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Linda Perham: I speak as secretary of the all-party group on community health councils, as someone who has been a CHC member for four years, and as one of the 26 Members who voted on 15 January for the amendment on patients councils tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). As hon. Members know, this debate is taking place on a day when my hon. Friend has a long-standing commitment, of his choice, abroad.

Mr. Burns: Of his choice?

Linda Perham: Yes.

Mr. Burns: Has the hon. Lady spoken to the Whips Office?

Linda Perham: The hon. Gentleman may go in for conspiracy theories: indeed, everyone in this place is more willing to believe in a conspiracy than in the true version of events.

Mr. Burns: Has the hon. Lady discussed this matter with the hon. Member for Wakefield? If not, I recommend that she does so.

Linda Perham: I have had many discussions with my hon. Friend, and I am coming to those.

Mr. Burns: On this matter?

Linda Perham: I intend to continue with my speech.

My hon. Friend's contribution on these matters will be missed by many inside and outside the House. The Minister and others have acknowledged that my hon. Friend has done more than anyone else to draw attention

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to the shortcomings, if I may use that word, of the Government's original proposals for patient and public involvement in the health service. In consultation with the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales, my hon. Friend has made constructive suggestions for a way forward.

I spoke to my hon. Friend at length on Monday night before he left the country, as well as to the Minister. As Members have heard from the Minister, my hon. Friend has written to her welcoming the amendment to include in the Bill the requirement that all patients forums in an area should come together regularly to share ideas, views and experiences. Members will recall that, in his speech on 15 January, my hon. Friend asked for

Because that provision was lacking in the Bill, my hon. Friend tabled and voted for an amendment, which was also supported by myself and 24 colleagues.

I know that my hon. Friend has been grateful to the Minister for her co-operation in seeking to resolve the problems from the time when these matters were last before the House until a few days ago, but that he is not entirely happy about what is proposed today. Obviously, he would prefer the Government to support the introduction of his model for patients councils. It is almost two years since one line in chapter 10 of the NHS plan baldly stated that CHCs were to be abolished, and I have never had a satisfactory and rational explanation of why CHCs could not have been reformed and strengthened to play the central role in other reforms, most of which are warmly welcomed. [Interruption.] I am glad that Members are listening closely.

During the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, an earlier version of my hon. Friend's amendment on patients councils was accepted by the Government but subsequently withdrawn. As the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) said, it has taken the other place, together with a well co-ordinated and competently argued campaign by ACHCEW and a range of other stakeholders, to bring us to the point where we may finally have a resolution.

I regret that so much time and effort has had to be expended when it has always been clear that a compromise would add value to the proposals as well as resolving the ongoing controversy. However, I recognise that the Minister has been very helpful and proactive in working on alternatives that seem capable of achieving much of what patients councils would deliver. I wish that the dialogue had started much sooner, perhaps even before her time as a Minister, but I have only praise for her tireless work in seeking a resolution of our differences, particularly in the past week or so with my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield and latterly myself.

There are some positives to take from this experience. It should be the good news story that we could have had earlier. The Minister and the Government are showing that they know that even though they did not get it wrong, they certainly did not get it all right. They have listened, and we have before us a compromise that I hope can lead to consensus. In this policy area, we ought to be able to reach agreement.

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5.45 pm

I hope that CHCs and their national association will feel better after today. Theirs has been a long and stressful road that has taken a heavy toll. Although they and some patients and members of the public are not getting exactly what they wanted, they can claim a moral victory in the light of the Government's proposal, which includes a strong, independent, community-led and integrated watchdog for PCT patients forums. However, I hope that we can come up with a more user-friendly name, such as the "community health service".

I hope that the Minister will join me and the rest of the House in paying tribute to CHC voluntary members and staff, who have continued to serve their communities well during a time of much uncertainty and instability. I pay particular tribute to my own Redbridge CHC, of which I used to be a member. I hope that the Minister and other colleagues will also join me in congratulating the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales, its director, Peter Walsh, and its supporters, on conducting its campaign with such rigor and integrity. There can be no denying that the proposal before us is a great improvement on past attempts. That is due in no small part to ACHCEW's well informed and well argued briefings, and the excellent work—as has been widely acknowledged—carried out on behalf of NHS users by CHCs for almost a generation.

I heartily welcome the genuine attempts by all concerned to secure greater public involvement in health services. This Government are rightly investing huge sums in those services, thereby reflecting our constituents' continuing commitment to the national health service.

Dr. Evan Harris: All of us—perhaps excluding the Minister—are sick of repeatedly discussing this issue, but it is important to recognise that we have made progress, and I want to make a constructive contribution.

We have yet to reach consensus, but if we build on the excellent speech from the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) we might find a starting point. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said that, although the two sides of the argument are inches apart, those inches are very important. If I might modernise his terminology—a risky procedure—perhaps they are now only centimetres apart, although the distance remains very important. Perhaps we can explore that issue.

I thank the Government for agreeing to change the programme motion. I do not understand how such matters are dealt with, but it was appropriate to extend the original offer, thereby enabling us to explore these issues properly. It is unfortunate that we cannot discuss a sheaf of amendments line by line in a Committee; perhaps we should do so outside this Chamber, so that we can resolve some of the confusion. I am confident that we can do that, because the Minister has always been willing to discuss this issue. If the amendments give rise to specific questions, we can discuss them.

In his usual style, the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) explained some of the reasons why the Government's entire strategy is flawed—a view with which we agree. It is not worth my repeating the points that I made on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. My predecessor in this role, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), made the same points. Originally, he worked closely with the hon.

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Member for Wakefield to try to save community health councils and the other important elements that need to be saved.

I have never understood why the Government felt it necessary to abolish CHCs. Perhaps they did so on the basis of patchy performance, but such reasoning would threaten the roles of many Front Benchers.

Mr. Burns: Speak for yourself.

Dr. Harris: We should all watch out, and particularly members of the Cabinet. If patchy performance were a basis for abolition, we would have even more of a dictatorship, and even less Cabinet government.

I do not accept that it was ever reasonable to abolish community health councils, but the Government want to change the way in which things are done and we have to meet them part of the way. I accepted on Report, a little before the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, that we must move on to consider a way of reaching agreement.

As the Minister knows, the arithmetic is such that in the House of Lords, where the Government do not have a majority, there was a strong turnout of both main Opposition parties and Cross Benchers against the Government's proposals. Unless we can reach full agreement, I fear that that will continue. Despite the progress that we have made, I cannot say that my party will necessarily change its position. I do not believe that there is huge enthusiasm for the Government's proposals on the Labour Benches, although they are welcomed by some hon. Members, who are more than capable of speaking for themselves. There is still some way to go, but we have a useful platform.

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