meetings and documents of local authorities, their committees and their subcommittees are, as has been said, generally speaking open to the public. This Bill will confer the same degree of openness on the meetings and documents of joint consultative committees.

The committees have an important task to perform. The Government, like the noble Lord, Lord Ennals—and I am happy that we are having such an agreeable evening—are firmly committed to a community care policy aimed at meeting the needs of individuals and helping them to live as normal a life as they can. But the needs of individuals often straddle the boundaries between services supplied by the different statutory authorities. A close working partnership between authorities, and with the voluntary sector, is therefore important in meeting the needs of individuals in the most appropriate and cost-effective way. Joint consultative committees are the means provided by statute for promoting partnership. Their task is to advise the authorities represented on them—district health authorities, local authorities and family practitioner committees—in carrying out their duty to collaborate in serving the community.

Making these committees open to the public is a move which the Government welcome. Before this Bill was presented under its original title we were already planning to encourage health and local authorities to make joint consultative committee meetings open. We are also going to advise them that in any event the minutes of meetings and information on the progress of matters discussed should be made freely available to the press and the public.

The noble Earl, Lord Grey, raised a query which, as he said, comes outside the scope of this Bill. He asked whether the regulations governing community health councils could be amended to provide for meetings of committees of those councils to be open to the public. I can respond by saying that the Government will consider the suggestion of the noble Earl, when a suitable opportunity arises. This is because a greater awareness by the public of the way in which local health and social services are organised, the boundaries between them and the opportunities and problems of achieving better integrated services should be of mutual benefit. Better joint planning of services is something we all want. Joint consultative committees have a crucial part to play in securing it and the Bill if enacted will mean their having to play it more in the open than has been the case so far. In the hope that this will help to stimulate a better performance all round the Government support the Bill, I commend it to your Lordships' House and wish it a speedy passage.

My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for the welcome that they have given to this Bill. The noble Earl, Lord Grey, welcomed the Bill. He made the suggestion which my noble friend on the Front Bench has just mentioned that community health councils should be open to the public. As the noble Earl himself said this is outside the scope of this Bill but it is interesting that the Government are clearly warmly disposed towards such a notion. From his deep knowledge of the health service the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, spoke of the importance of these joint consultative committees. By implication, he spoke of how important it is that they should be open to the public and that the public should be aware of what goes on in them.

The widening of the issue to other areas is another subject. I note with interest that my noble friend on the Front Bench sounded as though she were kindly disposed to looking at other areas of the health service. I think that freedom of information in local areas and in national areas are two rather different subjects. Doubtless the second of those is another subject for another day.

I thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for her encouragement and for saying that the Government will do nothing to impede the passage of this Bill. I hope that it will very soon reach the statute book.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[ The Sitting was suspended from 7.38 to 8 p.m.]