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'In subsection 11(2) of the Health and Social Care Act 2001, paragraph (a) is omitted and the following is inserted—
"(a) the Secretary of State,
(aa) Strategic Health Authorities,".'.

New clause 8—Functions of overview and scrutiny committees

'(1) In subsection 7(1) of the Health and Social Care Act 2001, after "recommendations" the words "and referrals to the Secretary of State" are inserted.
(2) In subsection 7(3) of that Act, after paragraph (a) there is inserted—
"(aa) as to matters relating to the health service in the authority's area which the committee may refer to the Secretary of State,".'.

Amendment No. 1, in clause 15, page 20, line 2, leave out Clause 15.

Government amendments Nos. 33, and amendment (a) thereto, and 34.

Amendment No. 2, in clause 16, page 21, line 4, leave out Clause 16.

Amendment No. 73, line 20, at end insert—

'(but for the purposes of this section "promises" shall not include the private living quarters of any person)'.

Amendment No. 3, in clause 17, page 21, line 31, leave out Clause 17.

Government amendment No. 37.

Amendment No. 4, in clause 18, page 22, line 13, leave out Clause 18.

15 Jan 2002 : Column 202

Amendment No. 70, in page 22, line 27, after "Forums", insert—

'by the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health'.

Amendment No. 63, line 27, leave out "other facilities and staff" and insert "and other facilities".

Government amendment No. 38.

Amendment No. 64, line 37, after "by", insert "a Patients" Council,".

Government amendment No. 39.

Amendment No. 65, in page 23, line 1, after "by", insert "a Patients" Council,".

Amendment No. 71, line 2, after "Authorities", insert—

'and overview and scrutiny committees'.

Amendment No. 72, line 3, after "of", insert ", or referrals from,".

Amendment No. 66, line 20, after "Forum", insert ", a Patients" Council".

Amendment No. 67, line 24, after "section 15" insert—

'and a Patients' Council under section [Establishment of Patients' Councils]'.

Amendment No. 68, in clause 19, page 23, line 43, after "Forums", insert "and Patients" Councils".

Amendment No. 69, in page 24, leave out lines 5 to 10 and insert—

'(g) coordinating and supporting the activities of Patients' Councils in respect of their activities provided for at subsection (3)(c) of section [Establishment of Patients' Councils],'.

Amendment No. 5, in clause 20, page 25, line 23, leave out Clause 20.

Amendment No. 11, in page 26, line 5, at end insert—

'(7A) This section may not be brought into force until the Secretary of State has issued a certificate stating that in his opinion the bodies established under section 15 are fully functional and performing their duties effectively throughout England.'.

Mr. Burns: Even at this late stage, new clause 2 will try to stop the Government making a pernicious and vindictive attempt to stifle any opposition to the abolition of community health councils. As most hon. Members in the Chamber will remember, there is a long history to this sad and sorry affair.

When the Government introduced the Health and Social Care Bill during the last Parliament, they tried to remove CHCs. They were ruthless in their determination to brook no opposition in this place, to have their way and to ensure that the CHCs were removed by what is known in common parlance as a patsy—a lapdog of an apology for a forum for patients who had grievances against the local NHS in their area.

Far too many people saw through that attempt to get rid of a "troublesome priest"—in the words of Henry II. The CHCs were a thorn in the side of the Government because they had the guts and the courage to represent the people they had been created to look after and to speak their mind about failure in the provision of health care locally or about injustice in the health service.

The Opposition and—to their credit—several independently minded Labour Members fought the case vigorously, but the Government steamrollered the measure through the House before the general election.

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However, their attempt to abolish CHCs was thwarted by the common sense and experience of another place. The Government had to drop their disgraceful proposal so as to ensure that the remaining contents of the Health and Social Care Bill reached the statute book before Dissolution in May 2001.

At the first opportunity in the new Parliament, the Government shamelessly brought back those proposals in this Bill, but for the life of me I cannot understand why. Community health councils were created as long ago as 1974. They represent and help members of the public within the orbit of the health service. They are independent bodies, which is crucial. They have teeth and power; for example, if a CHC does not agree with a health authority or a trust about a proposed hospital closure and formally objects, the proposal has to go to the Secretary of State for decision. They have built up tremendous expertise and experience in looking after patients, and the Under–Secretary will certainly be aware of that.

I shall come to the Under-Secretary's role a little later, but she will be aware that I believe that CHCs have done more than enough to justify their retention. On average, they assist about 30,000 people a year. A recent poll conducted by Health Which? found that 84 per cent. of those who had contacted their CHCs found the advice given to them very or fairly useful, which suggests an extremely high satisfaction rate.

Similarly, a recent report, "Hidden Volunteers", conducted by Community Service Volunteers, estimated that CHC members contributed through their dedicated work about £7.9 million worth of free labour to the NHS. No one in the Chamber would underestimate their work. They have been extremely brave. They have devoted a great deal of their time and effort to fulfilling their role, looking after those people whom it is their job to represent and help.

What do the Government want to do? They want to abolish CHCs. I shall not be convinced by their reasons for wanting to abolish CHCs, whatever the Under- Secretary says, because there is only one reason: they do not like opposition. Those who oppose them and have the temerity to embarrass them, by highlighting failings in their policy or in its implementation, have to be silenced because they are out of kilter. That is an extraordinary reason to get rid of any organisation, and I shall be particularly interested to hear the Under-Secretary's response. I have heard her response once before in Committee, and I suspect that it will be along similar lines today.

The Under-Secretary chaired Salford CHC from 1993 to 1997, so more than any hon. Member in the Chamber tonight she has a working experience and knowledge of how good CHCs are. I suspect that, between 1993 and 1997, she thought with justification—she chaired that CHC and she is an able individual—that Salford CHC was very good indeed at fulfilling its functions. I do not think for a minute that she wanted her CHC, or any other, to be abolished. As I am sure she would have said if the previous Government had proposed to abolish CHCs, they had an important, independent role to play, and they played it extremely well.

6.30 pm

Sadly, times have changed, and the Under-Secretary will stand at the Dispatch Box later tonight to seek to

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persuade her right hon. and hon. Friends to sign the CHCs' death note, which is a staggering turnabout in four to five years. I do not believe that the quality of the work done by CHCs has deteriorated in four or five years to such an extent that it warrants their abolition. If the Government feel that CHCs have a patchy record or that improvements need to be made in some of them, why do the Government simply not reform them and change the law to improve and strengthen them? Surely that is the right way forward.

If satisfaction among CHCs' client group is high, if the perception is that they do a very good job in their local communities—the Under-Secretary was directly involved with them until relatively recently, and I assume that she thought that her CHC did a very good job, as I am sure it did—and if some of their functions could be performed even better, why not simply introduce legislation to strengthen and improve them?

Mr. Peter Atkinson: Would we not have a very much better idea of why the Government propose to abolish CHCs if we had got round to discussing clause 20 in Committee? It is worth reminding ourselves that it was not discussed because of the ludicrous system of timetabling and programming Bills. We are blind about the Government's real reasons for wanting to abolish CHCs.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, because of the guillotine, the Committee had no opportunity to discuss what everyone considers the most important clause—clause 20. This, therefore, is the first time that we have been able properly to discuss the issue since Second Reading.

We attempted to discuss CHCs during debates on an earlier clause, but we are never able to discuss any amendment that we might have wished to move in Committee because of the tightness of that guillotine. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I hope that the report of his intervention will be read with keen interest, especially in another place, when it has to deal with the Bill later this year.

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