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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman could choose his words more felicitously. It is not the practice of the House to make such implications--let alone directly to accuse a right hon. or hon. Member of misleading the House.

Mr. O'Brien: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not intend to imply anything other than a need to find out on which of the statements I could rely.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In that case, the hon. Gentleman might do the House a service by correcting his words or apologising suitably for them.

Mr. O'Brien: In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall rephrase my point. On which of the Prime Minister's points of view could I place most reliance?

Later in the same week, the chairman of the Association of London Health Councils telephoned No. 10 to find out whether it was true that there would be an opportunity for further consultation. She was told by the press office that

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the Prime Minister had made a slip of the tongue and that community health councils would be abolished. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) asked the Secretary of State for the precise date on which the Prime Minister and Secretary of State decided to abolish CHCs. An answer to that question would give us the opportunity to assess whether there was in fact any prior consultation.

We should consider the effect of these events--the Secretary of State should certainly consider it--on the employees and volunteers at CHCs. While we are dealing with crass shortcomings in due democratic processes, let me quote two letters from the chief officers of my local CHCs, written last November and December--five to six months after the bombshell was dropped in "The NHS Plan" that CHCs would be scrapped. Mr. Ryall-Harvey, chief officer of Chester and Ellesmere Port CHC wrote to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who copied the letter to me. Mr. Ryall-Harvey wrote:

Mr. Dawson: Given the major initiative embodied in the Bill and other aspects of the Government's approach to the health service, the hon. Gentleman should surely tell his constituent that there will be tremendous opportunities for CHC workers and volunteers in the new NHS.

Mr. O'Brien: I shall not use my short time to answer that question. This is a matter for the employers, particularly the Secretary of State.

On 22 December--just before Christmas--the chief officer of Cheshire Central CHC wrote:

The Minister should take this opportunity to do the right thing and provide answers to those concerns. I was pleased to secure a one and a half hour Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 28 November, which was attended by many right hon. and hon. Members from the Labour Benches who seemed not to support the Government. I believe that their support was absent for good reason. The same has been the case today, although the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)

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was entirely opaque about whether he thought CHCs should continue. Labour Members wish to welcome the plan, but are ashamed of their Government.

Mr. Dawson: I am sorry to have been opaque. I do not think that CHCs should continue. The vision set out in the Bill and other documents provides a far better way in which to empower and involve patients in the future of the NHS. I hope that that is clear.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful for that clarification, which is better than the hon. Gentleman achieved in his speech. Government Back Benchers in general are ashamed of this aspect of the proposed NHS plan--

Mr. Swayne: That is why they signed the early-day motion.

Mr. O'Brien: As my hon. Friend says, many signed the early-day motion.

The Government showed breathtaking arrogance in their assertion that consultation had taken place prior to the decision to scrap CHCs. That was a sorry and sad spectacle of shameless window dressing. They should now drop their plans to scrap CHCs and should instead resource and improve them, as my party is committed to doing, as my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State made plain. We should support CHCs by providing resources and giving them confidence in their job, which involves dealing with vulnerable members of our society. That is because, when things have gone wrong, NHS patients need to be able to trust the independence of those who will take up their case for them, and the last thing that they are likely to trust is a creature of the very body that they are trying to hold to account.

I fear that the Government thought at one point of sidling away from scrapping CHCs but were scared of looking as though they were caving in to outcry, either from Her Majesty's official Opposition, or from their own Back Benchers. For what it is worth, I should like to offer Ministers a deal: if the Government now execute a U-turn and do not exterminate CHCs, I for one shall refrain from calling it a U-turn. CHCs and NHS patients truly believed that, at Prime Minister's questions on 15 November, the Prime Minister had his hand on the steering wheel ready to make that U-turn. However, it is clear that the Secretary of State for Health and his civil servants had grabbed the wheel by 20 November.

I fervently hope that CHCs will be retained. If so, their future quality will rest primarily on their independence and effectiveness in ensuring that NHS patients' interests have the opportunity to be taken through the maze that the NHS naturally represents to most people. One of the most valuable services performed by CHCs, as Members of Parliament on both sides of the House have said, is that they are a friend in need who knows how to map a route through the maze. I do not believe that the plethora of proposed new bodies will simplify the system or enhance confidence, or that they can command the trust of patients at their most vulnerable. That is especially true of the elderly, who fear that they will need to use the NHS fairly regularly and do not want to gain a reputation for complaining. The new bodies are hardly likely to alleviate

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those fears. CHCs have generally done a tremendous job in recent times, especially in ensuring that there is a degree of trust.

I am conscious that it is unlikely that Ministers will be swayed by a member of the Opposition, as that reflects their approach to Parliament, but it might be helpful to my case to cite the views of people who live in the catchment area of the CHCs serving my constituency. Mrs. Cynthia Taylor writes:

the local hospital. She adds that

Mrs. Taylor says that "Healthwatch"--a local health magazine--

that CHCs should continue, and she ends by asking, "or don't we matter?" Denise Pritchard of Tarporley writes:

I have a number of letters, but there is not enough time to read them all out. Supportive comments for the retention of CHCs have been made by the Law Society and the British Medical Association, although, interestingly, Dr. Ian Bogle was a signatory to the NHS plan. Age Concern, despite an earlier reference to it, says:

I urge Ministers to consider the enormous amount of evidence from those with past experience and all those who are concerned about the quality of the NHS and patient care. CHCs should not scrapped, but supported, developed and given the resources to do the fine job which we know they can do.

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