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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): When the right hon. Gentleman was appointed as Secretary of State, he said that Norfolk primary schools could look forward to a bright future—we are all very encouraged by that—but is he aware that Norfolk may well lose up to 90 teachers, with primary schools bearing the brunt, including Reffley, Fairstead and St. Edmunds county primary schools in my constituency? I was here last Thursday; I listened to the debate very carefully, and the right hon. Gentleman could not give Norfolk any real guarantee that there would be a way out of this funding crisis. Can he tell us today whether there is any real hope for Norfolk in this funding crisis?

Mr. Clarke: I give the hon. Gentleman credit for being present during that debate, which was called by the Opposition, and, moreover, for participating in it and putting the points that he makes now. Unfortunately, I am not able to add to what I said last Thursday, but what I announced then will lead to a better situation for schools throughout the country.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the reduction in primary school tests and targets urgently needs to be replicated in a reduction in the unprecedented paperwork burden on teachers, can the right hon. Gentleman now tell the House what his quantitative target for that reduction is and, if there is no such target, why on earth not?

Mr. Clarke: We have a whole series of proposals in this area, where a great deal of measures have been taken. The quantitative material sent out to schools by my Department has been very substantially reduced in the past two years, as the data will show. I do not have the quantitative figures to hand, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with them.

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Points of Order

1.13 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you and the Ministers concerned prior notice. You will have seen that, in today's Order Paper, notice is given that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a written ministerial statement about housing benefit. You will have been as surprised as I was to see in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail this morning reports that set out the details of that statement and contain direct quotations from it by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, a press release containing full details of the announcement appeared on the Departmental website this morning, well before the statement had been deposited in the Library. Is it in order for Ministers to brief the press the day before and allow themselves to be quoted using exactly the same words as appear in the statement, so that the precise text of the statement is available publicly in the morning papers before it has been made to the House? Is that not a discourtesy to the House? Can you offer any guidance? What is to be done about such things?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. Written ministerial statements may be made at any time from 9.30 in the morning. It is of fundamental importance that they are not given to the press before they are made available to the House. In this instance, it appears that at least two newspapers had a copy of the departmental press release in time to print details this morning. Departments must not pre-empt the House in that way, and I look to Ministers to ensure that it does not happen again.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) has made a very serious and fair point. I wish to offer my sincere apologies and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the fact that news of our announcement on housing benefit sanctions became public before Parliament had been informed. That was a genuine error, and I assure the House that there was no intention to be discourteous. We gave notice yesterday that we would make a written statement this morning to announce that we would issue a consultation document on those proposals. A press release was prepared with the intention that it would be sent out after the written statement had been issued. I very much regret that the press release was mistakenly issued last night. We take our obligations to Parliament very seriously indeed and normally—as I hope you will agree, Mr. Speaker—we observe the protocols of the House when we make such announcements. I can only say how sorry I am that that did not occur on this occasion.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Not that long ago during questions in the House, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office made the astonishing assertion—he made it not once but a number of times—that Her Majesty's Opposition had not taken up the full allocation of time under yesterday's very tight guillotine

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on business. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that column 798 of yesterday's Hansard not only shows beyond doubt that a Government Back Bencher was speaking when the time expired, but it says:


That was at 10.2 pm, which was the expiry of the time allowed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise to the House and to Her Majesty's Opposition for that error and that perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you will consider re-running that part of Question Time, so that the hon. Gentleman can give accurate answers to the questions that we asked him.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The information given by the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office was clearly incorrect, as even a cursory glance at Hansard would reveal. However, in case there is any glimmer of doubt in the hon. Gentleman's mind about our determination to pursue the arguments arising from the Criminal Justice Bill for as long as necessary, is there any opportunity, Mr. Speaker, even at this late stage, for the hon. Gentleman to table a manuscript programme motion that will extend the time available for debate this evening, so that we can properly consider the very many new clauses that the Government have tabled to the Criminal Justice Bill, without allowing them to pass to the other place without proper scrutiny?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Further to that point of order, the two hon. Gentlemen are both entirely right, and perhaps I can take this opportunity to apologise to them, to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House. The debate on the Criminal Justice Bill did indeed go the full six and a half hours last night. In response to the last point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), may I say that it remains the case that three full days' debate on the Floor of the House on Report is unprecedented for such a Bill?

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that it is not on that matter; the Minister has apologised.

Mr. Bercow: No it is not. I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me and I seek your guidance. Further to your very welcome ruling on the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that relates to advance briefings and leaks—the latest in a series of welcome rulings on this matter—can you offer any reassurance to the House that, when breaches of this kind occur, they will as a matter of course result in a requirement for the Minister formally to apologise to the House? Most Members would greatly welcome what the Parliamentary Secretary has to say today, but if it were understood that a Minister would always be required formally to apologise at the Dispatch Box, such incidences probably would not occur anything like so frequently.

Mr. Speaker: The Minister came to apologise to the House, and in this instance, the matter has ended.

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Medical Practitioners and Dentists (Professional Negligence Insurance)

1.19 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I beg to move,


It is generally assumed that doctors and dentists are indemnified against professional negligence, both for their sake and the patient's. Indemnity insurance for professional negligence is a mandatory requirement for several professions, few of which are in a position to inflict as much damage to their clients as a negligent or incompetent doctor or dentist. Sadly, that is not the case, and serious consequences can flow from it.

At present, staff employed by health service bodies are covered by the NHS indemnity scheme while they are providing services under the NHS. Private practitioners, however, are not necessarily covered by insurance. They may be members of the Medical Defence Union or Dental Defence Union and may have discretionary insurance cover, but it is not mandatory, and the provision of an indemnity insurance by the MDU is a recent development. About 40 per cent. of doctors in private practice and 70 per cent. of dentists may not have the contractual certainty of insurance and are thus exposed to the risk of being pursued in the courts for professional negligence. Their patients are equally at risk if they are unable to pay judgments that the courts may hand down.

Such an example arose in my area. A dentist practising privately was sued for negligence because of the damage to one of his patient's teeth. It is estimated that it will cost £11,000 for further treatment to repair the damage so that he can use his teeth to eat. The court awarded £6,000 in damages and the costs were another £6,000, but the dentist declared himself bankrupt and has left the country without paying a penny. The solicitor who represented the patient has another 40 cases pending against the same dentist, and it is believed that about 1,000 patients have been similarly damaged by the same dentist. Clearly, he is an outstandingly bad example, and I do not suggest for a moment that that case is typical of medical practitioners. None the less, it illustrates what can happen.

The sums involved in medical cases can of course be much larger, especially in obstetrics where the delivery of a baby with cerebral palsy can lead to court judgments of the order of £3.5 million to cover the cost of a lifetime's care for the child. The bill for claims in obstetric cases to the NHS currently runs into billions of pounds, and, unsurprisingly, independent midwives are virtually extinct. Clearly, the current situation in which insurance is discretionary is not acceptable. Insurance against damage to third parties is mandatory for motorists. Professional negligence insurance is mandatory for other professions and an overwhelming case exists for making it mandatory for health professionals.

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Clearly, the Government recognise that there is a problem, as the Health Act 1999 contains an enabling provision that would provide for mandatory insurance:


It continues:


In moving the clause in another place, the noble Lord Hunt, speaking for the Government, said:


He went on to say:


That was the Government position at the time of the Health Act 1999, but, sadly, the power has not been exercised. That is why I am seeking the leave of the House to bring in this Bill, the thrust of which is that in order to practice as a part II practitioner any health professional must hold a valid certificate of indemnity insurance, and that to practice without insurance would be an offence.

I know that the Government are seized of the problem and are considering a system of no fault compensation to operate in the NHS, which would address the acute public sector, but insurance cover already exists for NHS staff and patients. My Bill would ensure that there is protection in place for both practitioners and the public, in the public sector and the private sector. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Mr. David Lepper, Dr. Ian Gibson, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Vera Baird and Mr. David Heath.


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