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12.57 pm

Ms Stuart: I thank all those who have taken part at the various stages of the debate, particularly today. We have dealt constructively and positively with the Bill. I particularly congratulate the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on choosing a good Bill with a clear purpose and remaining focused on that purpose.

We have had interesting and wide-ranging debates. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) will take a close interest in the further proceedings on the Care Standards Bill, which will address some of his points on complaints outside the national health service. I am sure that he will be able to make a positive contribution.

Some may have regarded the Bill as minor, but we do not see complaints as a minor issue, even if they affect only a limited number of people. Complaints are important, even when they are sometimes uncomfortable for those on the receiving end. They can be a positive means of improving services. We firmly believe that complaints are a tool for improvement and I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue.

An effective complaints process is not just about taking complaints seriously and learning lessons from them; it is about responding to the complainants' concerns sensitively, providing answers to their questions and reassuring them that their worries are not being swept under the carpet.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked about the revision of the complaints procedure. The review is high on our agenda, but there is no precise date at this stage. It will have to be seen within the outcome of the national plan discussions.

There will inevitably be some cases in which even the best endeavours of the NHS complaints procedure will not be satisfactory. In those cases, the commissioner

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provides an essential further option for complainants who might otherwise be left without the assurance that their complaint has been taken seriously.

The Bill seeks to plug a loophole which has been identified in the existing legislation relating to the health service commissioner. As is so often the case, it hinges on what appears to be a minor technical point, but for those affected, the problem is very real.

Section 2A of the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993 brings family health service practitioners--GPs, family dentists, opticians and pharmacists--within the commissioner's jurisdiction. Section 2B does the same for independent providers. The intention was to ensure that NHS patients would have access to the commissioner irrespective of where or how they were receiving care and treatment.

It was only when those provisions began to be used as the basis for instigating investigations about practitioners that it came to light that there was a problem because the provisions are phrased entirely in the present tense. As a result, an additional hurdle was placed in front of a small minority of complainants: to investigate a complaint about a GP, for example, the commissioner had to make sure that the GP was still in practice, and was likely to remain so until the investigation was concluded. If the GP retired while the complainant was still pursing his or her concerns through the NHS complaints procedure, the commissioner would not be able to consider the complaint if it was subsequently submitted to him.

Worse still, the commissioner has told us that on a couple of occasions he has been forced to close down an investigation that had already started, because it was being conducted under the auspices of section 2A, and the subject of the complaint retired half way through. Clearly that is highly unsatisfactory. The Bill would amend sections 2A and 2B so as to remove that additional hurdle and bring those such as retired GPs within the commissioner's remit.

As I have said previously, the Government have no difficulty with the principles and motivation behind the Bill. However, as I also said during earlier consideration of the Bill, I have a duty to look at the issues from all perspectives. I must ensure that, in righting one injustice,

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we do not unintentionally create another. Therefore, it did not seem to be in keeping with natural justice that GPs or other practitioners who have reached retirement age after a long career committed to providing the very best care and treatment to their patients should have to spend many years wondering whether one day they might find themselves the subject of a complaint to the health service commissioner. On Second Reading, I described it as a sword of Damocles hanging over them. That may seem melodramatic to some, but I have no doubt that that is how it would feel for many conscientious and hard-working practitioners. I therefore said that the Government would table an amendment to the Bill to place an absolute time limit on how long after practitioners or providers permanently ceased to provide the relevant services they should be susceptible to investigation by the commissioner. I am pleased that the amendment considered earlier today was agreed to.

I am equally pleased that the Government's other significant amendment has also been successfully incorporated into the Bill. It may have seemed to be a trivial matter, perhaps even unnecessary to some, that the Bill should be explicit in excluding from re-examination complaints which have already been considered and rejected by the commissioner on the grounds that they fell outside the scope of sections 2A or 2B. Nevertheless, experience has shown that we should never be complacent about such matters, or make assumptions about how legislation will be interpreted. It was entirely right, in my view, that the new clause should be included, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wealden and to the House for accepting it.

This has been the first Bill I have had to deal with since becoming a Minister and it has been a great pleasure and joy, not least due to the support from right hon. and hon. Members. The Bill clearly showed the purpose, function and scope of private Member's Bills. I am sure that we shall look back on today's debate with some satisfaction because the Bill has closed a loophole. Throughout the Bill's progress through the House, the right hon. Member for Wealden has been most supportive and I thank him for that. The Government have no objections to the Bill and we wish it well in its further stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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Protection of Animals (Amendment) Bill

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [28 January], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

1.4 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): As I was saying on 28 January, the Bill failed to make further progress on that occasion because the previous business had taken rather too long. Happily, on this occasion, we have dealt in a proper but disciplined way with the previous business, and we therefore have an opportunity to return to the debate on the Bill and give it fuller consideration. For my part, I hope that there is no reason why the Bill should not complete this stage of its proceedings before time runs out today.

It is worth noting that because of the circumstances that arose on 28 January, the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) had only one minute, according to Hansard, to give her Second Reading speech. I hope that it may now be possible for her to make a Second Reading speech to guide the House more effectively on what was on her mind and what her Bill intends to do. For that reason, I will my curtail my remarks. I have a few things to say about the Bill, but I do not wish to detain the House at any great length.

It was presumably a coincidence that the Minister, too, had only a minute on that occasion to give his views on the Bill. Then again, given Ministers' legendary discipline, perhaps it was not a coincidence. I hope that the opportunity will now arise for the Bill's promoter and the Minister to give the House more of their views.

I accept the aims of the Bill as set out in the explanatory notes and in the brief comments that the hon. Lady made on 28 January. I simply want to flag up a few points that have caught my eye and ask some questions about them. They may be able to be dealt with today but may, more properly, be returned to for detailed consideration.

Clause 1(2)(e) is a key provision. In relation to a prosecution in England, it refers to

That strikes me as unusual. There may be good practical reasons for such a provision, but for reasons that I shall return to shortly, I am hoping for reassurance from the Bill's promoter or the Minister that the provision is sufficiently tightly drawn to stop unqualified or non-responsible people pursuing prosecutions on behalf of anyone else. The wording seems broad, which worries me. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), with his enormous legal expertise, may be able to guide the House on that point.

I expected to find in clause 2 the essence of the Bill, as I understood it to be from the remarks of the hon. Lady and the explanatory notes. Subsection (2)(b) refers to selling the animals at a fair price, while subsection (2)(c) refers to

Subsection (3) deals with

Nowhere, however, is there an explicit reference to the welfare of the animals. That puzzled me, because I would have expected a Bill of this nature, given its aims, to have

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laid great emphasis on, and made detailed provision about, the protection and welfare of the animals concerned. I thought that that was the point of the Bill. I hope to receive reassurance on that.

There is also no reference, as I might have expected in a Bill of this kind, to the sort of people to whom the animals might be disposed of. I would have thought that some protective requirement would have been appropriate. Simply providing for the disposal of animals otherwise than by way of sale does not strike me as giving sufficient protection, which, again, I thought was the whole point of the Bill.

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