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Mr. Dismore: I have concerns about the time limit, which I expressed in my speech. I am worried about the mismatch between complaints through the complaints procedure and possible legal action. If one of our aims in improving the ombudsman's service is to get rid of litigation, does my hon. Friend believe that there is a case for reconsidering time limits to try and achieve that objective?

Ms Stuart: We need to have a time limit that matches other procedures and does not add to confusion, but that streamlines the process. One option might be to apply a similar time limit to complaints about ex-practitioners: a year under potential discretion. However, there are issues

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involving the way in which the commissioner should be expected to deal with cases in which he decides to exercise his discretion to waive his time limit, with the effect that the ex-practitioner will have been out of NHS practice for more than a year.

Another option might be to go for the three-year limitation period used in most cases by the civil justice system. That would be in line with practitioners' civil liabilities. Claims can still be brought against them after they have ceased NHS practice. That would also deal with circumstances in which the commissioner decides to apply his discretion to his own time limits.

Mr. Hammond: Can the Minister make it clear whether she is talking about a time limit for the initiation of the complaints process at its first level or for the commissioner's involvement? If the process at the lower tier had already started, would she allow it to continue without limit or is she saying that there should be no capability in any case to refer a retired person to the commissioner after a certain time had expired?

Ms Stuart: I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that. The perceived loophole is that a practitioner is beyond the scope of existing measures if he is no longer in the NHS when a complaint is made. The issue is how long he has been out of the NHS and the time limit on pursuing him after he has left the service. If the Bill is to progress, we need to discuss an appropriate time limit, and the health service commissioner may have views on the most practical way forward. An open-ended time limit is unsatisfactory at this stage and I do not think that it would either help the commissioner or be fair to practitioners. We need to consider further what would be an appropriate time limit to take forward.

Mr. Alan Williams: In that case, will my hon. Friend consider the Government's tabling an amendment in Committee to deal with that problem and so perhaps make the Bill acceptable to them?

Ms Stuart: That is a useful way forward and I thank my right hon. Friend for his suggestion. If the Bill is to proceed, the Government would want to table an amendment. That would allow us the time to think things through in more detail and consult with the appropriate bodies.

Mr. McWalter: Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Bill would be a great improvement on current law even without such a change, and that we should consider it from that perspective?

Ms Stuart: I do. The Bill is a way forward and would be an improvement.

May I share some of the Government's concerns? A practitioner may still get off the hook if the time limit is brief, but we have to reach a compromise between what is fair and what is workable for all parties concerned. We must also remember, of course, that the commissioner does not have indefinite powers to investigate. The amendment that the Bill offers would not change that in any way.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the current situation is that there have been cases of the commissioner beginning an investigation only to have to discontinue it because the

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practitioner resigns or retires. For example, in a case involving one GP, the statement of complaint was issued, but the commissioner was informed that the GP was due to retire in two months. As there was no way that a proper investigation could be carried out in that time, he had no choice but to decide not to pursue the case.

It must be absolutely heartbreaking for complainants in such cases--who have been led to believe, in good faith, that their concerns will be properly considered--to be told that that will not happen after all. It must also be incredibly difficult for the ombudsman to have raised a complainant's expectations only to have to disappoint him. The right hon. Member for Wealden eloquently explained Mrs. Fisher's case, which is a good example of the current problem. Tabling an amendment that set a time limit would still allow such cases to be caught, and, in the example that I gave, the commissioner would have been able to continue his investigation, irrespective of the GP's retirement.

The right hon. Gentleman and other speakers mentioned the review of the organisation of public sector ombudsmen that is under way in the Cabinet Office. We should all be fully aware of the review as we were invited last year to participate, via a survey of all Members of the House. Nevertheless, I want to say a few words about how the initiative is progressing.

The review was set up by the Government in March 1999 in response to proposals made by the Commission for Local Administration, the parliamentary commissioner and the health service commissioner. Against the background of more integrated services, which the Government have been working hard to develop, the ombudsmen felt strongly that the time was right for a wide-ranging review of the way in which they conducted their respective business and suggested the creation of a single body. That would do away with potential conflicts of jurisdiction, which they believe are intrinsic to their current structures.

The review's terms of reference did not point the review team down particular avenue. Value for money and the best interests of complainants featured as key issues to be taken into consideration. In reaching its conclusions and formulating its report and recommendations, the team consulted widely among the representative and professional bodies, central Government Departments, local government departments, members of the public and academics, and I understand

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that the Consumers Association submitted evidence. The team also canvassed the views of all Members of the House.

However, the review raises the issue of how useful the timing of the Bill may or may not be. Irrespective of the detail of the report's recommendations, the very nature of the review, and the terms of reference it was given, makes it more or less inevitable that the jurisdictions of all the public sector ombudsmen, including the health service commissioner, will need to be scrutinised very carefully. That process must be comprehensive and thorough. The aim must be to ensure that we have mechanisms that are modern and dependable. They must live up to the expectations of the general public who will be using them, and must be fit for the 21st century.

I shall not pretend to the House that this change can be made quickly. Indeed, I firmly believe that it would be a grave mistake to try make it quickly, because the matter is too important to rush. However, it is also important to close the loophole identified by the Bill. There is an argument that, in the context of this major review of the ombudsmen, now is not the time to be making changes to his jurisdiction. That is a fair point. We know, however, that the current wording of the 1993 Act is already causing problems for the commissioner, and it is right that, having been given an opportunity to resolve this difficulty via this Bill, we should do so.

At its heart, the Bill is about professional accountability. As I have explained, we take that extremely seriously, and are taking action on a number of fronts to support and strengthen GP accountability in particular. The Bill offers another way of doing that, and it would be perverse for the Government not to support any proposal that achieves that aim. The right hon. Member for Wealden may like to know that officials of the National Assembly for Wales are content with these proposals.

12.7 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: With the leave of the House, I should like to thank the Minister for the commitment that she has just made--subject of course to our looking favourably on the time limit that I understand she is to suggest. I would certainly be willing to consider that, in the hope that we could gain the overall support of the Committee. I am grateful to her for that offer.

Question put and agreed to.

Read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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Food Labelling Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.7 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In presenting the Bill, I shall describe how and why I came to select the issue of honesty in food labelling, explain the scheme and the contents of the Bill, and emphasise the opportunity that the House and the Government have to enable vital legislative progress to be made, which this issue deserves and which the people of this country, both consumers and producers, demand.

As the House knows, I had the honour and privilege to be elected only seven months ago to represent the constituents and interests of Eddisbury. My constituency covers south-west Cheshire. I took my seat on the day before the House rose for the summer recess, so I had, in effect, only been in the House and seen the way in which it works for a few weeks when I came 10th in the private Member's Bill ballot--not only to my surprise, but to the surprise and, in some instances, consternation of right hon. and hon. Members. Comments such as, "He's only been here a few minutes" were at the generous end of the wide spectrum of remarks that flooded my way when the result of the ballot was announced.

In common with other right hon. and hon. Members who gained places in the high and middle orders of the ballot, I was immediately confronted with a truly staggering quantity of mail that poured in from individuals and organisations, all urging me to adopt their suggestions for a Bill. It amounted to a menu of scores of worthy and, occasionally, wacky causes.

To understand why I stuck with my first instinct to introduce a Bill that would provide for simple, clear and, above all, honest labelling of foods in this country--for reasons that will become apparent, the Bill is designed to encompass England and Wales; I shall refer to the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland later--it is helpful to rewind the clock a little to the by-election that brought me to the House in the first place.

Being elected in a hard fought by-election in a marginal seat is an invigorating and exacting experience, as other right hon. and hon. Members who have won their seats in similar circumstances will testify. The great benefit of the experience is that, during by-elections, issues of key relevance to local electors--in Eddisbury, in my case--are played out in the relentless glare of publicity on the national stage, and in the intense atmosphere generated by a three-week campaign.

At the point where the west midlands end and the north-west starts, Eddisbury's profile--its main town of Winsford, containing 27,000 people, its northern villages and its rural communities, covering by far the greater part of the constituency geographically and bordering Wales and Shropshire--is typical of the country as a whole. Its opinions therefore constitute a fair weathervane of the issues that confront all the people of the country. It was all too painfully clear during the by-election campaign that farmers in south-west Cheshire and throughout the country were experiencing desperate times. As has been acknowledged by Members in all parts of the House, their plight has only worsened in the months since then, but those who have survived continue to deliver products of the highest quality, despite mounting losses.

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At a time when the public are ever more conscious of, and concerned about, the British farming crisis, more and more consumers want to support farmers by buying British whenever and wherever they can--not only on the basis of quality and value for money but, perhaps crucially, because of their recognition that our farmers are producing food to the highest standards of production, and, in the case of livestock, because of the exemplary animal welfare practices insisted on, and robustly policed, by the United Kingdom. In many instances, however, our farmers and producers face intensely unfair competition from importers of foodstuffs in countries whose inferior standards of production and welfare mean that their production costs are considerably lower.

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