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Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

46. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): To ask the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, which recent letters to the Commission from the Commissioner for Standards have not been published to hon. Members. [25062]

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): I understand that the letter of 28 November from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to Mr. Speaker was released to the media on

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the evening of 4 December 2001. The Committee on Standards and Privileges requested on 9 January that the commissioner's letter of 14 December be published. The Commission will consider that request, and the commissioner's letter of 8 January, at its next meeting.

Peter Bottomley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to the Commission. It would be a happy thing if it agreed to publish the letters. Will the hon. Gentleman consider the report from the predecessor Commission that was published on 9 November 1998, and the words in the initial speeches in the debate of 17 November 1998? Tributes were paid to the then incoming Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I commend the words in that report that referred to her personal qualities, and the House will expect those sentiments to be reflected in the letters, when they are published.

Mr. Kirkwood: Obviously, I cannot commit the Commission to anything, but I give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that the matter will be given serious consideration. Important issues of precedent are involved, and we must be jealous of them. The correspondence between the Commission and senior officers of the House is not something that should easily be made transparently public on every occasion. We must therefore be careful that we do not establish precedents that could be dangerous in the future. However, I give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that the matter that he raises, and the request from the Standards and Privileges Committee, will be given urgent consideration when the Commission meets early next week.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): On the subject of the correspondence, is the hon. Gentleman aware that many people in the House and certainly outside it consider that the way in which the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has been treated is very shabby given the view, which I share, that she has carried out her duties very conscientiously? This matter is unfortunate and brings into question the self-regulation that exists for Members of Parliament.

Mr. Kirkwood: I hope that when the hon. Gentleman sees the provisions that are made after the open process

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for the nomination and appointment of a successor to the current commissioner is completed, he will believe those fears to have been misplaced. An open competition is now in its final stages. The current commissioner has been invited to submit her name for the final interviews. If she does so, she will automatically go on the shortlist, and if she is found to be the best candidate, she will be nominated by the Commission to this House.

The President of the Council was asked—

Sitting Hours

47. John Mann (Bassetlaw): What assessment he has made of the impact of his proposals for changes to the sitting hours of the House on hon. Members with school age children living outside the London area. [25063]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The main purpose of the proposed changes in sitting hours is to increase the effectiveness of the House of Commons both in legislation and in scrutiny of the Executive. We anticipate that the changes to sitting hours proposed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will benefit all Members with children.

John Mann: It is most laudable that Members of the House who live in London—and indeed civil servants—and have expressed the view that they should be able to spend more time having breakfast with their children will be given the opportunity to do so. I hope that the Leader of the House will give equal consideration to all Members, regardless of where in the United Kingdom they live with their children, and that this does not apply just to those Members who happen to live with their children in London.

Mr. Twigg: My hon. Friend raises an important issue which has been raised by Members on both sides of the House. A number of the other changes proposed by my right hon. Friend would benefit Members with families, such as making permanent the Thursday experiment on hours, having fewer sitting Fridays and having a more predictable annual pattern of sittings.

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NHS Hospital Management

3.32 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement about his proposal to allow NHS managers to establish non-profit-making companies to manage hospitals, as outlined in today's edition of The Times.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn): The NHS plan that we published in July 2000 set out how power and resources would be devolved to front-line NHS services. It said:


The proposals for foundation hospitals are rooted in the NHS plan. They come about as a consequence of discussions that we have had with the best performing NHS hospitals. Those hospitals are already beginning to get greater freedom and more resources. For hospitals which are not performing well—the poorest performers—we will consider franchising their management to bring in fresh blood.

The best performers, however, have now put to us proposals for a change in their structures, not to take them out of the national health service but to have greater freedom to improve care for NHS patients as part and parcel of a modern health service. These proposals clearly draw on precedents in other parts of the public sector such as schools or further education colleges and the growing interest that there has been in recent years in public interest companies and mutuals as an alternative to either purely state-run public or shareholder-led private structures.

Our three-star hospitals have now asked us to look at whether such models could be applicable to local health services to form foundation hospitals within the health service but run more independently than now. I think it right that we should examine the case that they have made.

We will consider the applicability of foundations not just to the best hospitals but to the best primary care trusts. Over the next few months we will be working with them to examine the legal, financial, governance and accountability issues.

While this will only ever be voluntary not mandatory for the health service's best performers, alongside new incentives, more devolution and greater patient choice it will help make for a different sort of NHS: where there is more diversity and less top-down control, with a framework of national standards in place and a means—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is getting very excited—it is easily done. With a framework of national standards in place and a means of independently inspecting them, there is now the opportunity to set free the best hospitals and the best primary care trusts to improve NHS care for NHS patients.

Patients will remain NHS patients, treated according to NHS principles, with care that is free and available according to need—not as some Members advocate,

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according to their ability to pay. Those are the right values for the NHS. It is not NHS values that need to change, but NHS structures.

Dr. Fox: Only a few weeks ago we were told by the Prime Minister that we were at the end of the era of spin, but here we are for the second day in a row having to drag a Secretary of State to the House. In The Times this morning, the Secretary of State tells us that it was the most important speech in his time as Health Secretary. If that is true why was that speech not made to the House of Commons? If it is not true, it is indicative that the spin goes on.

Well, the right hon. Gentleman has the headlines and we rather like those headlines; or in new Labour speak we rather like the direction of the journey—it is in our direction of travel. There is more than a little suspicion that this is yet another example of the Secretary of State, when under pressure, adopting the "Blue Peter",'Here's one I made earlier'" approach to policy, so let us see if we can get some details.

The Secretary of State wants to give management more freedom—but does he? Management would generally assume that four things were needed to give proper freedom: to be able to borrow from the markets; to set strategy; to set pay and conditions; and to contract for services independently. How many of those will be given in the foundation hospitals?

In his speech this morning the Secretary of State said, in reference to further education colleges, that buying and selling of assets is one of their freedoms. Will these foundation hospitals be able to buy and sell assets? How many of these hospitals does the Secretary of State intend to see by the time of the next general election? Will they still be subject to the star rating? What if they lose a star? Will they be brought back under central control? If so, how—and what legislation will be required? How much freedom will they have in determining pay and conditions?

The Secretary of State said in his speech that four functions will be left for the Department of Health: setting strategic direction; the integrity of the whole system through IT and staff training; developing the values of the NHS through education, training and policy development; and securing accountability for funding and performance, including reports to Parliament. There was nothing at all about pay and conditions as one of the functions for the NHS, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can enlighten us on that point.

What will any freedom on pay and conditions mean for the current negotiations under way with GPs and consultants over their contracts, or the 18-month negotiations with the nurses over their pay and career development? What does the Secretary of State mean when he says that we will have to find

Is that money following the patient, or is that money following the patient? That is exactly what the Secretary of State set out to abolish.

When it comes to asking for meanings, what exactly did the Secretary of State mean when he said that we need:

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What on earth did he mean when he said that we need:

We have not the faintest idea what any of that meant.

This response has not been thought out; it is a panic response by the Secretary of State to orders from No. 10 to try to regain the agenda on the public services. We have had the Health Bill. We have had the NHS plan. Today we have before us the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill and now we have the master plan. We are used to having votes of no confidence in Ministers but not usually by themselves in their own Bill on the same day that they are considering it.

This is not about the future of the NHS: it is new Labour, new year, new panic, new policy.

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