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Mr. Dismore: It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman draws that conclusion, but I do not think that that is the case. The problem is that "Erskine May" does not define the term "scope of the Bill". Contrary to what he says, I was given to understand that the Bill's long title and text, not what the promoter may say it is, constitute its scope.

Mr. Forth: Ironically, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Perhaps a ruling on such matters would help us all because, so long as this confusion remains, there is a risk that many people will waste a lot of time going up blind alleys, and that would not be at all productive.

Mr. Dismore: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I tried to find out whether such a ruling had been given, as the House works on precedent. The only one that I could find on a long title's relevance to a Bill's content was made in 1960; no other could be found. Perhaps custom and practice rather than precedent governs our proceedings.

Mr. Forth: Indeed. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker--listening, as ever, with your keen ear and watching with your eagle eye--may think on reflection, perhaps after consulting Madam Speaker and your

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colleagues, that it would be helpful to guide the House on the matter. Perhaps a statement could be made from the Chair. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but if, unusually, there is no explicit guidance in "Erskine May", and if the last time that an utterance was made on the matter was as long ago as 1960, there is a danger of unnecessary confusion arising between the Bill's short and long titles, its content and what the promoter may say on Second Reading. That should be cleared up for the benefit of us all.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. A ruling was made, with which the Chair is entirely satisfied. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman discuss the amendment.

Mr. Forth: I shall seek out that ruling shortly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

All in all, I find the hon. Gentleman's remarks persuasive. It strikes me that amendment No. 17 would be helpful, if only for the sake of consistency. That may be useful, given that the Bill may have to be considered in the other place as a result of this morning's positive and useful debate. Unless I am persuaded otherwise, I am inclined to support the amendment.

Ms Stuart: The amendment would add to the Bill's title and extend it to cover those who have left the NHS either by resignation or on retirement and, to quote the amendment, "for related purposes." The Government have made it clear that the Health Service Commissioners (Amendment) Act 1996 and our proposed amendments cover the required ground.

We acknowledge the importance of properly protecting the interests of patients and the public by enabling the health service commissioner to investigate complaints against NHS providers thoroughly and properly. However, the helpful and instructive Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) will fill the gap that he identified in respect of the family health service practitioners and independent contractors.

Although there is no opposition in principle to clarifying the long title, the amendment does not accurately reflect the Bill's intended purpose and would produce confusion. Had an amendment been tabled to reword the long title so that it was more accurate, it could have been considered. The clear purpose of the Bill is to close a loophole, and the title states that clearly. I fail to see how the amendment would be helpful.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend has left me in a quandary. In the debates on Second Reading and today, the assumption has been that the Bill does precisely what my amendment to the long title states that it does. If my hon. Friend is saying that the Bill does other things that are not covered by my amendment to the long title, could she specify what they are? I could then be sure that, if those in the other place want to produce another amendment to change the long title to make it accurately reflect the scope of the Bill, they will have some guidance from the Minister as to how they should word it.

Ms Stuart: In the previous debate, it was considered that amendments should be made, and legislation should

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be amended, to be helpful. We believe that the title of the Bill as it stands accurately, clearly and precisely reflects the scope of the Bill. We are not convinced that the insertion of "for related purposes" adds clarity. Accordingly, we recommend that the amendment should be rejected. It does not bring greater clarity to the proceedings.

Mr. Dismore: I am unconvinced by my hon. Friend's answer to that point. It is still not clear to me in what respect my amendment is defective. I do not intend to press it to a vote because we want to get on to Third Reading and give the Bill a fair passage. I hope that the issue can be considered in the other place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Is the hon. Gentleman seeking the leave of the House to withdraw his amendment?

Mr. Dismore: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. In doing so, I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that at a future date we need more guidance on the definition of the scope of a Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is an otiose comment in view of the fact that the Chair has given a ruling, and it is unnecessary for that ruling to be repeated. It was quite clear and specific.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.37 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I do not want to detain the House. I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, and most especially to the Minister for the trouble that she and her staff have taken over a modest Bill, but one of considerable significance.

One of the lessons that we have learned from the debate is that other, related issues need to be tackled. I understand that there will be a wider review of the role of the ombudsman, which will embrace the different ombudsmen who help to remedy injustice and provide a fair, level playing field between those who make complaints and those who are complained against. I hope that the Bill will continue to have support on Third Reading, and that it will be a success when it goes to the other House.

12.38 pm

Angela Smith: As a sponsor of the Bill, I should like to make a few brief comments, although I shall not repeat what was said on Second Reading. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on his wisdom in choosing this subject for his Bill. I also thank the Government for their support and consideration, which has been helpful.

The Bill has limited scope, but it is welcome. The right hon. Gentleman may have been surprised by the number of amendments that have been tabled today after such a swift 13-minute Committee stage. We are grateful that many of those amendments have been withdrawn.

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I have little to add to the comments that I made on Second Reading, except to stress the aspect of the Bill that will allow commissioners to investigate the actions of a private practitioner who has provided treatment to an NHS patient under contract to a health service body, such as a health authority or an NHS trust, even if that practitioner no longer treats patients under such a contract.

The Bill is about accountability and faith: faith in doctors and faith in the system. It closes the loophole that allows a person under investigation to retire from the NHS to take up private practice so as to escape that investigation. That loophole does the medical profession a disservice. I was disappointed to read in Pulse magazine that a GP had declared that the Bill was

I am pleased that many doctors have distanced themselves from that comment. Indeed, the health service commissioner has given the Bill his support.

The Medical Defence Union has put its comments on record by lodging them with the House of Commons Library. According to the MDU, the health service commissioner already has

That is inadequate. It is not good enough, and that is why the Bill has had to be presented.

A constituent of mine who has fallen foul of the existing legislation will welcome this Bill. I am sure that he will also say that the MDU's response to it is not good enough. In his case, when a doctor did not respond to a complaint, all that happened was an extension of the time allowed for a response. I think that, at a later stage, we should consider how long investigations take. Sometimes our constituents feel that there is undue delay, increasing the agony that they experience at difficult times.

The MDU says:

I am sorry, but I do not share that view. It may be coincidental in some cases, but certainly that does not apply to all cases. If it did, there would be no opposition to the Bill, no doctor would deliberately retire for such reasons, and no one would complain about being investigated after retirement.

I stress that no hon. Member has been "anti-doctor". I am sorry that some people have seen the Bill in that light. My local branch of the British Medical Association has been here twice for dinner--there are annual receptions--and, although I think that the Bill will be needed in only a tiny number of cases, I know that the BMA welcomes it.

A change in the law is needed for those few cases--cases of which we all know from our constituency surgeries. It is necessary in order to maintain--or reinstate, where it has been lost--public confidence in the medical profession, and I am pleased that we have been given the opportunity to support it.

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