Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9 Jan 2003 : Column 344—continued

Mr. Bercow: There seems little doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I are inadvertently proving to be pestilential nuisances to the Minister, but I am bound to tell him that that is part of our parliamentary responsibility. In answering my hon. Friend a moment ago, the Minister said that the presence of a representative of the special health authority for England and Wales on the board of the WCH would not change the balance of powers, and

9 Jan 2003 : Column 345

that is accepted. However, I put it to him in all fairness that the presence of such a representative might usefully serve the purpose of sensitising the WCH to the importance of its communications responsibilities in circumstances of the kind that my hon. Friend has helpfully outlined.

Mr. Touhig: Perhaps we will discuss communications when we debate the next group of amendments. In fact, the hon. Gentleman's party is trying to prevent such communications in tabling those amendments, so perhaps we should leave that issue until we have that debate.

The work that the HPA will carry out in the areas I have mentioned is currently undertaken by the board of the Public Health Laboratory Service, the National Radiological Protection Board and the national focus for chemical incidents. However, field services that the HPA will provide in England—health protection functions that are provided by consultants in communicable disease control—will be provided by the national public health service in Wales. Emergency planning in Wales will remain the responsibility of the National Assembly. So because the functions of the HPA will be different in Wales, it is essential that arrangements for co-ordination with bodies that provide these services in Wales are sufficiently flexible. The HPA will need arrangements with a range of public health bodies, and as I have already said, it cannot achieve this simply by having a place on the board of the WCH.

The HPA will need to have relationships with the national public health service and the Assembly in order to carry out its functions. Those relationships will be most appropriately set out in agreements, which will come when we introduce proposals for the HPA. Settling these relationships by agreement, rather than introducing inflexible duties in the manner of the amendment, will provide the flexibility to meet changing circumstances and to make organisational arrangements, which will be put in place when necessary.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that these are probing amendments, and I hope that I have managed to deal with the points that he and his hon. Friends raised.

Chris Grayling rose—

Mr. Touhig: I am not at all concerned by the hon. Gentleman's rising; each time, I swat away such contributions like flies.

Chris Grayling: I have to say that that was not the Minister at his best—I know that he can do better. He has not addressed what is a pretty important issue at the moment, and it is clear that he was reading the brief prepared for him earlier. His response concerned the technical issues, rather than the actual ambition of protecting the people of Wales. He said that the HPA will be formed from 1 April, but I should remind him that that is two and a half months away. If the Government are incapable of synchronising a sensible measure in this Bill with one that will be in place by 1 April, they are even less competent than I thought.

9 Jan 2003 : Column 346

The Minister talked about legislation that will eventually be put in place to set up the HPA, but the reality is that there is no guarantee whatsoever about when that will happen. A loose and vague promise for the eventual introduction of a formal measure has been made, subject to the legislative timetable.

The Minister also talked about the independence of the WCH, but I do not believe that it can act in isolation on this issue. If I am not mistaken, we are still one United Kingdom, facing the threat of terrorism and disease. Wales is not becoming an independent country through devolution; we are working together and we need to work together. This issue needs to be about partnership, and to be frank I found the Minister's reference to not wanting Welsh bodies to have a duty to work with English bodies rather reprehensible.

The key issue behind the amendment—

Mr. Touhig: I did not in any way suggest that those bodies should not work together; I said that if the WCH had any contribution to make to the HPA, it would obviously want to do so and should be allowed to do so.

Chris Grayling: The Minister specifically said that, if the amendment were accepted, the WCH would be accountable to an English body in a way that it would not to bodies in Wales, but I would argue that that is simply not true. The HPA is an England and Wales body with a duty to protect our people, and to deliver the scientific expertise that will enable our health service better to protect our people, and that will enable people better to prepare for unforeseen eventualities. In that situation, surely the role of the organisation with prime responsibility for training and communication in Wales would not be affected adversely in any way by a concept that would put a scientific expert on to its board. That is all that the first amendment in this group seeks to achieve.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) wants to leave these matters to the Welsh Assembly, but they are not solely Welsh matters. Terrorists will strike, and that will affect us all. We cannot act in isolation. Diseases such as MRSA or tuberculosis will affect the whole country; they will not stop at borders.

Julie Morgan: There is general agreement that the hon. Gentleman is dealing with matters about which we are all concerned. However, we object to the amendment because of its implementation proposals, not because of the important matters with which it deals

Chris Grayling: I am grateful for that remark. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that the amendment has not sparked a debate and caused the Minister to suggest different approaches. Instead, we have merely been told that the ideas are not relevant. If the Minister will say how he will structure the relationship covered by the amendment, we will be happy to treat it as a probing amendment, as originally intended. However, our public laboratory system and health protection infrastructure are in a state of flux and the new organisation is being set up at a time of threat and risk. We need to understand now what the Government are planning, not when an incident occurs in the future.

9 Jan 2003 : Column 347

Mr. Touhig: I am trying to make it clear that the HPA will be a national body. It will tackle the threats—from microbiological attack, chemical and radiological weapons and other hazards, such as terrorism and so on—about which the hon. Gentleman is so worried. The WCH will not have that function; its role will be to support public health in Wales. The two bodies will collaborate closely. When the HPA is established, it will set up a series of structures through which it will collaborate with the WCH. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the overall responsibility for meeting the threats that he has described will rest with the HPA—the UK body that will take responsibility for such matters.

Chris Grayling: The Minister said a moment ago that the WCH could—and probably should—play an active role in telling the people of Wales about risks, and in dealing with those risks. We believe that it should play an active role in helping to train medical practitioners and health service personnel to deal with threats arising from terrorist sources or from outbreaks of communicable disease. The WCH and the HPA should be closely linked. It is logical for the House to ensure that the two groups—scientists, and communicators and trainers—should work together.

Mr. Touhig: The Government intend that the two bodies will work closely together and be complementary. The hon. Gentleman has argued that we all belong to one country, the UK, and that we need a single approach to the threats that we face, from terrorists and elsewhere. Now he suggests that the WCH should have a role in training people to deal with those threats. That role more properly belongs to the HPA, as he will understand when it is established.

Chris Grayling: I refer the Minister to clause 3((1)(c), which states that one of the functions of the WCH will be to

The WCH will therefore be the leader in delivering public health information in Wales. It also will play an active role in providing the necessary support training in relation to that information. Surely it should therefore work hand in glove with the scientists who deliver information about communicable diseases and about security risks? I do not understand why the Minister resists establishing a duty for the WCH to work in partnership with the national HPA. That would be a signal from the House at a time when this country faces real risks.

We are not asking the WCH to do anything specific: we are saying that the national Parliament expects the WCH to work with the national organisation that provides the scientific expertise on which the WCH will base much of its information. That would be its duty. We accept that there will be difficulties as the WCH establishes itself, and as the HPA goes through significant changes, but why is it inappropriate for the House to expect the two bodies to work in partnership?

We want to ensure that the people of Wales are not disadvantaged by the creation of separate bodies outside the structures of the NHS. Wales is not becoming an independent country. In respect of both terrorism and diseases, its people must still receive the same quality of service and remain linked to the national expertise enjoyed by people in England.

9 Jan 2003 : Column 348

I assure the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) that we are as concerned about the threat from communicable diseases as we are about the threat from terrorists. The hon. Gentleman said that Conservative Members have been inclined to look at the worst case when considering this Bill. However, given that chemicals that can be used as weapons have been discovered in the hands of terrorists in this country, I will take no lectures about not focusing on the worst case. It would be irresponsible of the House not to look at and cater for the worst case. We must make minor improvements to the Bill to strengthen the links between our scientists and the people who have to communicate the scientists' work.

I have been monumentally unimpressed by the Minister's response to the amendment. I hoped that he would say that the amendments were not quite right, but that he would take them in the spirit in which they were tabled and come back with his own ideas to ensure that the WCH and HPA work together. His response was inadequate, and I therefore intend to press the amendment to a Division. We need to make the point that the matter is too important not to be taken seriously.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 78, Noes 305.

Next Section

IndexHome Page