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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): There are times when one's faith in the democratic process is confirmed, even in this Parliament under this Government. I raised the matter of the widespread opposition in the country to the Government's peremptory proposal to abolish CHCs at one Prime Minister's Question Time last year. I received a dusty answer and was told that consultation was being held and that a report on that consultation would be made to the House. Only three days later, the Prime Minister sent me a grovelling letter signed, as seems to be his habit, "Yours ever, Tony". In it, he admitted that a decision had been made and that the Government were not going to consult on the abolition of CHCs after all.

The abolition proposal was set out in the small print of the middle chapters of last summer's NHS plan. I am delighted that the Government's craven climbdown at this late hour means that the excellent Chester and Ellesmere Port and Cheshire Central CHCs will be able to continue their good work, under their respective chief officers Mr. Geoff Ryall-Harvey and Mrs. Jean French.

Those chief officers have not been assisted by the Government's brutal and mindless approach to the welfare of CHC staff and volunteers. I talked to Mr. Ryall-Harvey this morning. I thought that today's debate might turn out as it has, but of course was not able to say as much. The irony is that Mr. Ryall-Harvey told me that he had just returned from an out-placement session that was held because it was believed that the Government were confident that they would succeed in getting the abolition proposal through the House.

I am glad to say that the Government have failed, and that opposition to the proposal has emerged among hon. Members of all parties, including Labour Back-Bench Members, and in the other place. We have been deeply upset on behalf of patients, staff and NHS users at what amounted to an appalling attack on the independence of patients and on their confidence that they can discuss the difficult issues that arise when things go wrong. That is when people with grievous and worrying problems are at

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their most vulnerable and need people of independence and authority who can inspire confidence that solutions can be found.

These issues were highlighted during an excellent debate in Westminster Hall. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, and his team for having championed the retention of CHCs so successfully. It is common ground across the House and among CHCs that they need updating and reform. However, all the good work that they have done does not need to be undermined by the Government's wish to abolish them, which has done untold damage. The wind-down, in anticipation of abolition, has caused grievous morale problems.

1.15 pm

It must be made clear that, despite this shoddy process, the Government's shabby conduct and a shameful policy, this is only a temporary reprieve. If a Labour Government are returned, they will again campaign for the abolition of CHCs, and it will cause their Back Benchers no end of difficulty. We, however, will be saying, in any campaign and challenge that is put to Conservative party candidates in the forthcoming election, that we will retain CHCs, reform them and commit ourselves to their independence.

I am proud to have played a small part in the campaign to retain CHCs, and I am glad that the Government have given way at last on this terrible policy.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) for getting the Prime Minister, in effect, to mis-speak. In the follow-up letter, it was made clear that there had been no consultation before the Government's decision to abolish community health councils as legal entities.

I think that the reaction of the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales, which joined in the campaign strongly after a slow start, was based on what my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury did and also on the actions of the Worthing district community health council. It wrote to the association asking what action it would take. Then we discovered that what the Government assumed to be a done deal across the country was not one, and that community health councils had been objecting strongly. [Interruption.] Some Government Back Benchers must have pager messages saying "smile" at this point, but it is no laughing matter. It matters a great deal to people with hospital appointment problems, those who have concerns or who want to draw Ministers into the reconfiguration of hospital services. If the Government said that they had a fragmented responsibility to the CHCs to bring general practitioner services into their field, that would make sense.

I have in my hand a letter from one of my constituents, who is 71. His family doctor referred him to a specialist clinic. The letter he got back said:

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People are doing more and more at Worthing hospital, but it should be plain, even to a Health Minister, that more is being left undone than was the case four years ago. The right hon. Gentleman may say that that is not so, in which case I refer him to his own answers, which show the proportion of people waiting for in-patient treatment for more than a year, how that figure compares with four years ago, and how it compares with the figure for the health authority covering the Prime Minister's constituency.

It would be proper for the Worthing district community health council to take up the question of a 47-week delay in seeing a consultant in Worthing hospital. If the Government want to extend CHCs' powers to include the family practitioner service, the overload there is probably just as great. Regrettably, family doctors in Worthing, south of the railway line--which has probably the greatest concentration of those over 85 in the country--have closed their lists to new patients and will now take only those referred through the health authority. For that to happen, after four years of the Government's stewardship, is something that CHCs should take up.

Ministers know that holding the election 12 months early has helped to save community health councils. They should drop the Labour party desire to abolish community health councils and seek all-party agreement to extend the CHC role to cover family doctor services. CHCs can thus help health workers--doctors, nurses and others; they are willing to take up complaints and, most of all, they ensure that there is a public, independent, knowledgeable and continuous voice to make plain that what is happening at present is unacceptable.

Ministers seem to fear people saying that what is happening is unacceptable, but waiting 15 months or 47 weeks to see a consultant and the closing of GP lists are certainly not acceptable to me. I doubt that they are acceptable to Labour Members either. CHCs have a proper role to play in ensuring that the situation changes and changes fast. Do not abolish CHCs.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell): I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). When we considered this matter in the Health Committee, we were convinced of the need for a less haphazard advocacy system that was genuinely independent. Advocates must be independent of the hospital trusts that employ them and which they investigate. We certainly need the advocacy system to be more widespread. The system must be strengthened by making it coherent and common to all trusts. It must be genuinely independent. I am glad that the Government have listened and that more acceptable proposals have been made.

Mr. Hinchliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing the points that I made in my speech. As this may be my hon. Friend's last contribution in the House, I feel it appropriate to pay tribute to him for his work on

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the Health Committee, and in representing his constituents in Morley and Rothwell and in local government over many years. He is still widely respected for his work as a member of West Yorkshire county council. I am sure that we all wish him well in his retirement.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I join in the tribute to the hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Gunnell) for his work on the Health Committee. As he will remember, he and I have jousted in Committees on several occasions. I, too, wish him well in his retirement.

I am extremely pleased that there has been a reprieve for the East Herts and North Herts community health councils, both of which have a valuable function in my constituency. They check on cleanliness in hospitals, investigate food quality and, at their statutory meetings with the health authority, have been instrumental in teasing out some of our financial problems.

My concerns about the proposals related to independence and continuity. The CHC representatives who carried out inspections of Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn Garden City and highlighted problems with cleaning contracts have a continuity of experience with that hospital. The representatives of the North Herts CHC who inspected Lister hospital, looking into diet and the quality of food preparation, also have that continuity of experience. They are independent; they say what they see.

It may not be convenient for Governments to have such independent people telling them what is right or wrong with local health services. However, as a Member of Parliament, it is helpful to me to know that there is a truly independent sounding board, which has continuity. The statutory meeting of the East Herts CHC certainly brought out--through questioning and contributions from the health authority--some of the financial difficulties that had occurred during the past few months in East and North Hertfordshire. That process was extremely helpful.

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