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I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill today. Last year, I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill. During consideration in Committee, I moved new clause 23, which would have established the formation of an armed forces federation open to serving and retired members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, both regular and reserve. I have to say that I was neither surprised nor disappointed that the new clause was not accepted, but our consideration of it allowed the Committee to discuss the issues surrounding it.

I now believe that there is a groundswell of opinion among the public as well as among members of the armed forces that it is time that those members should have an independent voice to represent their interests. Recent controversies surrounding accommodation, the treatment given in medical facilities to injured personnel returning from Iraq—and, of course, the scandal at Deepcut—have highlighted the increasing need for members of the armed forces to have an independent voice and to ensure that it is heard.

There is also increasing evidence that members of Her Majesty’s armed forces need to have access to independent legal advice. In the previous Parliament, I also served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. It was clear from those deliberations that members of Her Majesty’s armed services needed independent employment advice and advice about their pensions.

I propose not a trade union but a federation along the lines of the Police Federation. I want to build on the excellent work already done by the British Armed Forces Federation, which was set up in 2006, has recently been incorporated as a company limited by guarantee, and is now recruiting members. The work of Douglas Young and his team at the BAFF has been important in raising awareness of such issues among members of the armed forces. The Bill would put the federation on a formal recognised footing with the Ministry of Defence.

The aim of the Bill is to encompass the 10-point plan put forward by the BAFF, which states:

That will help to maximise the operational efficiency of our armed forces and improve retention and training.

The activities of the federation would cover five main areas: first, professional and career development through the provision of education and information; secondly, liaison, monitoring and response to proposals or developments within the armed forces and in Parliament, and the provision of services in the public or commercial sector for armed forces personnel; thirdly, advocacy and consultation to protect and improve the conditions
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of service life, including pay, accommodation, medical and welfare services, resettlement packages and all other areas of support for armed forces personnel and their families; fourthly, support to personnel facing court martial or other legal proceedings in connection with their service; and finally, negotiation of commercial benefits for armed forces personnel and their families.

It is important that the federation is seen to be independent, and is not beholden to any political party, pressure group or defence interest. While the federation needs robust and adequate funding, it is important that it is not seen as just another pressure group for defence interests. The federation will not take a view on defence strategy or operational decisions, although it may raise individual, legitimate concerns affecting its members.

To clarify, I reiterate that the federation will not be a trade union for the armed forces. It will not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination within the armed forces. The federation will seek to work with the Ministry of Defence to put in place a form of understanding that could deal with such issues. It will also recognise the importance of the chain of command. If we look at the BAFF’s website, we see that it clearly reinforces the point that the chain of command is to be recognised, not overridden.

The proposal might be seen as radical and dangerous by certain members of the armed forces, and possibly by some Opposition Members. But may I point out that many other nations, including the United States and Australia, already have such federations, which have the support of the military command in those countries? The proposal, however, is not to copy those, but to bring forward a British solution for the British armed forces. It will reflect the ethos and robust traditions of the three fighting services, but it will also meet the requirements of men and women who are serving in our armed forces.

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The best example that I can give is that of the Armed Forces Federation of Australia. It is an independent voice on pay and allowances and represents members of the armed forces on employment issues. It also gives legal advice, financial assistance and advice, and allows for discounts and savings schemes nationally for all members of the Australian armed forces. The federation is controlled and structured by its members and is independent of the Australian military, although it has the backing of senior military figures. In the introduction to its latest handbook, Air Chief Marshall Houston says:

He acknowledged the federation’s “ongoing commitment and contribution” to the Australian armed forces.

The Bill would not set up an armed forces federation; it already exists. Instead, it would allow the BAFF to be recognised by the Ministry of Defence and be valued for providing a voice for ordinary members of our armed forces. The BAFF has already stated that if legislation, such as this Bill, were introduced, it would look to work with the Government and stakeholders to develop the appropriate structures for the representation of members of our armed forces. The Bill provides just that opportunity, and I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. David Anderson, Mr. Iain Wright, David Wright, Helen Jones and Jim Sheridan.

Armed Forces (Federation)

Mr. Kevan Jones accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Federation for the Armed Forces; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 117].

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Opposition Day

[13th Allotted Day]

NHS IT Programme

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.43 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I beg to move,

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

Let me be clear from the outset: Conservative Members believe in ensuring that all patients in our NHS will get better care in future, from the expertise, dedication and wonderful work of NHS doctors, nurses, therapists and, yes, NHS managers, by harnessing information technology to improve the processes for patients’ treatments and their clinical outcomes. So, yes, we endorse the aims of the NHS national programme for IT, known as NPfIT and succeeded by Connecting for Health, which we support in principle, but—it is a big “but”—the reason for the debate, in Opposition time and in the absence of the Government bringing such an important and costly programme for debate on the Floor of the House, is to highlight, sadly, the woeful shortcomings of the way in which the Government have first designed and then sought to implement this vital programme.

The fact that the shortcomings were identified and predicted by us and many others over the past five years puts the onus on the Government not only to account for their delays, design U-turns and serial incompetence, but to accept that it is the official Opposition who now offer a constructive way forward in the interests of NHS patients—a constructive approach that is consistent with all that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) so expertly epitomises at all times in wanting to make our NHS better for all.

Members should not expect a speech from me focusing on which ministerial heads should roll. Nor should those so disillusioned by the Government’s amateurish cackhandedness in implementing their own policy through
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this IT programme that they would stop it in its tracks expect me to call for even an audit. That would imply, as audits do, that we want to look back at something that has stopped—finished. We do not. Rather, it is because we believe in the positive potential benefits of IT in the NHS, implemented correctly, for the good of patients and the morale and professionalism of all staff, that we now call for a full and independent zero-based review. We want to see a contrast with the Government’s performance to date: we want to see the programme put right, because that is the right thing to do.

The review—and this is the difference between a review and an audit—can and must be carried out while work on the programme is in progress, to prevent even more lost time and, potentially, lost lives. If the Government do not agree to a full and independent review today as a result of our call, we will, as a matter of urgency, set one up ourselves.

Why is the need for a review so urgent? It is because this is some remote, geeky, abstract topic, with IT experts arguing about the best platforms, protocols and data-sharing mechanisms and employing all the gobbledegook jargon that passes for language in the ethereal IT world, but because the Department of Health itself claims that the care records service—only one part of the programme—will prevent “thousands of unnecessary deaths”. As the programme is already at least two years late, by the Government’s own admission the consequences of its incompetent implementation must be those very thousands of unnecessary deaths. That is the real cost of the delays, the incompetence and the lost opportunity—let alone the estimated financial opportunity cost of £1.4 billion of taxpayers’ money. According to the National Audit Office, that was the cost last year, and it is rising.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, for allowing me to intervene. Given that he does not want the system to be scrapped—and given that there are now 19,778 instances of IT deployment, the 250 millionth picture archiving and communication system record is now in existence, and the 22 millionth prescription since the last Conservative-initiated debate has been issued; the number has risen from 237 million to nearly 250 million—he must recognise that real progress is being made. Is not the motion merely a diversion? Is this not just political opportunism on the hon. Gentleman’s part?

Mr. O'Brien: On the contrary. The hon. Gentleman has made something of a speciality of trying to understand this issue. He has read out some of the statistics in the Government amendment, but if he looks at the measures that the Government have set themselves, he will realise that the statistics in the amendment are irrelevant even to those. Furthermore, the electronic prescriptions account for only 5 per cent. of all prescriptions, which is way below the Government’s own target. Those statistics are, in fact, a mark of the Government’s lack of progress. Although they may indicate the progress that the hon. Gentleman would like to see, they are woefully short of what was promised or what could be achieved.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), but I
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caution him against the hon. Gentleman’s “Soviet tractor production statistics” approach. After all, what matters is not the total number of deployments, but the total number of deployment of facilities of major importance such as patient administration systems for acute hospitals. Will my hon. Friend confirm that in four years British Telecom has not managed to install a single one of those systems in its local service provider area, London?

Mr. O'Brien: Evidence does not support the progress that the Government and many others would claim. The evidence from my hon. Friend, who has conducted a dedicated study of the issue, is much more reliable.

Labour Members are wrong to regard our motion as smacking of anything other than a genuine wish to make the programme work. We are calling for a review, not an audit. The Government have never presented their case on the Floor of the House: they have never put themselves up for scrutiny.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman asks for a review. Does he think that the outcomes of various reviews conducted by the Office of Government Commerce at various stages of this mega-programme would help bring to public attention any flaws that it might contain? If an article in this week’s Computer Weekly is correct, the reports are being shredded rather than being brought into the public domain. That cannot be right, can it?

Mr. O'Brien: I also saw those reports, and I was distressed to read them. If that is what is happening, it must be wrong. I hope that those who are doing that are brought to account and to book.

There is another cost. Today we hear doctors formally declaring that they have lost confidence in the Government. Despite the fact that NHS professionals showed themselves to be open to the use of IT as soon as it became applicable to the health care setting decades ago, the Government have, according to the Labour-dominated Public Accounts Committee,

According to a Medix survey, in 2002, 67 per cent. of general practitioners said that the IT programme was an important priority for the NHS. By November 2006, only 35 per cent. did.

I grant the Minister's boss, the Secretary of State for Health, one accurate prediction about the NHS IT programme. In September 2003, as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, she said of ID cards:

Why she did not heed her own advice and act on her own predictions once she got to the Department of Health two years later, to preside over the Government's biggest IT project, I do not know.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I return to the intervention by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). We understand that reviews have been conducted internally and by the Office of Government Commerce. Should not they be published now?

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Mr. O'Brien: I agree. All reviews should be published. It must be nice to see them, but we are calling for a zero-based, full and independent review because that is the only thing that is likely to carry the authority and respect that will win the day and help the professionals to get the thing right. I hope that we will see the hon. Gentleman join us in the Lobby to make such an endorsement.

As one newspaper leader yesterday put it, commenting on the most recent and excellent authoritative work of the Public Accounts Committee on the Government's ability to deliver IT projects generally,

Whether we are looking at the multi-billion pound fiasco of the Chancellor’s tax credit system, the potential ID card system or NHS IT, this is crass and amateur procurement on an industrial scale.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Does he agree that confidence in NHS IT projects in my constituency has been fundamentally shaken by two failures in the past six months? First, because of an IT failure, ambulances were diverted from taking patients to Royal Surrey county hospital and took them to Frimley Park hospital. Secondly, a failure in the choose and book system made it difficult for GPs to book people into appointments at Royal Surrey county hospital, as opposed to neighbouring hospitals. What did they both have in common? They took patients away from Royal Surrey county hospital, which is currently threatened with closure.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making sure that the House is aware of those incidents, which caused concern, most importantly, for the patients themselves at the time. There is a lack of accountability and the lack of an explanation of why those incidents took place.

It is important to ensure that there is no misunderstanding among various Labour Members. To be constructive and to move forward, we must understand how we came to be here. Therefore, let us briefly track back. In 1998 the Government published their own information for health strategy. February 2002 saw the Prime Minister hold

another great headline-grabbing initiative, but how many clinicians were present at the meeting? Perhaps we shall soon learn, as the outgoing Prime Minister rushes his memoirs to the printers, but do not hold your breath, Mr. Speaker.

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