Previous Section Home Page

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler: I shall not give way, because I want to leave time for one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends, who told me in advance that he wished to take part in the debate, as is the normal convention. As the Western Morning News correctly pointed out, Mrs. Kirby-Harris's appointment was controversial. First, Sir Godfrey Milton-Thompson, who was the chairman in situ, was expected to continue. Having had a distinguished career in the services, rising to surgeon vice-admiral, he clearly had great expertise. Secondly, when consulted, all five Cornwall Members said that they were happy for him to continue. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) said: "I don't see any reason why he should not have been reappointed. I thought it was Virginia Bottomley with her obsession with every post going to a woman."

The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) asked if he might take part in the debate and I hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As a parliamentary neighbour and former sparring partner, I welcome him to the debate.

Thirdly, in December 1992, before the appointment was confirmed and publicised, other Cornwall Members and I corresponded with the then Minister for Health, the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney). I wrote a fairly quiet letter. The hon. Member for Cornwall,


Column 334

South-East wrote in more robust terms. The Minister's answer shows what had happened. The Minister wrote to me:

"When my office passed on to me your further message about the appointment of the Chairman of the Cornwall Healthcare NHS trust, I instituted an urgent enquiry into the handling of the information you conveyed to South Western Regional Health Authority in your telephone call.

I can confirm that your message was received by the Region after the submission being sent to me by my Appointments Unit. Your views on Sir Godfrey and Mrs. Kirby-Harris were, therefore, not expressed in that submission.

It appears that, if your views were relayed to the Appointments Unit at the Department, they were not recorded and were certainly not passed on to me at any time. I have made it clear to the staff concerned that this is not acceptable and that our arrangements have got to be tightened up in future. I am extremely sorry that the system did not work on this occasion.

The submission I received did inform me however that Robert Hicks and David Harris both favoured Sir Godfrey being appointed. Having said that, for reasons I sought to explain to you when we spoke and which I have already explained to Robert, the advice I received from a range of other sources strongly recommended that Mrs. Kirby-Harris should be appointed. I felt, therefore, I was not able to accept Robert's and David's and, I now know, your advice on this particular occasion."

I want to get some positive lessons from this unfortunate incident. First, what references were taken up for this appointment? Secondly, what references are today taken up for such appointments? What written reports were available to the Secretary of State for Health? In this case, the person concerned had served from the Army and we now know from the industrial tribunal that has taken place since that the disclosed reports in the Army would have made it clear to the Secretary of State that there was no way in which this candidate should be even considered for half a minute for such an important appointment. The reason why she has been to an industrial tribunal is that she is claiming £500,000 for wrongful dismissal due to pregnancy. Thirdly, what is the point of consulting local Members of Parliament if our advice is then ignored?

Fourthly, there seems to be at least the suspicion of a hidden agenda, some sort of discrimination on grounds of gender, age or political orientation. Fifthly, why not advertise openly and set out the experience and criteria for which the Secretary of State is looking? After all, we are talking about considerable

responsibilities--whether on an authority or a trust--and the people appointed exercise considerable control on the public's behalf over huge budgets.

I believe that Mr. Simon Jenkins's suggestion that there should be a royal commission on appointments and that there should be an open and honest process for such appointments is the only credible way forward to regain public confidence in the integrity, objectivity, ability and representative nature of those who run the national health service.

People do not trust the trusts and it is in the Secretary of State's hands to set that right. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us at the end of this brief debate.

2.10 pm

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East): I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), my parliamentary neighbour, and to the Minister for allowing me two or three minutes in which to make a


Column 335

contribution to this important debate, which clearly has national implications as well as implications in Devon and Cornwall. I would not necessarily go along with all that the hon. Member for North Cornwall said about the importance of political connections in this respect. There may be a political dimension to the examples that I shall cite, but what concerns me more is that some elements of the appointments affecting my constituency have too many characteristics of a Whitehall farce. I shall therefore concentrate on the procedures followed in making such appointments.

I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport who, when he was Minister for Health, was most helpful and forthcoming. When I attempted to investigate the procedures followed in such appointments, it was not clear who, under the existing arrangements, was prepared to accept the ultimate responsibility. In the three examples that I shall cite, the Secretary of State played a significant part, whether in her present role or in her previous position in the Department of Health. It is not clear whether the ultimate responsibility lies with the Department or with the regional health authority. Ministers tend to say that they can act only on what appears on their desks and it is not clear what terms of reference they have issued to the RHAs in the first place. The RHAs themselves say that they have certain parameters within which to work, but one then calls into question the sifting mechanism that they have deployed when names have supposedly come to their attention from the grass roots.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall outlined the sequence of events that accompanied the appointment of the chairman of the Cornwall Community Healthcare trust. I shall not duplicate his comments but wish to refer to the initial appointment of the chairman of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS trust. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consulted certain politicians representing the county, although she did not ask the advice of the two then longest serving Members, David Mudd and myself. Perhaps she did not expect to hear the response that she was seeking. In any event, she went ahead--as was her right--and made an appointment.

It is not without significance that, when the time came for a reappointment, the Secretary of State's original appointee was dropped and replaced by the person whom some of us had advocated in the beginning.

There then followed a sequence of events beyond one's imagination, involving the appointment of the chairman of the Plymouth Hospitals NHS trust. My right hon. Friend appointed the late chairman and managing director of Brymon Airways to a trust that had not even been designated at the time. Within a few weeks, he had to resign from the non-existent trust and, as it so happens, the person whom we thought was being groomed locally for the position--then the chairman of the Plymouth health authority--was appointed chairman of the Plymouth Hospitals NHS trust, now that it finally exists. If the procedures had been correct in the first place, I suggest that we should not have reached this farcical situation.


Column 336

We are talking about the administration and provision of health care for a large number of people, including my constituents. Public confidence in that administration and provision is absolutely essential. When the public read objective reports of what has happened in the three cases that have been mentioned, they understandably feel a little apprehensive.

I measure my words carefully. I believe that, if the litigation involving the former chairman of the Cornwall Community Healthcare trust turns out in a particular way, those responsible at the ministerial level for appointments and those who still hold senior positions within the regional health authority must examine their own positions. It is clear that what has been happening hitherto must not be repeated in the future if we are to retain the public's confidence in the standard of health care in the parts of Cornwall and Plymouth to which reference has been made this afternoon.

2.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Tom Sackville): I am sorry that we do not have more time to debate the important matter raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I could not help noticing, from the Order Paper, that a pile of earth in south-east Asia is deemed to be so important that it takes up three times as much time as the question of who runs the national health service. Perhaps that is a manifestation of the extent to which we are ruled by the headlines these days. This is an important subject because enormous responsibilities are placed on non-executive members of boards and the chairmen of health authorities and trusts in the health service.

I must correct the impression given--unintentionally, I am sure--that everything was wrong with the appointments that have been made. There are cases with which hon. Members are dissatisfied but some splendid people have become chairmen and non-executive members of trusts and health authorities. I visit a great many trusts--acute trusts, community trusts, ambulance services and health authorities--and meet many non-executive and executive directors who are extraordinarily committed to the health service. Many would die for the hospital with which they are involved, which is very rewarding. Indeed, the level of accountability and responsibility that they feel is one of the reasons that there have been some remarkable successes.

Mr. David Nicholson: Since the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) started his speech by saying that he was referring to the whole of the south-west, does my hon. Friend agree that the Taunton and Somerset hospital trust in my constituency, among others, has been remarkably successful, that on its board there are members of all parties and of none, and that its success is despite the vigorous opposition of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats before it was set up?

Mr. Sackville: I could not agree more. Taunton and Somerset is a good example of a trust that knows where it is going and is well led, which is exactly what we have been trying to achieve.

Obviously, one can find problems in a huge organisation such as the health service, with some 8 million in-patients, another 35 million out-patient contacts and nearly 1 million employees. There is room for many


Column 337

things to go wrong. I am not quite sure of the connection between the three examples with which the hon. Member for North Cornwall began his speech--the Westcountry Ambulance Service trust, Sister Cooksley and two incidents in the press recently about Treliske--and non-executive appointments. Therefore, we need to be careful about using the material provided by headline writers, serious though some of those incidents may be, to make a wider point.

I have paid tribute to the non-executives of our trusts and health authorities because under them there has been remarkable progress. Many, many more people have been treated. Over 120 patients are treated today for every 100 treated before the reforms came into place. That is a tribute not only to the boards but to the staff generally for taking on an extraordinarily larger work load, albeit with some additional resources. Hospitals have become much more efficient--they have had to cope with the rising demand for health care.

Waiting lists and waiting times are much in the news. Under the reforms, in hospitals and authorities on which those non-executives serve, we have found that the average waiting time for operations has fallen from nine to five months and that the time people wait for a first consultant appointment has fallen radically. Many health authorities, before we set any national standards, were demanding that people should not wait more than a certain number of months, usually in single figures in good cases, for their first consultant appointment. So much progress has been made.

Partly, the chairmen and non-executives have been driving that progress, sometimes with not much encouragement from medical staff who have said that to think constantly about waiting lists distorts priorities and medical staff should have total control over the priorities of any hospital. However, we know, from our constituents and from everything that we find, that waiting times are important to patients, however lacking in urgency their conditions, and they should not be told that they will have to wait two years to see a consultant. Certainly, they should not discover that they need certain treatment and be made to wait years for it.

We are bringing those times down to 18 months, to 12 months and to less, so that people will not be able to say that they do not know when they will be treated. That will become a thing of the past. Under the leadership of some of our chairmen and chief executives, that has happened. However, I agree that there is a lack of uniformity in the appointment system, although it has thrown up thousands of good, committed people. Because people have found the opposite in some cases, we have sought to find a more formal system which people outside will be able to understand.

The first stage of the process is to require all regional health authorities or regional members of the policy board, as there may be if the Health Authorities Bill reaches the statute book, to advertise all posts or groups of posts--there may be difference in procedure between one area and another. There should be free and open advertising so that people can write in to say that they would like to serve on a trust or health authority.

When that stage is complete, a panel of non-executives, usually from around a region, will sift through those names to decide which of those people would appear on


Column 338

the face of it to be suitable to serve on trusts and health authorities. The panels should do that according to agreed criteria.

Mr. Tyler: I am conscious of the limited time, but could the Minister specifically address the question of short lists in the cases to which the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) and I referred? As we all know, there was an unmitigated disaster with one appointment because only two people were on the short list. The person appointed turned out to be totally unsuited to the post, while the person who was, in effect, ejected, was subsequently to take the Department to an industrial tribunal. Again, in the Western Morning News , headlines said:

"Payouts settle complaint of jobs for girls",

and:

"Bottomley spared appearance in sex discrimination case". All that could have been avoided if the short lists had not been so short.

Mr. Sackville: I understand why the hon. Gentleman is harping on about that unfortunate case, although I repeat to those hon. Members just arriving in the House that it was totally unrepresentative of the generality of health appointments. However, clearly the hon. Gentleman is quite right: we need a larger pool of names from which those who have the task of sifting can draw candidates. Competition is likely to hot up because, surprising though it may seem given all the difficulties and all that is said about the health service, large numbers of people wish to serve as non-executives on health authorities and trusts.

As I said, having advertised, the candidates must be looked at against published criteria. We shall be dealing with guidelines on that criteria in the near future and it will be open for everyone to see the personal and career criteria that we would like to see for those people who serve in that position in the health service. There is also of course a code of conduct and accountability, very much along the lines of the Cadbury report, covering all matters of governance of public companies and public organisations. All those who serve and who are appointed will be reminded that they must have very high standards of achievement in those sectors. They must maintain standards of discretion, and in all the areas that one expects of someone who is put in a position of great responsibility in a public organisation. That is important.

I very much regret the cases--some may be quoted--when the system has failed to satisfy or, indeed, has resulted in the appointment of people who turned out to be unsatisfactory. While they are in a minority, we seek to avoid such cases.

I shall deal with the objections put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), who said that he and local Members of Parliament were consulted on appointments and it appeared that their advice was not taken. We cannot give an absolute guarantee to hon. Members, because, clearly, as the House will understand, views of local Members of Parliament are one source of advice on appointments and there may be many other views from other organisations, from individuals and, indeed, from an interview process that, up to now, has been conducted by regional chairmen or district chairmen. Interviews tended to be conducted by regional chairmen when appointments of chairmen for districts were being made.


Column 339

We cannot guarantee that the advice of our parliamentary colleagues will be taken in every case, but we can at least say that consultation is taken extremely seriously and that all views, especially those of our parliamentary colleagues, are taken into account and always have been.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East asked who is responsible in the Department of Health. Clearly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible for all appointments, but there are some divisions of responsibility. She takes advice from different ministerial colleagues within the Department, depending upon which part of the country is involved. An enormous selection process has to take place. It happens mainly at regional level, but it also requires a great deal


Column 340

of work by Ministers, who monitor the recommendations made by the regions. That process is shared out round the country.

There will be a more codified system of appointments in the health service, and it will be open and understood. We value trust boards enormously as a central part of the reforms; they cost the NHS 1p out of every £11 spent by a trust, and we think that that is good value. I pay tribute to all who serve on trusts and health authorities, often in difficult circumstances, for the wonderful job that they do.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [19 December].

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Sheffield Assay Office Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.


Column 339

Points of Order

3.32 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. I can hear only one point of order at a time. The hon. Lady was on her feet first.

Mrs. Mahon: You will be aware, Madam Speaker, that Friday 27 January is the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Have the Government said what the House is going to do to commemorate the holocaust, and who will represent them at the memorial service at Auschwitz in Poland on Friday?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. These camps were, of course, the scenes of mass extermination on a scale that the world had perhaps never known. The 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps--especially that at Auschwitz-- should concern us, as Britain was in the war against Nazism from the very beginning. In the circumstances, is it not inappropriate--I put it no more strongly than that--that the House is not being represented in any way?

I hope that I shall not be misunderstood if I say that, not only would we have liked the House to be represented, but that we hoped that you, Madam Speaker, would have been authorised--clearly, you could not do so without such authorisation--to represent us, so that people in Poland and the international community know that the House of Commons is concerned about what happened, and that we shall never forget the millions of people who were murdered for no reason other than their race, politics or some disability which, in the eyes of the Nazis, meant that they should be put to death.

Madam Speaker: I understand the sentiments, which, I am sure, are those of the entire House on this matter. The hon. Lady mentioned 27 January. I have not been informed by the Government that they intend to commemorate that date, but I remind the House that we have business questions tomorrow and that the matter could perhaps be put to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder if you would give me your guidance? I think that it is correct to say that you have repeatedly made it clear that, in any Question Time, especially in Prime Minister's Question Time, interventions should always be in the form of questions.

I wonder, therefore, in the light of that confirmation, whether you would kindly look at column 136 of Hansard yesterday and the second intervention of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), which certainly was not a question but a statement? Would you be inclined to remind the right hon. Gentleman of his obligation, above every other Member of the House, to put questions and not to make statements?

Madam Speaker: Yes, I think it is incumbent on any hon. Member, whether Front Bencher or Back


Column 362

Bencher, not to make statements, but to put their questions to Ministers very briskly, so that as many hon. Members as possible may be called. I should also remind Members, especially Back-Bench Members, that, at Question Time, the Government are required to account for their policies, so questions must relate to ministerial responsibility and not go further afield. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the earlier point with me.

Several hon. Members Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. I have dealt with that. I will not take any points of order further to it. There are other hon. Members wishing to raise points of order.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that, on 13 July, the Government made a statement on their White Paper "The Civil Service: Continuity and Change", that the statement took 55 minutes, and that over 30 hon. Members took part. It now transpires that, in a written answer that is to be tabled tonight, the Government will slip out their reply to a Command Paper and to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report.

This is a deliberate attempt to pre-empt the Scott committee and Nolan committee reports. Therefore, would you make representations to the people involved, to see that a statement is made in the House, that the Paper is delayed until then, and that the statement is not made in Opposition time?

Madam Speaker: The House knows my views on those matters. I have stated them clearly and frequently. Important Government decisions must, of course, be communicated first to this House. I feel very strongly about that, and wish to see it carried out. Whether that is done by oral statement or by written answer is for the Minister to decide, and I have no authority over that decision.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you seen, in your official capacity, the distressing account of the death of Mr. Keith Abel, who was described by his wife as a valiant servant of the health service and who spent many years of his life saving the lives of others? He had to wait five hours, during which he was dying of a brain haemorrhage, while efforts were made to find a hospital. Five long hours went by, and no hospital could be found to deal with him. Have you had a request for a statement about that incident and the distressing state of our national health service?

Madam Speaker: I received no intimation from the Government that a statement was to be made on that matter today.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I know that we have had Scottish questions, but I wonder whether the Government have requested that one of their Ministers could make a statement on their new policy, and whether they have informed you about their declaration last night on television regarding the new laws on Sunday opening hours, especially in view of the fact that we know that the Tories have been hunting for money and that the


Column 363

brewers are very happy about the proposals? I should like to know why no statement has been made, because I want to ask the Ministers concerned how much the brewers have promised the Tory party for this change of policy that has not been announced in this House.

Madam Speaker: That is barely a point of order for me. The hon. Gentleman may try to use the Order Paper to put those questions to Ministers. He was really asking whether the Government are making a statement on that matter today. The answer, as far as I am concerned, is no.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) rose --

Madam Speaker: I hope this does not relate to earlier points of order; there was a glint in the hon. Gentleman's eye as if it did.

Mr. Foulkes: It is an absolutely and completely different point of order, Madam Speaker. You may recall that, two weeks ago, you gave a very helpful answer to a point of order that I raised indicating that all questions must relate to responsibilities of Ministers, so that Conservative Members could not ask questions about the Labour party and Labour policy. Does that mean that I would be precluded from asking whether the costs of the legal action against The Guardian by the director-general of the Tory party will be paid for out of Tory party funds or out of Government funds?

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman must not try to use the Chair of this House to put questions of that nature. He is ingenious enough, and has been here long enough, to know his way around the Order Paper and to know how to raise issues. I guessed correctly--he had a twinkle in his eye before he started.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any representations from the Government making their position clear concerning the reports that, shortly after leaving Government service, many senior civil servants from the Ministry of Defence, and many people who have held very senior positions in Her Majesty's armed services, receive directorships and arrive on the boards of


Column 364

defence companies managing large orders for the Government? Have you received any representations on that subject, Madam Speaker?

Madam Speaker: The answer is no.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): Is it your intention, Madam Speaker, to continue the practice of calling Conservative Members more than once during Scottish questions?

Madam Speaker: Yes, but not on every occasion; that must be left to my discretion. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter today because he rose several times at Question Time but I could not call him--I saw the look of frustration on his face. I say to him and to other Scottish Members that I keep a list of Scottish Members who have not been called very often during Scottish Question Time. The hon. Gentleman is not on my list, because I know that he has been called quite frequently; that is probably one reason why he was not called today. I keep the list here with me at every Scottish Question Time, and try to deal as fairly as possible with all Scottish Members, whatever party they may come from.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: I hope that that will not give rise to other points of order.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr): This is another point of order on Scottish Question Time, Madam Speaker. Did you take into account the fact that today we had extra time for Scottish questions because of the changes in the procedure of the House? I feel sure that that was welcome to all Scottish Members.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Gentleman gives me an opportunity to say that, at Scottish Question Time, we do not make the progress that I would like to see. We have made a little more progress today because of the extra few minutes, but I hope that we shall try harder next time.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): May one hope, Madam Speaker, that Scottish Opposition Members will remember that they are members of the United Kingdom, as are our much admired Members from Northern Ireland and from Wales?

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn): Oh--thanks for that information.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame Elaine Kellett- Bowman) always has something to say that is welcome in the House. We shall now move on to the ten-minute rule Bill.


Column 365

Pensions (Divorce)

3.42 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law so as to provide for the equitable division of pensions in the event of divorce.

I introduced this Bill at the end of the previous parliamentary year, on 1 November, but because that happened at the end of the Session, it fell and it was not even possible to publish it. I hope to make better progress this year. I do not wish to restate all the provisions of the Bill, as they were contained in my speech of 1 November and can be read in Hansard , but I shall restate its main purpose and principles.

The Bill seeks a fairer distribution of assets, especially pension assets, in the event of divorce. The current system is unfair, because at present most pension fund rights are personal to the individual in the fund. On divorce, husbands often walk away with all the pension assets, while wives get nothing. One has a prosperous future; the other faces hardship.

In England and Wales, the decision whether to include pension rights in an overall settlement is entirely at the discretion of the court. More often than not, the court ignores those pension assets, either because they are not brought to its attention or because it comes up against the obstacle in the current law that it cannot overrule pension fund trustees and divide an individual's pension assets.

That is not the case in Scotland, Germany, Canada and elsewhere. In those countries, all assets, including pension assets, are considered as comprising the matrimonial assets, and divided equitably. That is what my Bill seeks for England and Wales.

The court would have the power to reallocate occupational and personal pension rights between the divorcing parties. It could arrange for a transfer payment from the pension fund member's account to the account for the benefit of the divorced spouse. She would then have a pension in her own right.

On "Women's Hour" last month, there was a statement from the Minister's office about that matter. It repeated the assertion that there is no clear evidence of the problem, that more research is needed, and that a survey had been commissioned to report at the end of 1995. That sums up the Government position.

I disagree--there is plenty of evidence. Two major reports have said that there is a strong case for a change in the law--that of the Pensions Management Institute in May 1993 and the Goode report in September 1993. The National Association of Pension Funds has added its weight in favour of a revision of the law.

The organisation Fair Shares says that it has counseled many more than 1,000 women in that situation, many of whom are desperate and forced to depend on the state against their will. Fifty-two per cent. of the organisation's members have no pension rights, in spite of having been married for a long time. Others, who receive the family house in a divorce trade-off, also receive the outstanding mortgage, and find themselves trapped on income support, with the permanent threat of losing that house.

"Women's Hour" gave some examples. One was of a 72-year-old disabled woman, who was married for more than 40 years. Her ex-husband receives a £25,000-a-year pension. He pays her £4,000 a year, but she is deeply


Next Section

  Home Page