House of Lords
Wednesday, 31 October 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.
Ingram National Park Visitor Centre
My Lords, the Defra grant for the Northumberland National Park Authority this year is £2.9 million. It is for individual parks to decide on their spending priorities. The Northumberland National Park Authority has decided to close this centre as part of a wider review of all its visitor services.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disappointing reply. Is she aware that this well appointed centre, situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty, provides not only excellent car parking but the only public toilets for miles, a delightful woodland walk and a series of superb displays highlighting the history, geology, flora and fauna of the Cheviot area, displays of great educational value? Will she try to persuade Defra to think again and to try just a little harder to save this invaluable centre?
My Lords, I remind the noble Lord that it was not Defra that made this decision but the Northumberland National Park. It is of course of great regret to us when such closures take place. The park is working very closely with the Ingram village hall and the displays that the noble Lord mentions will in fact be moved there, as I understand it, so that they are still available to people. The park is also offering additional information points in local businesses such as shops, pubs and community centres. There will also be additional services offered by the park rangers. I would point out that on Hadrian’s Wall the park will have the great advantage of a new centre, The Sill, which is getting Heritage Lottery Fund money. It will become a major centre there and the noble Lord may wish to visit it.
My Lords, although there has been a consultation going on about this, and indeed about the centre in Rothbury, for nearly two years, is my noble friend aware that the final decision came as a great shock to many local people? Is she further aware that the Liberal Democrat-run county council has been extremely successful in reinvigorating the tourist information centres? I hope that, like me, she is rather surprised that the national park has not been able to reach a partnership working arrangement with the county council. Can she further tell me whether other national parks have closed visitor centres?
I have no evidence that any other centre in a national park has been closed. I have had a look at the tourist centres across the county. The noble Baroness is quite right that there are a number of other such centres, which are obviously very welcome. One would hope that they would work closely with the national park in this regard. The chair of the authority has not closed the door. He said:
“We are looking very hard at alternative ways of providing an effective visitor information service and have not closed the door to any new suggestions people may … put … to us”.
Therefore, I suggest that the noble Baroness gets in touch with him.
My Lords, I have not been to the visitor centre in question, but is this decision not very strange at a time when we are promoting tourism in this country, when local and public money has been put into the centre over quite a long time and when there are also facilities available from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other similar bodies? I went to a celebration—and indeed gave a speech, as your Lordships will understand—at the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon. That is kept going by the joint activities of local people and Cambridgeshire County Council. Perhaps a second reflection might be appropriate. I hope that the Minister will be in a position to push this forward herself.
I am sure that the authority will be looking very closely at what noble Lords are saying today and seeing what can be done to take this forward. This was a small centre, as I understand it, with two members of staff. The much bigger one is on Hadrian’s Wall. As I say, that is going to be added to and will become a centre of national significance. I am extremely pleased that that has been possible at this time.
Amid the plethora of new planning regulations and the rest, will the Minister assure the House that right across Government in all departments there is a commitment to the national parks because of their vital contribution to the spiritual and physical well-being of our nation, particularly our young people?
The noble Lord is quite right and I invite him to have a look at the website for this park and see exactly what it offers. With regard to the commitment, I point out that the park was given just over £3 million last year and this year it has been given £2.9 million, so that is not a huge reduction in what is going to the park. We are fully committed to supporting the national parks. We know how important they are.
My Lords, having been last week in both the Ingram valley centre and indeed the Rothbury centre, as I often am, I was appalled to think that there will effectively be no human face anywhere in the northern part of the Northumberland National Park. The place at Once Brewed on Hadrian’s Wall is something like 75 miles away and will do nothing to ensure that there will be anyone there to welcome people. Although the amount of money reduced seems small, it disproportionately affects the operations of the park, which is the smallest national park. Will the Government please think of ways of trying to assist the national park in rethinking this decision in order to have a human face somewhere in the northern part of the park to welcome people?
I remind the right reverend Prelate that how the national park decides to spend its resources is not a decision for Defra. I am sure that the national park will be listening. As I say, it is working closely with the Ingram village hall committee to try to ensure that information is available and it is doing a number of other things. I was also incredibly impressed by the number of volunteers who were involved in this park, as with others, and it may well be that some work needs to be done to try to see how that can be brought forward to make sure that there is the kind of coverage that the right reverend Prelate refers to.
The figure was £2.9 million.
I would like to clarify that last year the figure was over £3.1 million, this year it is £2.9 million and next year it will be £2.7 million. I realise that that is a reduction, but it is for the national park to work out how it is going to prioritise things.
Centre for Creativity, Regulation, Enterprise and Technology
My Lords, the centre is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and two other research councils. It is run by a consortium led by the University of Glasgow. It will be subject to the AHRC’s performance management framework for large investments, including regular reporting. The work and objectives of the centre will be overseen by a governance board chaired by the vice-principal for research and enterprise at the University of Glasgow.
My Lords, is my noble friend confident that the research programme being undertaken by CREATe will support the creation and protection of intellectual property rather than undermine it? Many participants seem rather hostile to it. Is the research, which I believe will cost £5 million of public money, a valid way of supporting the creating industries?
My noble friend must understand that this has not been initiated by the Government; it was initiated by the research councils. They have budgeted accordingly and think that it is the right thing to do. It would be totally wrong of the Government not to support any initiative to do with the creative industries, particularly at this time.
I must thank the noble Baroness for her work in the Creative Industries Council, of which she is a member. Of course, she has first-hand knowledge of these things. However, I will not legislate on behalf of the Government as to whether this proposal should work. It will be up to the AHRC, which has been invested with it. That is the right thing to do.
My Lords, local authorities have a duty to provide allotments. Nevertheless, the Government commend the work of those operating in the sector, such as the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, the Allotments Regeneration Initiative and the sterling work done by the National Allotment Society, in promoting the importance of allotments and the encouragement of local authorities to make more allotment land available to residents.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer but is he aware that Wokingham, for example, has 80 people waiting for allotments. How many years will they have to wait? Why can encouragement not be given to people with overlarge gardens to allow them to let off areas for those who wish to growth their own produce?
My noble friend makes a very valid point. The waiting time for allotments is of concern across the country. However, she pointed to the example of Wokingham and I am delighted to say that creative schemes are under way, such as Transition Wokingham Garden Share Scheme whereby residents use spare garden space. Anyone who is a bit green fingered is welcome to use that space to grow vegetables. This Government will encourage such schemes, and it is for local authorities to share good practice across the country.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that allotment owners cannot cultivate their gardens in the dark when the clocks have changed to winter time? Therefore, will he list the benefits to allotment owners from maintaining winter time and the dark winter evenings as opposed to summer time? By the same token, can he produce a single, recognised statistic to prove that winter time can reduce electricity consumption, carbon footprint, street crime or road deaths?
My noble friend makes an interesting point. I would add that gardening time is very much the same even with the change in hours. As I already mentioned, there are creative schemes. Sustainable Merton, in my local borough, encourages the people and communities to come together. Those who can provide expertise and assistance—perhaps in creative lighting and green lighting, which is another initiative being undertaken—should be encouraged in providing for allotments around the country.
My noble friend is correct. A number of councils, including Bristol, Brighton and Kent County Council, have developed some very innovative schemes. As I have already said in my previous answer, we are here to encourage local councils. After all, the Localism Act encourages local councils and communities to take action and take charge. I quote my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place, who said that people should “spot a plot”, grab it and then go to their local authority and cultivate it.
That last reply leads on to my question. If you happen to have a few acres that you are doing nothing with, what permissions do you have to get to set up private enterprise allotments? Do you have to have planning permission? Do you have to be willing to supply water or electricity? We have just heard about the problems of light. What exactly would you have to do, or how would your land have to be zoned, to offer it as allotments?
I thank my noble friend for her question. I point your Lordships’ House to the Localism Act and the provisions provided within, such as the new neighbourhood planning provisions that provide communities with the powers not just to protect but to identify new plots for allotments. The Community Right to Challenge, which commenced earlier this year in June, meant that voluntary and community bodies which had good ideas and felt they could run the services or allotments better could get more involved. Finally, there are the community right-to-bid provisions in the Act, which commenced in England on 21 September and which allows community groups to get a fairer chance to buy up assets, and facilities are important to them. Allotments are an important element of the Government’s thinking within local government but, as I said, local authorities provide the provisions and this Government take their job very seriously. The Localism Act activates local councils, but most importantly—dare I say it?—it activates the big society to act locally.
Again, my noble friend points to an innovative scheme. There are similar schemes, with window boxes being used to grow vegetables. I came across a particular scheme in Bermondsey, where council estates are identifying land that is currently uncultivated and encouraging local residents to use that land for the benefit of the local community. The scheme that my noble friend has pointed to is a similar one.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as a child my father’s allotment provided a plentiful supply of potatoes and other weaponry to use against my other older brothers? Will he rejoice with me in the fact that there are 330,000 allotments in this country, even though there is still a shortage of supply? One problem with increasing the supply is the inconsistency of local authorities in allowing the development of new allotments, particularly with the provisions not just of land but of sheds and things of that sort. Would he encourage local authorities, when in doubt, to dig and allow others to dig, and pray that a generation of young boys are out there who are rather better behaved than we were?
I thank my noble friend for his question, and for sharing with your Lordships’ House his recollections of childhood. I must admit that I did not get into any serious fights, with potatoes or otherwise, with my siblings. Nevertheless, on his central point, I refer to the Localism Act, which provides the community right to reclaim, whereby citizens can go online, identify plots in their local area and go and cultivate them. They should work with local authorities, which should not discard their overarching responsibility to facilitate and provide the infrastructure to support allotments. As I said, this Government are empowering through the Localism Act local communities to take charge of allotments.
Railways: London Midland Rail Franchise
My Lords, London Midland has not yet breached its contractual cancellations benchmark, which is calculated as a rolling annual average. However, if the situation continues and cancellations increase, the department has a range of actions available, which will certainly require robust plans to improve performance and, potentially, further punitive measures. My honourable friend the Transport Minister Norman Baker discussed the matter with London Midland’s managing director last week to apprise him of the department’s concerns.
My Lords, I am not sure that that will be much compensation to the thousands of travellers, particularly in the West Midlands, who have suffered from the cancellation of hundreds of trains in the past few weeks. Can I take the noble Earl to the general obligation contained in the franchise agreement, which is that the operator should undertake its job with a,
“degree of skill, diligence, prudence and foresight”?
The problem with the London Midland service is a shortage of drivers. I would have thought that that is ample evidence for an intervention into the franchise agreement. This company is not fit to run the franchise.
My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s concerns regarding passenger experience. He is right that the problem relates to a shortage of drivers and the ability of London Midland to retain the drivers it has and attract new drivers. It is a competitive market. There is also a considerable lead time for taking on and training new drivers. This is a matter for London Midland. However, there are strong incentives for it to put the situation right.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that since being granted a franchise London Midland has never recruited enough drivers or train crew generally, including conductors? Through the period of the franchise it has relied on its staff working rest days, Sundays and voluntary overtime in order to maintain the service. Without knowing the actual benchmarks to which the Minister referred, can he explain why on one day this year it cancelled no fewer than 100 services because of a lack of train crew? Is it not about time we did something to change this franchisee before all of us in the West Midlands take to our motor cars permanently?
My Lords, it would be premature to terminate the franchise at this point. There are severe penalties for breach of franchise. The noble Lord’s analysis of the problem may be right. However, it is important to understand that all train operating companies rely on rest-day working but only to the extent of about 3% or thereabouts, whereas this operator is now in the region of 6%. A shortage of drivers causes a serious problem for that operator but it is the train operating company’s problem.
My Lords, it takes at least a year to train a driver. If we try to cut it down, we face the horrors we saw at Ladbroke Grove some years ago when an undertrained driver caused 30 deaths. London Midland has a full number of drivers in training and will bring forward a new timetable in December covering most of its services. Instead of talking about punishments and retribution, could we prevail upon the train company to put all its efforts into using all available media methods to apprise customers of any cancellations as far in advance as it can?
I entirely agree with everything my noble friend says, particularly his point about customers making sure they check with National Rail Enquiries shortly before their journey to give themselves the highest chance of not arriving at the station to find the trains are not running.
My Lords, is it not a fact that this Government and trains do not go together? First of all we had the fiasco over the west coast main line and Virgin. Ministers keep their jobs and some get promoted but, of course, civil servants get suspended. Some 3 million people are unemployed but London Midland still cannot get any drivers. To top it all we have the Chancellor—the Chancellor!—buying a second-class ticket and trying to travel first class. Is it not about time that we sent for Thomas the Tank Engine?
My Lords, first of all, there is no shortage of potential recruits to be train drivers, although a potential train driver needs to have certain attributes. The problem with the west coast line is one of franchising and procurement, but here the problem for the train operating company is in retaining and recruiting sufficient drivers to meet its obligations.
My Lords, my noble friend is more or less right. The problem is that the chickens are coming home to roost because leave was restricted during the Olympics period, so the drivers want to have their leave now. In addition, we are experiencing the problems of the half term, when drivers naturally want to be at home with their families.
Will the noble Earl explain to the rail company involved that recruiting drivers for training is one thing, and getting them through the training is another, yet if the company does not retain them we have the fiasco that we have today? Will he emphasise to the company that part of the process of retaining their drivers is to pay them a comparative salary to those of rail drivers in other organisations?
The noble Lord is basically right. Full driver terms and conditions, including salaries, are confidential to the drivers concerned; however, a glance at the London Midland website states that the company is advertising for qualified drivers at a salary of £42,620, while Chiltern Railways, by comparison, is advertising for qualified drivers and offering £46,344.
My Lords, I have considerable sympathy for the Chancellor. Last weekend, I found myself totally confused by first class, second class, the price of tickets, which line to be on and everything else. When I showed my rail card with an old photograph of me, the ticket inspector said, “Gosh, you look like George Osborne”, which was a bit of a shock. Does not the noble Earl feel that we should try to simplify this plethora of ticket types and rules? It is totally confusing.
My Lords, the noble Earl has repeatedly talked about the moving annual average. Does this mean that the rail company concerned is able to claim that it is always an average year in terms of its performance, in that it is worse than last year and better than next year?
My Lords, first, it is important to understand that the TOC has a target of continuously improving performance. Secondly, we need to understand that the penalties for breaching the contractual obligations are actually quite serious; so under the system of measuring performance it is possible for the TOC to have a few bad weeks and not be in breach of contract, but if it continues in that way, it will, under the terms of the franchise, eventually end up in breach of contract and be vulnerable to serious consequences.
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that it is not just the salary that matters with a job; job satisfaction involves all sorts of other factors such as being respected by your employer, being given decent working hours, being able to expect to work on certain days and not others, and always having something to anticipate that is good? This, I am afraid, is where London Midland has fallen down, and is why it is not retaining its drivers. Can anything be done to encourage it to be good to its workforce?
My Lords, does the noble Earl share the pleasure and delight that I certainly do in the knowledge that his grandfather presided over a wonderful Labour Government, who in 1948 nationalised the railways? Does he agree that in terms of managing the railways, that Labour Government were a huge improvement on this Conservative Government?
I am sure that the whole House will not be surprised to hear that I am very pleased at my grandfather’s achievements. However, there is a difficulty in having one nationalised industry: it is very difficult to determine the appropriate salary for a train driver when you have only one employer. We have several employers of train drivers and our experience is that train drivers are finding out who is the best employer, either in terms of salary or, as pointed out by the noble Countess, in relation to other terms and conditions.
My Lords, do the Government have enough staff in the Department for Transport to micromanage all these franchises, to ensure that each driver is paid the right amount and that there are enough drivers, and then to impose the penalties if they fail? After the west coast main line franchise, possibly it should be recruiting another 50% of its civil servants.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, before we continue with the rest of the day’s business, I should like to make a short business statement.
The House will notice from the Order Paper that the main business today is no longer the second day in Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, as we were expecting. Instead, we shall have a short day to consider the fast-tracked Mental Health (Approval Functions) Bill.
The reason for not proceeding today with the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill is that late yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, tabled an amendment, printed as Amendment 28A on a supplementary sheet as it was too late to be included in the Marshalled List. Its intention is to change the date for the report from the Boundary Commission on parliamentary constituencies from before 1 October 2013 to not before 1 October 2018.
It became apparent to me in the course of yesterday evening that the advice of the Public Bill Office to the noble Lord, Lord Hart, was that his amendment was inadmissible and should not be tabled because it was not relevant to the Bill. It is worth pointing out that if a similar situation arose in the Commons and the clerks there came to a similar view, the clerks would advise the Speaker that the amendment was out of scope and inadmissible, and the amendment would simply not be moved. In our self-regulating House, we rely on Members taking the advice of the Public Bill Office. The Companion makes this clear:
“The Public Bill Office advises on whether an amendment is admissible and it is expected that this advice will be taken”.
The noble Lord, Lord Hart, has however, insisted that the amendment be tabled against the advice not only of the Public Bill Office but of the Clerk of the Parliaments. The Companion provides that in the rare circumstances that a Member of this House tables an amendment against the advice of the clerks, it is for me, as Leader of the House, to ask the House to endorse the opinion of the Public Bill Office. If the amendment comes before the House when the Bill is next considered, I will readily invite the House to endorse that advice, as any Leader would be bound to do. However, that is not a decision for today.
Yesterday evening, I decided that, in view of the highly contentious nature of the amendment and the clear advice of the clerks, the House needed the opportunity to reflect on that advice before taking a decision on this matter. The Chief Whip withdrew the Bill from the Order Paper and informed the Opposition and the usual channels, and I have placed a copy of the advice from the Public Bill Office in the Library of the House. I would prefer an informed debate next week to an ill-informed, disorderly row today.
By the late tabling of an inadmissible amendment the noble Lord proposed to ask the House to act precipitately without notice and against the advice of the clerks. This is not how we should go about our work. These are the reasons why I have changed the business before us today, to enable the House to reflect carefully before it takes a decision either on the admissibility of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hart, or on its merits. I believe that it is a decision made in the best interests of the House.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for his statement seeking to explain why the House is not dealing today with the business it was expecting to consider—indeed, the business that the House should be considering today. Until this morning the Order Paper for today contained as first business after Questions the second day of the Committee stage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Yesterday lunchtime—not late, and well within the rules as set out in the Companion—noble Lords, Lord Hart of Chilton, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, Lord Rennard, and Lord Wigley, tabled an amendment to the Bill, the effect of which would be to delay for five years the proposed changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries for the election of Members to the House of Commons.
There was an issue on whether the amendment was within the scope of the Bill. The parliamentary clerks, serving your Lordships’ House argued that boundary changes were not relevant to registration. Supporters of the amendment considered that since boundaries are determined by the number of registered voters in an area, registration was highly relevant to boundary changes. The amendment’s supporters obtained written advice from Queen’s Counsel to this effect. That advice was provided to the clerks; they still disagreed.
We are not in the House of Commons, as the Leader of the House is oft wont to point out, and the House of Lords Companion stipulates that it is for your Lordships’ House itself, and no one else, to reach a decision on such contested issues about relevance. The supporters of the amendment have been scrupulous in ensuring that the clerks have had time to consider the issue. Some time during yesterday afternoon the Government became aware of the amendment. According to media reports, some time during the afternoon or early evening, there was communication between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister about the amendment. At 8.18 pm last night my noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip received an e-mail from the Government Whips’ Office saying:
“Lord Bassam, the Leader has asked me to let you know that the order paper for tomorrow has changed and no longer contains the Electoral Administration Bill. The Mental Health (Approval Functions) Bill will thus be first (and only) business”.
That was the first intimation from the Government business managers of any change. There had been no consultation, as required by the Companion. An Order Paper was then published today without the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill on it. Those are the facts. They show not this self-regulating House determining its order of business, through the operational proxy for a self-regulating House of the usual channels, but the order of business in your Lordships’ House being determined by the Leader of the House. That is not right. That is not how this House conducts its business.
Of course, the Leader can have an influence on the order of business in the Lords—that is proper. After all he leads the government party whose business your Lordships’ House must consider. The Government are entitled to have their business considered, but in this case their business is not in jeopardy. The principle of the House of Lords determining its own business goes to the heart of its independence from the Government. That principle is reflected in the Companion. The Companion allows the Peer in whose name a notice is on the Order Paper to withdraw that notice, but that is intended to deal with cases when the Peer for some reason cannot carry out the business. It is not intended to override paragraph 3.30 of the Companion.
We understand that the Government are resting their case of their ability to pull business in this way on Standing Order No 42 (1)—a standing order passed as recently as 26 March 1852. The Government really need to do better than this. If they want to rearrange business, they should do so through the usual channels, as made clear in the Companion. The correct course for the Government last night was to seek agreement through the usual channels. If agreement was not forthcoming, the correct course would be for your Lordships’ House to be asked to agree the change of business today—in other words, for a statement to be made to the House which could then be debated, and if necessary challenged. I know that the noble Lord is making a statement today but it is after the publication of the new Order Paper.
In terms of the merits of the amendment tabled, the argument being put is not a political, and certainly not a party political, one. It is an argument about supporting a proper system of democracy and about certainty in the democratic system when candidates for election to the House of Commons are already being selected under a system which is now wholly lacking in clarity. That is the argument that we on these Benches and on many sides of the House want to engage in when the amendment in question comes before your Lordships’ House. It will then be for your Lordships’ House and no one else—not the Leader of the House, not the clerks, not the Opposition—to decide on that amendment on its merits. But, at the heart of this issue today are not the merits of the amendment: it is who determines the House’s business—the Leader or this House: this self-regulating House.
I would be content with the following course. First, that the Government accept that the procedural position as to who determines the business is as I have described it, as set out in the Companion. Secondly, that the Government advise the House of their proposed plans for the Committee stage of the Bill. I understand from what the noble Lord has said that the Government wish to have a short pause—which is acceptable—until Monday of next week to consider their position. We would not find that unreasonable. However, I would like an assurance from the Leader of the House that the House will indeed have the Committee stage of the Bill on Monday. The House needs that assurance—and it needs it today.
It needs it beyond it currently being on the Order Paper because, as we have seen in this instance, the attitude of the Government towards your Lordships’ House is that the Order Paper setting out the business of this House is not worth the paper on which it is printed. I invite the Leader of the House to give those assurances now.
My Lords, it is interesting how two people can look at the same set of events and come to two completely different conclusions. However, it was ever thus.
It is worth pointing out for the record that I received the clerks’ formal advice at about ten-past eight last night. Less than 10 minutes later, my office informed the Opposition that the business for today had changed. I do not have to remind the House that my noble friend the Chief Whip is responsible for the arrangement of business. It is a commonplace but it is also set out in paragraph 3.30 of the Companion. Of course, we always try to work through the usual channels. The clerks this morning confirmed that the Chief Whip has authority to schedule government business, and only the Government can schedule government business. The Chief Whip can withdraw an item from the Order Paper at any time without first consulting the usual channels—and frequently does with secondary legislation and Back-Bench business.
Noble Lords must ask themselves what would have happened if the Government had tabled an amendment to their own Bill—which they do many times—with minimum notice, had received advice from the clerks that it was inadmissible and had demanded that the House should vote to overturn its own rules. The first people who would be rightly outraged by such an action would be noble Lords opposite. That is why I acted in the way that I did.
I cannot agree with the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition on her interpretation of how business is arranged, although, as she and I and the House know, the usual channels work on the overwhelming majority of occasions extremely well.
I expect the business to be taken next Monday—it is in the Forthcoming Business—but the most important thing at the moment is that there is scope for reflection by all sides before then. It is good to hear the noble Baroness say that we should bring forward government legislation. I can assure her that in the weeks and months ahead we shall have plenty more legislation.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hart of Chilton is a Member of the Labour Benches. Would it not be surprising if we were not aware of what was happening? As I understand it, the four noble Lords in question tabled their amendment shortly after midday yesterday, at 12.30 pm. I cast no aspersions, but I am therefore surprised that the noble Lord was not informed of the views of the clerks until 8.30 last night.
Paragraph 3.30 of the Companion refers to the “usual channels”, but it always talks about consultation. I know that with secondary legislation from time to time, the noble Baroness the Chief Whip will do things without consultation, but it is absolutely usual for the usual channels to do things in consultation, and that is what has not happened on this occasion.
In response to the noble Lord’s point about amendments being tabled on the eve of the debate on them, perhaps I may gently remind the noble Lord the Leader of the House that the Government frequently table amendments, admissible or inadmissible, on the eve of their being debated.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as I have listened carefully to what the Leader of the Opposition has said on this matter. We can argue about what methods should have been used to reach a decision, as the noble Baroness said, but we are where we are at the present time. I accept the reason given by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the matter requires careful consideration and reflection, and for that reason we would certainly support his point of view in terms of pulling this amendment out.
The Clerk of the Parliaments has offered advice. By its very nature it is advisory to the House, and it is for your Lordships’ House to determine whether to accept it or not. The intervening time will give an opportunity to all Members of the House to listen to and read the advice and the reasons for it. They will then be able to reach their own opinion. The intervening period gives us not only time to reflect but, having done so, we can come back to the House to debate the advice with a view to reaching a resolution on this matter.
There is a further matter. If the advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments is that the amendment is out of the scope of the Bill, we would certainly want to seek his advice as to how to bring it within scope so that it can be debated by noble Lords. Having said that, the substantive matter will still need a resolution. Let me make the position of my party absolutely clear. It is the position which has been made clear by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. This was not part of the coalition agreement and it does breach any agreement we have reached with the Conservative Party. For that reason, we on this side of the House will support the amendment when it is debated.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his support for the action that I have taken today. I agree with his invitation to noble Lords to reflect and read the advice and thus become informed about the issues. I am also equally keen that we should resolve the issues before us.
It is perhaps worth reminding the House that I have placed a copy of the clerks’ advice in the Library. As to why the amendment is inadmissible, in short, amendments have to be relevant to the subject matter of the Bill. The Bill is about two things: individual electoral voter registration and the administration and conduct of elections. The clerks’ advice, which I endorse, is that the question of boundaries, just like the question of the franchise, is relevant to neither of the purposes of the Bill before us. As to whether the clerks could make it admissible—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hart, asked that question when he originally tabled his amendment.
My Lords, in my experience there is very little that is new in this House and I have no doubt that inadmissible amendments have been tabled in the past. However, can my noble friend the Leader of the House tell me what the experience in the past in this House has been? Has the House ever voted on an inadmissible amendment and, if so, how often?
My Lords, the records reveal that the Public Bill Office has had to correspond in these circumstances on only five occasions in the past 20 years. On every occasion, the Member concerned respected the advice of the Public Bill Office and the amendment was not moved.
Yes, my Lords, I confirm to the noble and learned Lord that that is what is laid out in our Companion. However, perhaps I can repeat the words in the Companion:
“The Public Bill Office advises on whether an amendment is admissible and it is expected that this advice will be taken”.
In House of Lords language that is a very strict view that the advice should be taken. As I pointed out in responding to my noble friend Lord Wakeham, it usually is.
My Lords, is it not just passing strange that someone who until very recently regarded this House with little short of disdain should now be seeking to use this House for entirely divisive political purposes, in a Bill where the Minister in charge is of the Liberal Democrat persuasion and would have to stand on his head rather than vote?
My Lords, I do not really know all the ins and outs of the genesis of this amendment. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hart, was acting in good faith and encouraged others to support him. As regards my noble friend, I have complete faith in his abilities to take this Bill through.
My Lords, can the Leader of the House assist the House by explaining how the business will proceed on Monday—and, indeed, how it would have proceeded had we taken it today—in respect of the relationship between the question of admissibility and the substantive issue to which the amendment relates? It is my impression, and he will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, that it would be very difficult to discuss the admissibility of the amendment without discussing its substance. I do not see how that can be done. Can the Leader of the House explain the likely nature of the debate on Monday when we come to it?
My Lords, there would be two questions before the House. The first would be a question on admissibility. I suspect that the noble Baroness is entirely correct that, during the course of that debate, there would be discussions on the substance of the amendment. It would be difficult to see how one could progress without that taking place. When that is settled, if the House agrees to support the view of the clerks, then the amendment would not be taken; if the House decided to continue with the amendment, there would be a second, alternative debate in the normal manner on the amendment and the House would need to take a decision on how to dispose of that.
My Lords, we are getting into very treacherous waters. When I was Secretary of State for Scotland, I had to sign a Boundary Commission report that effectively wrecked my constituency. It never occurred to me for a moment not to do so, because the convention was that the Boundary Commission reports were sacred and people did not play party political games with them. Although it is for this House to decide its business, it is surely also absolutely central to its operation that we respect the views of the clerks. If we do not, we will be lost.
My Lords, with all his experience and good judgment, my noble friend makes an extremely good point, which is on the substantive issue of the amendment. I agree with him that we are getting on to very treacherous ground, not least because—look around this House—none of us is elected to anything. Surely it would be better to let the House of Commons, which is elected and is impacted by this, to look at this first of all.
Perhaps I might correct something I said a moment ago to the noble Baroness on what will happen when we debate this issue. I will do my duty as Leader of the House and draw the attention of the House to the advice of the Public Bill Office and ask the House to endorse that advice. The previous occasion this happened was during the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill on 4 July 2011, when the mood of the House was to support the advice of the clerks, and good order, and the noble Lord concerned chose not to move his amendment. There is, however, no mechanism to prevent the noble Lord, Lord Hart—if it is he—from moving his amendment and, if he insists, the amendment will still be put before the House.
My Lords, the Leader of the House has given all of us an opportunity to look at this matter in a reasoned way, because of the delay. As someone who has spoken on this legislation, and who intended to speak on it today, I would have been very concerned to see a brand new amendment talking about delaying the boundary changes for several years. More senior Members than I can remember that there was a great dispute around 1980 because there was a delay in the boundary changes and it was felt that that was undemocratic. A knock-on effect of that delay was that when a Member of Parliament in Glasgow died—my good friend the late Tom McMillan—his constituency consisted of an electorate of 20,000, which was just slightly bigger than a regional ward in the Strathclyde region, because of those delays.
The time factor given to us by the Leader of the House has given us all a chance to reflect on this amendment, which I have not had the opportunity to examine. I would be very concerned about any amendment where the advice of the Clerk of the Parliaments has been rejected. I understand that it is advice that the officials give and it does not necessarily need to be taken, but it is sound advice that the Clerk gives. I am not taking sides with the Labour Party or the Conservative Party or indeed the Liberal party, but at least with this delay people like me, who have taken an interest in this legislation, can go to the Clerk and make him an even busier man than he is at the moment and get advice, and ask him why he feels that this matter is out of the scope of the business before us. I do not see any harm in a delay. In fact, often it is better to have a delay so that we can come to a reasoned decision.
My Lords, following on from the point that has just been made, as I understand the position in the House of Commons, if this were to happen there, the clerks would advise the Speaker. The Speaker would then consider the advice and would decide whether or not he wanted to accept it. If he decided that he wanted to accept it, he would rule the amendment inadmissible and therefore it would not be taken. If, on the other hand, he decided to overrule the clerks’ advice, which he is perfectly entitled to do, he could decide that the amendment was admissible and it would then be taken.
This House is self-governing; we do not have a Speaker. Who plays the role of the Speaker to decide that issue in this House? The answer is: the House as a whole. Therefore, we are in the same position as the Speaker of the House of Commons. We have been presented with advice from the Clerk, which I have not yet seen, as to a certain course that should be pursued. Just as the Speaker in the House of Commons can accept or reject that advice, so this House can accept or reject this advice.
My Lords, in order that we might use the time for reflection to best effect, would it not be highly desirable if the opinion which I understand has been taken by the noble Lord, Lord Hart, or others of the group pressing the amendment, was made available to us? We could then take that into account along with the advice given by the Clerk. Is my noble friend the Leader of the House aware whether that might be enabled?
My Lords, I may be the only one, but, further to the clarification which the Leader gave, I am now more confused than ever. He appeared to say that it would be open to this House to agree to proceed with a debate, but that it would not be open to it to deny a debate if the mover of the amendment insisted on proceeding with it. Did I understand him correctly and, if that is the case, does that apply to other Members of this House who have their name to the amendment? In other words, if any of them insisted on going ahead, must a debate take place? That is now my understanding of what the Leader said in his clarification. If he could confirm that, I would be obliged.
Did the Leader of the House consider inviting the House today to suspend consideration of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hart, but allowing the Committee to proceed with the other business under this important Bill, which many of us were prepared today to come along to attend to?
My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. I think that it was support not just for me as Leader of the House but for the correct procedures and processes in this House of Lords. What he said was extremely important and I hope that noble Lords will think very carefully about how they proceed having heard what he said and perhaps having read it in Hansard.
The noble Lord, Lord Richard, made a perfectly good point about who decides these matters. The fact is that we do not have a Speaker. We ultimately can decide these things for ourselves, but we have probably the best set of clerks in the world, who give us authoritative advice about these matters. My view is, and it was my view when I was Leader of the Opposition, that if the clerks take a view on something like this, we would accept it.
On what the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition said, I was not aware that a counsel had been taken on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hart, and an opinion sought and received which will be made available. I am sure that that will be very useful to noble Lords who like to read that sort of thing, but I do wonder whether we really want to go in the direction of reaching for our lawyers every time there is an issue of disagreement. It is not so long ago when this House was the last court of appeal in this country; I think that we are a lesser House for having removed that function from it. So it is not something that I would greatly encourage.
I gave an answer to the noble Lord, Lord Reid. He was right to raise his question in a tone of incredulity. There is incredulity here that any noble Lord would wish to continue once the House had taken a view. I say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that I did not consider the option that he described. I dare say that it could have been open to us, but I felt that very few people in this House had any knowledge of what had happened yesterday afternoon and that I should bring it to the attention of the House as early as possible, which is what I have done, and allow for a period of reflection over the course of the next few days to see whether this can be sorted out and how to proceed.
Financial Services Bill
Order of Consideration Motion
That the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 4, Schedule 1, Clause 5, Schedule 2, Clause 6, Schedule 3, Clauses 7 to 11, Schedule 4, Clauses 12 to 14, Schedule 5, Clauses 15 to 21, Schedule 6, Clauses 22 to 28, Schedule 7, Clauses 29 to 34, Schedule 8, Clauses 35 and 36, Schedule 9, Clause 37, Schedule 10, Clause 38, Schedule 11, Clauses 39 and 40, Schedule 12, Clause 41, Schedule 13, Clauses 42 and 43, Schedule 14, Clause 44, Schedule 15, Clause 45, Schedule 16, Clauses 46 to 97, Schedule 17, Clauses 98 to 103, Schedules 18 and 19, Clauses 104 to 108, Schedules 20 and 21, Clauses 109 to 112.
Mental Health (Approval Functions) Bill
Second Reading and Remaining Stages
My Lords, the purpose of this Bill is simple but urgent and vital. On Monday, I described to noble Lords how the need for it arose and came to light. I am glad to have this opportunity to continue that discussion today.
My Lords, I am grateful for that. I am glad to have this opportunity today to continue the discussion and explain further why we believe we must take this action. I begin by repeating my deep gratitude to noble Lords on all sides of the House for the highly constructive, sensitive and helpful approach that they are taking to this issue. Were it not for that, we would not be able to respond with the speed needed to resolve matters in the best way available to us and the best interests of patients.
As noble Lords appreciate, detaining a mentally ill person in hospital and treating them against their will is clearly a matter of the utmost seriousness, and must be treated as such both by the law and by health and social care practitioners. The statutory framework is contained in the Mental Health Act 1983, which sets out that for assessments and decisions under certain sections of the Act—including detention decisions under Sections 2 and 3—three professionals are required to be involved: two doctors and an approved mental health professional, usually a social worker. One of the two doctors must be approved under Section 12 of the Act.
To recap, when strategic health authorities were established in 2002, the Secretary of State at the time quite properly and lawfully delegated to them his function under the 1983 Act of approving the doctors able to be involved in making these decisions. Early last week, the Department of Health learned that in four of the 10 SHAs—North East, Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands and East Midlands—the function of approving clinicians had been further delegated by the SHAs to NHS mental health trusts over a period extending, in some cases, from 2002 to the present day. The issue was identified as a result of a single doctor querying an approval panel’s processes. Ministers were informed later in the week as soon as the extent of the issue became clear and since then have been kept informed of and involved in the action being taken. Our current assessment is that about 2,000 clinicians were not approved properly in line with the provisions of the 1983 Act and that those clinicians have participated in the detention of between 4,000 and 5,000 of the patients currently detained in NHS or independent sector hospitals.
There are two important points to make clear now: first, the decision to detain a patient under the Mental Health Act is primarily a clinical one. There is no suggestion and no reason to believe that the irregularity of the approval process for these clinicians has resulted in any clinically inappropriate decision being made, whether the decision was to detain or not. Nor is there any suggestion that the clinicians approved by mental health trusts are anything other than entirely properly qualified to make these recommendations. All the proper clinical processes were gone through when these patients were detained. There is no reason why the irregular approval process should have led to anyone being in hospital who should not be—or vice versa—and no patients have suffered because of this. The clinicians had no reason to think that they had not been properly approved. They acted in total good faith and in the interest of their patients throughout this period.
As of Friday last week, the SHAs concerned had corrected their procedures and all the clinicians involved had been properly approved. In the light of our legal advice, we do not believe that any decisions that have been made about patients’ care and detention require review because of this irregularity. Doctors should continue treating patients who are currently detained under the Mental Health Act in the usual way.
The second point I want to make is that we have been advised by First Treasury Counsel that there are good arguments that the detentions involving these particular approval processes were, and are, lawful. Given the seriousness of the issues, counsel also argues the need for absolute legal clarity and advises that this is most safely resolved through emergency retrospective legislation. We are heeding that advice. As soon as the irregularity was identified, the department moved swiftly to identify the best course of action and to put the necessary preparatory work in place. Officials immediately sought initial legal and clinical advice and swiftly analysed the options, including the reassessment of all the potentially affected patients, working with the health leads in the regions involved and clinical experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
When the Secretary of State was briefed on the situation, he asked for detailed information on the time it would take and the clinical risks involved in reassessing all potentially affected patients. Last Friday, he asked for an emergency Bill to be drafted over the weekend, as a matter of contingency. He briefed the Prime Minister personally the following day. Following further discussions and analysis over the weekend, the decision to introduce emergency legislation was taken on Sunday.
At all times, our priority has been to resolve this in a way that follows clinical advice about the most sensitive way to deal with a highly vulnerable group of individuals. It would not have been feasible quickly to reassess all the patients and could well have caused great distress to them and their families.
We have also worked to remedy the problem as it relates to current and future detentions. The accountable officers for the four SHAs in question have written to Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS, to confirm they have made the necessary changes to their governance arrangements. Furthermore, the accountable officers in the other six SHAs have written to Sir David to confirm that they have, in the light of this issue, reviewed their own arrangements and that they are in full compliance with the Mental Health Act.
Our best medical advice is that all the detained patients who have been affected and, where appropriate, family members, should be informed, but first we need to consider carefully how best to give people all the information and advice that they are entitled to in ways that do not cause unnecessary confusion or distress, so we need to take a little more time to make sure we get that right. Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS medical director, will write shortly to SHA medical directors with further advice, which will be informed by the view of clinical experts and organisations representing detained patients and their families. It is vital that doctors, other mental health professionals and, most importantly, patients and their families have absolute confidence in the decisions made.
I am also aware that Mind and Rethink Mental Illness are providing very helpful advice to patients and their families and carers through their information lines and on the websites. This is just one aspect of the valuable assistance they have provided in dealing with this matter, and I am very grateful to them for it.
I will turn now to the scope of the Bill. Although we are aware of the problem only in the four areas going back to 2002, the Bill applies in principle to the approval of all clinicians under the Mental Health Act since its introduction in 1983. It retrospectively validates the approval of clinicians by those organisations to which responsibility was delegated up to the point when all the relevant clinicians were fully reapproved and their status put beyond doubt.
I would like to clarify who this Bill is targeted at. The “persons” referred to in Clause 1(1) are those who have exercised the approvals function only—no one else, and no other function—under the Mental Health Act 1983. Although it addresses a very particular issue, the Bill deliberately avoids going into further detail about which persons it applies to. Attempting to include a totally comprehensive list of which bodies or people believed in good faith that they were exercising the approvals function in the past would have created what we believe would have been an unacceptably high risk of omitting agencies or individuals that should have been included.
Although the Bill may appear to bestow a wide-ranging retrospective validation on “any person”, in fact, it is very narrowly targeted. It validates only any approvals given in the past and relates only to the function of giving approvals to clinicians as having particular skills—for example, as having special experience in the diagnosis or treatment of mental disorder. Once approved, the clinicians are then allowed to carry out certain functions under the Mental Health Act, such as giving medical recommendations in relation to a patient whose possible detention is being considered. The Bill helps to ensure that we regularise the situation completely and finally.
Crucially, the Bill will not deprive anyone of any of their normal rights to seek redress if they have been detained for any other reason apart from the narrow issue of the delegation of authority to approve by the SHAs. Nor will it affect any future detentions or legitimise any similar failures in future.
Necessary as we believe that it is to address the issue in this way, it is also important that we get to the bottom of how this happened. Therefore, the Secretary of State has asked Dr Geoffrey Harris, chair of NHS South of England and former chair of Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust, to undertake an independent review looking at how this responsibility was delegated by these four SHAs and, more broadly, the governance and assurance processes that all SHAs use for delegating any responsibilities. We will also ask Dr Harris to look at this in the context of the new NHS structures that come into force from next April to see whether any lessons need to be learnt.
It is imperative that this review is swift, and we have asked Dr Harris to report by the end of the year with recommendations to ensure that every part of the system employs the highest standards of assurance and oversight in the delegation of any functions.
In conclusion, I stress to the House that we have reviewed thoroughly with lawyers, clinicians and NHS managers all possible alternatives to introducing this retrospective legislation. We have been advised that all alternatives would be highly disruptive to the welfare of many of the most vulnerable patients within the mental health system, and would also deprive many other patients of the care they need while any action is undertaken. That is why, in such exceptional circumstances, we are proposing this retrospective legislation.
My Lords, I will keep my remarks short given the need to progress the Bill through its remaining stages in this sitting. I was briefed over the weekend and I am happy to give it my support. The most important thing is that the patients affected by the legislation are the most vulnerable, posing a danger to themselves or to others. They need, as do the public, a solution to this dilemma, and it needs to be found as quickly as possible. Doctors need that resolving too. For the past 10 years, they have been practising competently in blissful ignorance of their situation, assuming that they are approved.
The Bill is retrospective and, like others, I regret that, but I am totally convinced of the need for it and confident that appropriate advice has been taken. However, some questions still arise. Can the Minister confirm that the intention of Clause 1 is to give power not only retrospectively but with effect from today? Can we be confident that people who think that they are approved today actually are and do not need to undergo any validation or approvals? Further, can we be confident that until 1 April 2013 there is a process in place for people wishing to be approved? If that is the case, and given the demise of SHAs, can the Minister please tell the House what the process will be for registering doctors with effect from April next year and how the preparations for this transfer of responsibility are being progressed?
I am pleased that there will be an independent review of what went wrong in these SHAs leading to this state of affairs. I understand that this will extend only to this narrow issue but it begs another question. Where is the definitive list of SHA roles and responsibilities and who is the guardian of that list? Can we be confident that there are no other areas where action has not been taken by some or all of the SHAs? Can we be equally confident that they will not be lost in the process of transition away from the world of SHAs and PCTs towards that of the national Commissioning Board and CCGs?
Finally, I return to the patients. When the Statement was debated earlier this week the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, who is not in her place today, brought up communication with patients. The noble Earl has just outlined what is going to happen. However, can he update the House on the timescale? I repeat that I am happy to support this Bill. However, it raises many questions about associated issues and I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister were able to help clarify these matters.
My Lords, there is undoubtedly a problem which needs to be addressed by emergency and retrospective legislation. I am very grateful to the Minister for explaining the background circumstances. It is very regrettable, indeed astonishing, that this problem has arisen but it has and we need to deal with it.
Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, considered the Bill this morning. Your Lordships do not have a formal report from the Constitution Committee because of the urgency but perhaps I may mention two points that we discussed. First, the committee noted with satisfaction that the Explanatory Notes to the Bill address all the issues which the committee advised in its report on fast-track legislation should be addressed by the Government when bringing emergency legislation before the House. We are very grateful for that.
The second point is more substantial. The terms of Clause 1(1) are very broadly defined indeed. They are not confined to the particular mischief which has caused the problem—that is, the actions of strategic health authorities in purporting to delegate the exercise of approval functions to the NHS mental health trusts and the consequent acts of those trusts in granting the approvals. Clause 1(1) is not confined to addressing that mischief which, as I understand it, is the mischief that has prompted this emergency and retrospective legislation. Instead, subsection (1) says that “Any person”—the noble Earl explained that that is deliberately wide and undefined—who has purported to exercise an approval function,
“is to be treated for all purposes as having had the power to do so”.
Clause 1(1) would appear to validate any action in the purported exercise of the approval function, provided it was done before Royal Assent, even though there was a lack of legal power—however that lack of legal power may have been caused and whatever the extent of the legal impediment. Clause 1(1) is not confined to the mischief of the possibly unlawful delegation of powers that causes this legislation to be brought forward.
I appreciate that Clause 1(1) has limits; it is confined to the approval function and it is not prospective, as the Minister emphasised. However, it is very broad in retrospectively validating any lack of powers in the purported performance by anyone of the approval function, whether or not it has anything to do with the delegation function that has been identified in the circumstances. This point was raised in the other place yesterday by Mr Andy Burnham for the Opposition, at col. 205 of Hansard. I have to say that the Minister’s reply was not convincing; he did not address the point. Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee expressed concern at our meeting this morning at the breadth of Clause 11, recognising as we did, I repeat, the need for retrospective emergency legislation in this area.
Why does Clause 1(1) not limit the remedy to the mischief—for example, by including at the end of Clause 1(1) the words “whether or not strategic health authorities had legal power to delegate the exercise of an approval function to an NHS mental health trust”, or something like them? I suggest that such legislation or something like it would implement the object of this emergency legislation but without purporting retrospectively to validate any and all other abuses of the approval function, if any, whatever the consequences may be for people who may have been unlawfully detained for any other reasons relating to the exercise, or the purported exercise, of the approval function.
I respectfully suggest to the Minister and to the House that emergency and retrospective legislation, particularly in a context such as this, concerned as it is with a very vulnerable section of our society, should be carefully drafted and limited in order to confine the remedy to fit the mischief. It would be most regrettable if the emergency legislation, by curing the delegation irregularity, were incidentally—and, I am sure, unintentionally—to prevent legal action by people who may have been unlawfully detained by reason of an unreasonable or improper use of an approval function, which has nothing to do with delegation.
My Lords, I give my general wholehearted support to this. I am very sympathetic to the difficulties in which the Government find themselves and I wholly understand the need for the emergency legislation. It seems to me quite astonishing that these four health authorities should have made this decision. I say that because at that time in 2002, I also became chairman of a strategic health authority. I want to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, that we had a very long list of our legal obligations, of which one was clearly the approval of Section 12 approved doctors. It was discussed. It is very difficult and time consuming to set up the training programmes to ensure that the right wisdom is in place and to supervise those being approved by the authority itself. I quite understand that people might have thought that it would be easier to delegate it but the 1983 Act is so clear that I cannot understand how these four authorities could have thought that they could delegate that.
Speaking as a former vice-chair of the Mental Health Act Commission in the 1990s, I would like to ask why that commission did not pick up that these Section 12 approved doctors were being approved by the wrong authorities. I find that quite astonishing. While I can see the need for this legislation and the reason for the emergency, I hope that we will look carefully at how they got this so wrong.
I have a suspicion that the difficulty may arise because of an attitude in some authorities to treating with less gravity the detention of mental health patients than perhaps it is in others. As you travel around the country, regrettably it is true that this appears to be a lesser function for some authorities than they want to undertake, which is seriously worrying.
I share the anxieties that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has outlined that there could still be quacks or quite unsuitable doctors who have discharged the functions of an approved doctor; yet in this catch-all Bill their decisions would not allow patients to challenge them. After all, we are talking about right up to the present day. Therefore, we are talking about patients who perhaps are coming out of hospital in the next month or two and still want to challenge the legality of the detention because of the approval of the Section 12 approval. We are going to be ruling that out. I wonder how that sits well with our assurances that we will take this process more seriously, and as seriously as Parliament intended when it passed the 1983 Act.
My Lords, detaining people under the Mental Health Act raises fundamental questions of individual liberty and public safety requiring the most careful consideration. When that is combined with emergency legislation of a retrospective nature, it is clear that the circumstances in which we find ourselves today are far from ideal. Your Lordships will want to satisfy themselves that the retrospective measures that the Government are asking us to approve are justified. We have to be sure that this is the only real course of action available and that we are not setting a precedent where emergency legislation can be used as a convenient means of correcting administrative failings.
In doing so, we must have at the forefront of our minds the simple fact that the uncertainty that has arisen in the past week affects thousands of highly vulnerable people and their families, as well as holding serious implications for patient and public safety. If we leave that uncertainty hanging, it has the potential to cause real harm to those individuals and damage public trust in our system of individual and public protection. That is why Her Majesty’s Opposition have concluded that the public interest is best served by the Government taking the swift action that they propose today.
In reaching that judgment, we can take comfort from the fact that the main mental health charities, as well as the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the devolved Administrations, are also supporting the Government’s course of action. We are further helped by the fact that the Minister has today set out a cogent case for this exceptional retrospective measure that is before your Lordships.
However, a number of matters of detail and of principle arise from what the Minister said, which I would like to cover today. It would be helpful for the House to know more about the extent of the checks that have been carried out on the 4,000 to 5,000 cases that the Minister mentioned. The fact that we have a very vague figure suggests that there has not yet been a thorough case-by-case review. Would the Minister agree that that has to be done and that we need to know the precise number on the extent of the problem?
I press the Minister again on the question of the people and families affected, who will no doubt be unsettled by the news of what has happened. I noted from yesterday’s proceedings in the other place that strategic health authorities have been charged with putting a proper communication process in place. With all respect, those very SHAs that did not do this properly have been charged with communicating with the patients. I would like to press the Minister on the point that my right honourable friend Mr Andy Burnham made yesterday about the need for his department to be involved in personal communication to the individuals concerned.
Alongside the question of the details, I ask the Minister about the details of individual SHAs and timing in terms of notification of the department. If it had happened in just one SHA, the explanation might be easier to ascertain and understand. But given that it has happened in four SHAs, it seems to point to a more widespread issue of concern. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, on that point. Is it symptomatic of problems arising from historical practice among NHS bodies in those regions, or does it indicate that in those regions there may well have been a general problem with schemes of delegation? If the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, was able to do the job properly, it is very difficult to know why other SHAs were not so able to do the job, given the extensive legal advice available to strategic health authorities.
I would also like to ask the Minister about timing. On Monday, he said that knowledge arose because earlier in the year,
“a doctor challenged a refusal by the Yorkshire and Humber approvals panel to approve him under Section 12. This challenge highlighted the possibility that the Secretary of State's approval function, which had been properly delegated to SHAs, may, in some areas, have been unlawfully further delegated to NHS trusts. Yorkshire and Humber and then the northern SHA cluster took their own legal advice, which confirmed that the trust had been acting ultra vires in issuing the approvals. The northern SHA cluster identified that this applied to the arrangement in North East SHA and alerted the Midlands cluster, where it was possible that the same issue might apply in East Midlands and West Midlands”.
But it was not until 22 October that,
“the northern SHA cluster alerted the Department of Health to the issue surrounding the approval of doctors and the possible knock-on effects that that would have”.—[Official Report, 29/10/12; col. 449.]
If I have read that right, it seems to have taken a matter of six months or even more between the Yorkshire and Humber SHA, which I think has been subsumed into the northern SHA cluster, first knowing and its then not alerting the Department of Health. I am interested to know why it took so long for the department and Ministers to be alerted.
I come to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and whether the concept of “Any person” in Clause 1(1) of the Bill is too broad. On normal reading, it appears to legalise approvals by anybody. I know that the Minister said something about that in his introductory remarks. However, the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, regarding the outcome of the Constitution Committee’s deliberation this morning was helpful. He said that its reading of the draft is that it is not confined to the mischief of the improper use of delegated powers and, on the face of it, appears to give very broad and retrospective approval to actions that have been carried out in relation to the approval functions. This matter was raised in the other place by my right honourable friend Mr Andy Burnham yesterday when he asked for clarification. In response, Mr Norman Lamb said:
“I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for that intervention. We have gone through a very careful process and have followed legal advice on what is necessary to regularise the position. This relates specifically to the approval function, which is defined in clause 1(2). As I have said, the legal advice is that this is the best way to regularise the issue that has been uncovered”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/10/12; col. 205.]
I recognise that kind of response. It is the sort of response that one tries to get away with. Will the noble Earl give us a little more help on this matter? The clause, on the face of it, seems to go much wider than what would be deemed to be required.
We welcome the review. It will need to look at all the technical issues surrounding mental health so that this House and the public can be absolutely certain that there have been no other technical failures or breaches of regulation. We hope that Dr Harris will be able to undertake this review as swiftly as possible because it is important that it informs the current changes taking place in the National Health Service. We also hope that Dr Harris will be helped by independent professional involvement. Informing the new arrangements which will come in from April next year seems to me a very important part of the work of Dr Harris and his review.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said, we are not at all sure about how in practice the new arrangements will relate to the authorisation of doctors under the Mental Health Act. On Monday, the noble Earl said that in future those functions will come back to the Department of Health, but how will that be done in practice? I assume that we will continue to have local panels that will interview the doctors concerned and make recommendations on whether they should be authorised or not. But what happens then? Will the matter then go to the Secretary of State? Will he delegate to the NHS Commissioning Board or local NHS trusts? It is important that we know that there is clarity in the system. I certainly hope that Dr Harris’s review will inform that.
Finally, I echo a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, concerning whether this whole sorry episode is symptomatic of a wider cultural problem with regard to mental health in our National Health Service. Was the issue omitted from the lists of the four SHAs we are discussing because mental health is simply not given the priority that it ought to be given?
We are very glad that the Health and Social Care Bill, following its passage through your Lordships’ House, now includes parity of esteem for mental health services. I do not expect the noble Earl to go into the details of how the department is planning to turn that into a reality. However, in taking forward the work that needs to be done in Dr Harris’s review, it would be helpful to ensure that in future the health service as a whole accepts that legislation relating to people with mental health issues needs to be given as much priority and importance as legislation relating to other parts of the National Health Service.
My Lords, I again express my sincere gratitude to noble Lords who have spoken in this debate for recognising both the seriousness of the issue and the need for rapid action to resolve it. The expertise and wisdom that noble Lords bring to bear on these difficult questions has been extremely valuable. Regardless of the urgency, this is a matter that demands proper scrutiny, and that is exactly what the House is providing today, albeit within abnormal time constraints.
It is also important to record, once again, our appreciation of the invaluable help and advice that we have received from partners such as Mind, Rethink and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Their primary concern is naturally those whom they represent so ably, but we are genuinely grateful for the mature and calm way that they have responded. We shared the same ultimate objective—to do what is best for the patients affected by a technical error.
I shall now do my best to address the questions put to me. Perhaps I may begin with the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who relayed the concerns of the Constitution Committee. One of those concerns was why the Bill is drafted as it is, bearing in mind that the source of the mischief was the inappropriate delegation by strategic health authorities, resulting in the technical irregularity to which I have alluded. The answer to that question is that because we do not know the exact administrative arrangements that were in place before 2002 when SHAs came into being, it was impossible to limit in the way that the noble Lord suggested the framing of Clause 1. He suggested an addition at the end of Clause 1(1) specifying whether or not the SHAs had legal power to delegate. I can understand why the noble Lord made that suggestion, but we wanted to make sure that we captured any events of which we are currently unaware that may have occurred prior to 2002, before strategic health authorities were set up.
My Lords, because we are not going to have a full Committee stage, I hope that the Minister will indulge me in relation to this matter. Is there reason to think that there is any problem whatever other than delegation? I appreciate that it may relate to events prior to 2002, but surely it is only improper or possibly improper delegation of functions that is the mischief here.
The main mischief, I respectfully suggest to the noble Lord, is that the panels which approved the clinicians involved did not, strictly speaking, have the direct power to do that. That is the issue that the Bill tries to capture. The Bill deliberately does not include a comprehensive list of which bodies or persons believed in good faith that they were exercising the approvals function in the past. If we limited the Bill in the way that the noble Lord suggests, we would run the risk of failing to cover some of the approvals given by bodies that we may otherwise have failed to list. I ask the noble Lord to accept that the way in which the Bill is drafted is in the form of a blanket, which gives us certainty that we may not inadvertently have left out any bodies prior to 2002 that may have been guilty of a similar lack of authority.
I hope that the noble Earl will forgive my intervention because this is an important point. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, we are not having a Committee stage, and this is the only time when we can raise this matter.
The problem relates to the approval function. The way that I read it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, put it so eloquently, is that there might be a quack who somehow got through the system because there has not been the sign-off by the strategic health authority, which could check that the panel had done the right thing by actually exercising an approval function in agreeing—as part of a panel—to someone losing their liberty and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The issue is whether this rather open-ended, retrospective clause would give the okay to that as well. The noble Earl has essentially suggested that the problem is the vagueness about the organisational arrangements that were in place prior to 2002. I understand that but it seems to read in such an open-ended way that it could give almost a green light to poor practice or practice that should not have taken place within the panel so constituted under the Mental Health Act.
I understand the question but I believe that that concern is misplaced. The panels operating in this area apply agreed national criteria for approval. Those criteria are clear and extremely rigorous, and that is why we are confident that doctors must meet the same high standards across the country irrespective of whether this technical irregularity applies. The technical irregularity was simply that the panel did not refer back to the strategic health authority for ratification the recommendations that it had made. It is my understanding that strategic health authorities, as a matter of course, accept the advice of the specialist panels. Therefore, I do not share the worry that, somehow or other, quacks or inappropriate clinicians have been appointed to these very onerous and responsible roles.
I now turn to the other main concern raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the reason why the Bill has been drafted to refer to, “any person”. I see why he believes that the Bill appears to bestow a wide-ranging retrospective validation on any person, but in fact, the Bill is very narrowly targeted. It only validates any approvals given in the past and it relates only to the function of giving approvals to clinicians as having particular skills, for example, as having experience in the diagnosis or treatment of mental disorder. Once approved, the clinicians are then allowed to carry out certain functions under the Mental Health Act, as I said earlier. It is not the case that the Bill validates anyone other than persons who purported to approve clinicians. It is that role, and that role alone, that is referred to in the Bill.
The persons referred to in Clause 1(1) are as I have described. The Bill deliberately avoids going into further detail about which persons it applies to because, as I have said, attempting to include a totally comprehensive list of which bodies or people who believed in good faith that they were carrying out the approvals function would have created an unacceptably high risk of omitting agencies or individuals that should have been included. I hope that that is helpful.
I am advised in a further answer to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that if the power had been wrongly exercised by a panel and an inappropriate clinician had been authorised, that could still be challenged. That is to say: the challenge would be on the basis that the power was wrongly exercised but it would not be a challenge to the power to exercise the approval. I hope that that is helpful further clarification.
On the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, she asked how on earth strategic health authorities could have believed that they had this power to delegate. I share noble Lords’ dismay that we could have arrived at this situation but, having been advised by my officials, I am now more understanding of how this could have arisen. Strategic health authorities are able to delegate this function to certain bodies and in certain circumstances. However, they are not able to delegate it in the way that has come to light here. That is why we are legislating.
The options open to strategic health authorities for delegating their functions in relation to all issues are set out in regulations issued in 2002. In relation to the approval of clinicians under the Mental Health Act—which may include clinicians such as psychologists—there were also directions issued in 2008. Such approvals may be delegated to PCTs and therefore there is scope for legitimate confusion as to the exact way in which strategic health authorities had the power to delegate in this area.
I do not think there is any evidence for the fear expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that mental health was somehow not being given the priority it should be in those four strategic health authorities. What happened was that rather than carry out the approval process in-house, the four strategic health authorities decided to deliver the function through a contract with a mental health trust, believing that the focus brought about through a specific contract and the expertise and connections of a mental health trust would deliver a more rigorous and effective approvals process. However, the effect of these arrangements was that the approval functions were to be carried out by the trust, and the regulations and directions specifically set out, as I have said, with which bodies the SHAs may make arrangements to exercise the functions. They cannot completely delegate their responsibility in the way that they did, but it can be exercised on their behalf by a committee, a sub-committee or an officer of the authority. In essence, the panels in the trusts should have been regarded as advisory to the SHA, not having the approval functions themselves.
The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, asked why this was not picked up sooner. The incorrect delegation was within the process between the strategic health authority and the mental health trust. To all appearances, the process of approving doctors and the quality of the doctors in these four SHAs was the same as in the rest of the country. However, this is a matter with which Dr Harris will no doubt wish to concern himself.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked me whether we could more precisely define the extent of the problem in terms of the number of patients affected. As of today, my advice is that the north and midlands SHA clusters have reported that they have currently identified 4,117 affected patients—1,265 in the north SHA cluster and 2,852 in the midlands.
I turn now to the questions posed by my noble friend Lady Jolly. She asked me whether the intention of Clause 1 is to give power not only retrospectively but also with effect from today. I hope I have made it clear that that is not the case. It takes effect from today retrospectively as soon as it receives Royal Assent, but it has no effect in relation to future approvals because all people involved in this process have now been properly approved. She asked me to confirm that the people who think they are approved actually are and do not need to undergo any validation or further approvals. The answer to that is yes, if she is referring to approved clinicians or Section 12-approved doctors, which I believe she is.
She asked about the lessons to be learnt from 1 April next year once strategic health authorities cease to exist and how the preparations for the transfer of responsibilities are being progressed. From next April, the Department of Health will be responsible for this specific approval process for approved clinicians. The Secretary of State said yesterday that while this will be a departmental process, we do not want the process to be remote from local areas. He also pointed out that we intend to have a structure that draws on local and regional expertise to help us make the right decisions on the suitability of doctors for the role, and we hope that Dr Harris will advise the department on this when he conducts his review.
The noble Baroness asked where the definitive list of SHA roles and responsibilities is and who is its guardian. The guardian is the Department of Health, while the actual list of strategic health authority roles is set out in the 2002 regulations, the National Health Service (Functions of Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts and Administration Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2002, and the precise details on approved clinicians are set out in the Mental Health Act 1983 Approved Clinician (General) Directions 2008. That usefully lists the 28 competencies required of an approved clinician. She asked whether we can be confident that there are no other areas where action has not been taken by some or all of the SHAs. We know of no other areas or functions affected, but again Dr Harris’s review will look at the issues of governance and assurance of delegating responsibilities.
I thank the noble Baroness for making a valid point as regards the transition, but as I have alluded, the Harris review will look at issues of the governance and assurance of delegating responsibilities. Moreover, the review will report by the end of the year, so that will be before the completion of the transition process that my noble friend has so rightly brought to the attention of the House. The one remaining question my noble friend asked me concerned communicating with patients and the timescale of that. I shall repeat what I said before: we think that we need to take time to get things absolutely right, which I know she will understand. However, we hope to be able to issue advice within the next few days. I would reiterate that both the advice and the approach to delivering it will be agreed by both clinical experts and representatives of patients and families. I thought that I had covered every point, although I now see that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked me a question about approvals post April 2013. The one thing I should have added was that we do not intend to delegate the function to the NHS Commissioning Board.
I hope that I have now answered satisfactorily the questions that were raised and that I have provided additional reassurances where necessary. Again, I thank noble Lords and others outside the House for their understanding and for the very significant contribution they have made to the debate.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.
Local Government Finance Bill
Returned from the Commons
The Bill was returned from the Commons with the amendments agreed to.
The following Acts were given Royal Assent:
European Union (Approval of Treaty Amendment Decision) Act,
Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Act,
Local Government Finance Act,
Mental Health (Approval Functions) Act.
House adjourned at 5.39 pm.