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Mr. Dismore: May I put an additional point to my hon. Friend? I quoted from the ombudsman's report in which he suggested that the Government had agreed to consider proposing such an amendment. I fully understand the argument that my amendment may be premature and that it should deal with all complaints and not just those against people who have retired or resigned from the health service. However bearing in mind the assurance that was given to the ombudsman, is my hon. Friend saying that, in future, such an amendment will not be made to the legislation relating to the commissioner? Or is she saying that, in accordance with the assurance previously given, such an amendment will be proposed?

Ms Stuart: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that a review of the roles of all the ombudsmen is currently being carried out by the Cabinet Office, and I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of that. I am saying that, within the specific purpose of this Bill, I do not think that the amendment is appropriate. It is for that reason, rather than on the basis of the merits of the case itself, that I suggest that we reject the amendment.

Mr. Dismore: Now that I have listened to my hon. Friend, and since my proposal was something of a probing amendment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

Short title and commencement

Amendment proposed: No. 11, in page 1, line 24, at end insert--
'( ) This Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.'.--[Ms Stuart.]

Mr. Forth: I should have thought that the Minister might want to give the House a short explanation of the amendment. She might have wanted to argue that the Act will not extend to Northern Ireland because some form of devolved arrangements will be in place there; I do not know. If that were the case, one could understand the amendment on a strictly constitutional basis. However, it is a risk to suggest that, by the time the Bill receives Royal Assent, everything in Northern Ireland will be as the Government and the rest of us would like it to be. I am not convinced that that is the appropriate way to proceed.

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That is one argument that I can imagine the Minister wanting to make had she sought to explain the amendment to the House. As it is, we are left floundering and guessing, so I shall just have to flounder and guess a little bit more to see whether we can work out for ourselves why the hon. Lady might not want the Bill to extend to Northern Ireland. Either we shall be told that the issue can be dealt with adequately by the devolved arrangements that the Government hope will be in place in Northern Ireland or--this is a less likely explanation--that institutional arrangements, the relationships between patients and practitioners and the remit of the health commissioners differ sufficiently in Northern Ireland for it to be appropriate to disapply the provisions of the Bill there.

If the latter explanation is correct, we need from the Minister a reassurance and a little detail about whether she is satisfied--and whether we and, more importantly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) should be satisfied--that sufficiently similar provisions already apply in Northern Ireland for it not to need the benefit of the Bill. That is the only other explanation that I can think of.

Several possibilities exist, and the House deserves and requires an explanation from the Minister as to why we should accept amendment No. 11.

Mr. Hammond: I suspect that the Minister's explanation may be that the 1993 Act extends only to England, Wales and Scotland. In that case, why is the Government amendment necessary? My right hon. Friend's Bill contains only amendments to the 1993 Act. I am not a lawyer, although there are lawyers in the Chamber who may wish to contribute to our short debate and give us the benefit of their possibly superior knowledge on the subject. It seems to me that if a Bill is restricted to making amendments to an Act of limited geographical scope, including that geographical limitation in it is entirely redundant. Unless hon. Members who understand such matters better than I do can explain what the Government amendment adds to the Bill, I urge the Minister to withdraw it and keep the Bill as short as possible.

Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to extend our debate slightly and examine the position in Scotland. I understand that the 1993 Act and the Health Service Commissioners (Amendment) Act 1996 apply to Scotland. I support the Bill. Has my hon. Friend the Minister had discussions with the Scottish Executive on powers to introduce the measure in Scotland so that the legislative gap is covered there as well?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and the Minister could discuss that privately. We are discussing an amendment about Northern Ireland.

Mr. Miller: I took the Government amendment to be an innocent, tidying-up amendment until I heard the speech of the right hon. Member for Bromley and

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Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which made me look at section 22 of the 1993 Act, which deals with the Act's extent and commencement. It states:

Curiously, section 11 deals with the process of investigation, raising an interesting question about why the Bill, which deals with aspects of that process, does not include Northern Ireland. That is somewhat contradictory, although there may be a logical explanation for it. It is clear, by omission, that sections 1 to 10 and 17 to 21 of the 1993 Act do not apply to Northern Ireland. That is also true of some of the Act's schedules.

There is therefore conflicting evidence. Section 11 of the 1993 Act, which deals with the procedure on investigations, is relevant to Northern Ireland, as is section 12, which deals with evidence. I accept that section 13 may not be, as it deals with obstruction and contempt. No doubt those who are more expert than me, and certainly some of my legal friends, may tell me that procedures in Northern Ireland are different. Part of section 14, which deals with reports, is also relevant.

I understand why those provisions are extended to Northern Ireland. The Bill deals with persons subject to investigation. Why, therefore, is there a contradiction? The person subject to investigation would not be covered by Northern Ireland legislation, but the investigation itself would be. That needs some explanation. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister clarified the matter.

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rightly said, if there is a mechanism to deal with the matter in the devolved process, which we all hope will be up and running in its intended fashion very soon, other parts of the Bill will presumably require amendment and passing on to our colleagues in Northern Ireland. In the interim, I suppose that such aspects fall within the Secretary of State's ambit. I am sure that it would be extremely helpful to our friends in Northern Ireland if we clarified that minor contradiction, so that it did not seem that we were merely ignoring the relevance of health service issues in the Province.

12.15 pm

Ms Stuart: This debate has been a clear illustration of the fact that nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears. I would hate to see the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) floundering and guessing. I hope that I can enlighten him.

It is important to remember that Northern Ireland has its own complaints commissioner, who is governed by separate legislation. It is therefore clear that a Bill that seeks to amend Acts in England, Wales and Scotland does not extend to that commissioner. It is simply because of the potential for confusion that we contacted the Northern Ireland Departmental Solicitors Office for advice. It wished us to make specific mention to make it absolutely clear that the amended legislation would not apply to Northern Ireland. As I said, its commissioner is governed by different rules.

To refer quickly to Scotland, we have referred the matter to the Scottish Executive, which has referred to the Scottish Parliament the issue of amending the Act in relation to Scotland, as is right and proper.

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The purpose of the Bill is to close a loophole as satisfactorily and tidily as possible. We felt that the amendment would make the Bill's remit absolutely clear.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister clarify whether there is a Northern Ireland health service commissioner who was established under the 1993 Act but is distinct from the commissioner about whom we have been talking? If that is so, why is she of the view that he should not have the additional powers that we are granting the commissioner for England?

Ms Stuart: The important point is that Northern Ireland has its own complaints commissioner who is governed by separate legislation. He is therefore outside the Bill's remit. It was simply for clarity's sake that we restated in the amendment that the amended legislation will not apply to legislation governing his powers.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that. That takes us back to my initial remark that the issue is one of redundancy. I am very surprised by what the Minister has said. Although I understand that it does not do any harm to include such an additional subsection merely, as lawyers would put it, for the avoidance of doubt, my understanding from my short period in the House has been that economy is the watchword and that parliamentary draftsmen will always seek to exclude anything that is not absolutely necessary. The proposed additional wording is not absolutely necessary for legal minds clearly and unambiguously to interpret the Bill's scope.

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