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16 July 2008 : Column 118WH—continued

Danny Alexander: The Minister makes the point that shortfalls occurred under the old system, too, and he is right about that. What assessment has he made of the numbers of people—I am particularly interested in the Highland council area, but perhaps he has considered a wider area—who will make gains on the basis of the
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shopping around benefit, which was another of the Government’s selling points in relation to personal responsibility, under the new system?

Mr. Plaskitt: That is down to choices that people will make as individuals. It is difficult for me to anticipate that. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to anticipate circumstances in which families or individuals seek to move, and then to second-guess what choice they might make about the accommodation that they go to. The whole point of LHA is to hand that choice back to individuals and to give them the foreknowledge of how much support they can receive under LHA for whatever type of accommodation they are considering, in order to enable them to make the choice themselves. It is not possible to guess what they will do. Giving people the freedom to choose is exactly that.

Another important point is that we have, quite rightly, reflected the market definitions in the way in which LHA rates are set. I am referring to their being based on the number of bedrooms in a property, rather than the number of habitable rooms. That is an important part of promoting the transparency of the scheme, for the customers and other stakeholders. After all, no one would advertise a property, for example, as a five-room house. It would be advertised as a three or four-bedroom house. It is essential to note that, as a result of the important change that we have made, local rent review and local housing allowance rates cannot be directly compared in the way that some have suggested.

More importantly, however, I stress that we have never said that we intend to move existing customers from the present scheme to the new LHA rules. Those concerns are unfounded, and we have undertaken to review the first two years of the scheme before making decisions on whether, and if so how, we might migrate existing customers.

I appreciate that there are concerns about the availability of rented housing in the Highlands area—and in my constituency, too—but given the current position, I do not accept that the introduction of LHA will adversely impact on a customer’s ability to find suitable accommodation. Indeed, for a significant number it will help.

There is no doubt that housing benefit plays a vital role in supporting people on low incomes. In many cases, those customers would simply have nowhere to live without such support. It is therefore imperative not only to provide an excellent service to our customers, but to continue to put housing benefit at the heart of the social security reform agenda. We know that housing benefit can play a key role in helping people back into work, in securing decent accommodation and in keeping pensioners out of poverty. I am convinced that the introduction of LHA can only help us to meet these objectives.

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Nursing and Midwifery Council

4.41 pm

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Three months ago, I stood here and made some serious allegations about the world’s largest health care regulator—the Nursing and Midwifery Council. I claimed that the NMC was a fundamentally dysfunctional organisation, with poor governance, a lack of transparency and a culture of bullying and racism. The NMC strenuously denied those accusations, claiming that it did not recognise the organisation that I had described. The NMC might not have recognised that description, but others certainly did, and they came forward to the inquiry ordered by the Minister in response to the debate.

That inquiry, conducted by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, confirmed those serious allegations, yet the NMC continued almost to be in denial. The CHRE’s damning report was given to the council on 6 June, nearly six weeks ago, yet it has taken it until today to hold an urgent meeting to discuss the report’s findings. However, other things occurred during those six weeks.

Of particular concern to me is what has happened to my constituent, Moi Ali. She was vice-president of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, a role that she took very seriously. She had longstanding concerns about the NMC, and she and others continually raised those matters internally. However, she was rendered powerless; she believed that the president, the chief executive and others had excluded her and subjected her to a prolonged campaign of harassment and bullying.

The things that happened to her are frankly disgraceful. I am therefore pleased to report that, having found a prima facie case of racism, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is providing Moi Ali with legal support in her case against the NMC. The full details of her treatment will be heard at a tribunal.

Ms Ali came to see me just before Christmas to tell me of her serious concerns. She gave me hard evidence to back up each and every one of her allegations. She told me that she was not alone in being worried about the NMC’s ability to protect the public. She showed me a letter that she and seven other members of the NMC—a third of the council—had sent in June last year to Lord Hunt, then Health Minister, pleading for help while there was still time to get the NMC back on course. Sadly, he declined to reply. A civil servant wrote to them stating that the NMC’s problems should be resolved from within, despite those council members’ well-founded belief that the NMC was incapable of doing so.

Astonishingly, the Department of Health told the NMC about the confidential whistleblowing letter to Lord Hunt. What was the NMC response? Did it ask Moi Ali, who openly admitted signing the letter, for a copy? No. It secretly spent thousands of pounds, money that was intended for public protection, on lawyers in a bid to obtain the letter from the Department. Did it ask Moi Ali about her governance concerns? No. Instead, it mounted a witch hunt to unmask the other signatories, who were understandably too afraid to step forward.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. If the account that my
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hon. Friend is so eloquently setting out is accurate—I have no reason to doubt it—I am horrified. Is his constituent a member of a trade union? If so, has she received adequate and appropriate support from the union?

Mr. Devine: My constituent is a member of Unite and the National Union of Journalists, and she is being given full support as she pursues her claims.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I, too, congratulate him on securing this debate. I, too, am shocked at what he has said.

My hon. Friend will, I am sure, be shocked to hear what happened to Jenny Traves of Birchgrove in my constituency in her dealings with the Nursing and Midwifery Council. She heard about a professional misconduct hearing against her independent midwife only through the local press, even though she was the patient involved. She went to the hearing in order to praise the midwife for her care and sensitivity following the stillbirth of a daughter. However, her truthfulness was questioned and her evidence dismissed. Her hospital notes were used at the hearing without her consent. She was asked to leave the hearing when her baby started gurgling, but was not allowed in again, even though the baby was by then asleep. To cap it all, one panel member fell asleep; and the panel had obviously been given no training. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that is a poor way to carry out such proceedings?

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I urge Members to be extremely careful. If that case is the subject of a tribunal hearing, it might be prejudicial to the person’s case if too much of it is discussed here. Although the case might not be sub judice, what is said might be prejudicial to the outcome of the tribunal. I would hate it if we had put someone in a disadvantageous position because what had been said here.

Mr. Devine: I am grateful, Mr. Hancock, for that advice. I was very aware of the problem when preparing my speech. I have received a document from the Independent Midwives Association, and since I first raised the question in March, I have been inundated with complaints similar to that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan).

The NMC spent tens of thousands of pounds on pursuing a formal investigation. The letter to Lord Hunt was sent more than a year ago and the CHRE report clearly vindicates the actions of the signatories, yet the disciplinary investigation continues. Those council members have been subjected to a year of considerable stress merely for doing the right thing in seeking Government help for the organisation.

When the CHRE report was published, Ms Ali and the other whistleblowers breathed a sigh of relief, as their concerns and actions were completely vindicated. However, that sense of relief was short-lived. Civil servants—those who had refused to help—pressured my constituent into resigning. She refused. From her perspective, she was the good guy. She had helped to expose the wrongdoing, having first tried to address it
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internally. She was the victim of bullying, so why should she resign? The civil servants said that as she was part of the leadership, she had to go. The fact that she had been actively and deliberately excluded from any leadership role was totally ignored.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I followed the previous debate, and I am following today’s. The House has passed legislation on the protection of whistleblowers. Has my hon. Friend’s constituent been able to make use of that? My hon. Friend also mentioned money; how many thousands of pounds will be needed to stifle this discussion?

Mr. Devine: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I shall deal later with the fact that whistle-blowing has excluded people such as Moi Ali. As for the money, I understand that nearly £400,000 has been spent.

In the House of Commons, the Minister publicly called for the resignation of my constituent, and in the same breath congratulated the president and the chief executive for showing leadership by resigning. My constituent maintains that those people were part of the problem, yet they got pats on the back, whereas she was forced out. The people in charge of the mess have supposedly resigned, yet they continue to lead the organisation. The president will demit office, but not until next month, more than two months after receiving the report. Perversely, she intends to remain an NMC member and is claiming not to have known about the problems despite being on the council for years. Amazingly, the chief executive has given no indication when she will go. The immediate past president, Sandra Arthur, who is widely acknowledged to have played a principal role in this terrible mess, has made no statement about her position and appears to have no intention of resigning from the council.

If we have any doubt about the incompetence of the organisation, we need only look at the contents of a report that has been produced by NHS London about a man called David Britten, a nurse who had sexual relations with 23 different women patients. The NHS London report states:

and goes on to detail that the organisation actually blocked the investigation. NHS London was not given access to files on the man. He was sacked by the health authority in 2002, yet continued to practise till 2004 and was not removed. This man was a beast and should not have been anywhere near patients, but because of the prevailing problems within the NMC, his behaviour was allowed to continue.

May I give some detail of what was going on? One of the 23 patients was treated as an out-patient from late 2000 until early 2001. The sexual relationship continued during that time. When she went to the clinic, they would engage in heavy petting and oral sex in his office. David Britten continued to telephone her after his suspension. Today, Professor Morris-Thompson, the senior nurse in London, said that the NMC was very unhelpful during the inquiry.

As a trade union official who has worked in the health service I have read many such reports, but I can say that this case is appalling. The Minister will be as embarrassed as I am about the details of it and the NMC’s behaviour.

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Mr. McGovern: I could not claim to be totally familiar with the case to which my hon. Friend is referring, but I am aware—I do not think he has mentioned this—that the 23 patients who were manipulated into sexual relationships were extremely vulnerable. They were not what we would regard as normal patients, but people in a very vulnerable condition.

Mr. Devine: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly right. The man was in charge of an eating disorder clinic, and my hon. Friend is right that the patients were vulnerable.

Those are exactly the issues that Moi Ali raised both internally and with the Minister last year. Moi Ali is a fairly well-known author; she has her own public relations company and is without any doubt a leader in her field, and she has been a member of other public bodies. As a consequence of resigning, she was forced to resign from NHS Lothian, for which she was an independent board member who sought to serve the interests of the people in my constituency. Why? She was forced to resign because the chairman of the health board did not wish to be associated with anyone who had a leadership role in the NMC, despite the fact that she was denied such a role and was the victim of bullying, not the perpetrator.

Where do we go from here? I am sure that the Minister will talk about the report and the fact that the NMC behaved in such an appalling manner to the inquiry that was set up in 2006. The NMC is there to protect the public from individuals such as David Britten, but instead of co-operating fully, as the report says, the NMC was not helpful.

The chief executive of the NMC must leave immediately, making way for an interim troubleshooter who can restore sound management to the organisation.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that although it is appropriate for Members of Parliament to defend their constituents, it is incumbent on them to be circumspect under parliamentary privilege about people who are not able to defend themselves in this Chamber.

Mr. Devine: I totally agree and accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I have been told, informally, about problems within the NMC for the last three or four years, even before I was in this place, and nothing was done. I have files about three inches thick with complaints of the type that we have heard. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has not had a chance to read the report, but when he does, he will recognise my concerns, and that the solutions that I am offering are valid.

The president also needs to go. It is gross hypocrisy for either official to spend one more day in office. The past president should also resign from the council. Those people have no credibility and the report shows that they put public protection anywhere but first. It is a nonsense that individuals who have been found wanting by an independent review are still in charge of the world’s biggest regulator—it governs the actions of about a third of the NHS regulated work force, 700,000 nurses, throughout the UK. That is a scandal, and while the situation continues, no one—nurses, midwives and the public—can have any faith in the organisation.

The vice-president should receive public acknowledgment from Government for the positive role that she played to help bring such matters into the public domain. The
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whistleblowers who tipped the Government off about problems at the NMC should have the ludicrous disciplinary procedures that have been brought against them dropped immediately. They have done nothing wrong, and it is a waste of hard-up nurses’ and midwives’ registration fees to pursue them when the money should be spent on public protection.

Many mistakes have been made in this saga, and many questions need to be answered. As the problems at the NMC are long-standing, will the Minister explain how previous CHRE annual reviews provided the organisation with a clean bill of health? Did the NMC systematically provide false and misleading information in previous years to receive favourable reviews from the CHRE? In light of the CHRE report and today’s report, will the Minister call in the Charity Commission and the Privy Council to investigate the NMC root and branch? Will the Minister confirm that trustees who are whistleblowers will be given the same legislative protection as employees? If not, will the Minister extend the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 to cover them, so that it will be unlawful for public-spirited whistleblowers to suffer personal detriment as a result of their actions?

The Minister has some questions to answer and I hope that he does not attempt to distance either the Government or himself from the debacle. Members of Parliament and members of trade unions have been formally and informally advising Ministers of the problem for well over a year. Will the Minister place on record when he was first advised of the matter and what action he took? On 17 June, prior to Health questions, he advised me that the trade unions, including Unison, and the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives were demanding that Moi Ali go. They will feel that they were on the wrong side of the debate when they read today’s report. How was contact with those organisations made? How can we ensure, given that there is an all-appointed committee, that we can resolve problems with leadership?

This has been a sorry saga, and hopefully we are coming to the end of it. Nothing short of righting the wrongs will begin to restore public trust and confidence in this most important organisation.

4.59 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on once again raising this important issue and thank him for doing so.

It is important to make it clear from the outset that the NMC is an independent professional regulatory body, and one that has been in trouble for some time. The locus for ministerial or any other outside interference in such a body is limited. As my hon. Friend will know, having followed the matter closely, one of the main challenges facing the council has been a complete breakdown of relations among its leadership and on the council. Quite rightly, he has concerned himself with the case of one of the individuals concerned, the outgoing vice-president, who is his constituent. However, he will be aware that other members of the NMC’s leadership have taken a different view from hers. Indeed, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) intervened on behalf of his constituent, the outgoing chief executive.

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