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We therefore offer new clause 11. I was grateful to the Minister for saying that he broadly welcomed it, that he understood what lay behind it and that it was a fair
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attempt to ensure that we had in place something on which we could agree. It would ensure that Monitor and local commissioners and authorities had early notification of any special investigations that the Care Quality Commission was undertaking, including into foundation trusts, so that speedy action could be taken where necessary, and that includes replacing the management.

That is the first part of the answer. The Minister keeps trying to drive the idea that the Government have the only concept in town and that they have a full de-authorisation procedure, but they have not proved that they have a rigorous enough authorisation procedure-if they had, Mid Staffordshire would not have got through the process. Moreover, a de-authorisation process assumes that something has to have failed, but we propose that we should get in early enough to prevent things from going wrong in the first place.

The answer must be to strengthen Monitor, which has been one of the most effective regulators, not to divert power from it. However, the real problems would be very much helped by having something along the lines of the autonomy and accountability Bill that we have placed on the table and asked the Government to take up. We have offered it to the Government countless times, and with the Queen's Speech coming up, they will perhaps take this last opportunity to do the right thing. On that basis, I commend new clause 11, but my colleagues and I are not persuaded that the Government have made their case on new clause 12.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I will be fairly brief. To sum up, I have no problem with the general aim of the new clause, but I have some regrets about the lack of time to look at it properly to check whether it does what it says on the tin. However, I appreciate that the timing of the consultation meant that it was not possible to introduce anything any earlier.

Some of the criteria appear to have been plucked out of the air and the Secretary of State appears to have some wide-ranging powers to hire and fire, but I am not clear whether those are different from the powers currently in place. There is also the question of whether 14 days is the optimum length of time for Monitor or any alternative regulator to provide sufficient good-quality information.

The consultation originally proposed seven calendar days. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) pointed out, we have seen only the edited highlights of the consultation, but the document itself said that the majority of respondents favoured a longer time. There is some flexibility, as the Minister acknowledged that the time scale could be extended, but according to the consultation document a number of people suggested having a short period for the initial response and a longer back-up period if more detail were required. The actual length of time is not specified, so the concern is that this must be got right-otherwise, there will be a tendency to keep kicking the issues into the long grass. I would like an assurance that that cannot happen.

The main gap that is still to be plugged has been mentioned. Tempting as it is to kick around the Staffordshire football again, we have a great deal of business to get through, so let me make just one point here. Mid Staffordshire was given foundation trust status, so there is either something wrong with the process that awarded that status, given what we know was going on in the background, or something wrong with Monitor.

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Mr. Cash: The hon. Lady was on the Committee that looked at the Mid Staffordshire issues in one, albeit too short, sitting. Does she recall that Mr. Bill Moyes took part in the final meeting when trust status was being conferred? Forty-nine questions were put at the meeting, and I think I am right in saying that 38 of his own criteria, laid down as chairman of the meeting, were on finance and governance and not about patient care. That is the key problem. The hon. Lady is right on her first point.

Sandra Gidley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which relates to my next point. The process of awarding foundation trust status or the old three-star ratings seems to be based on financial information. I never thought that I would regard my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) as a soothsayer, but I did when I looked back at what was said when we debated the Bill that created foundation trusts. My hon. Friend asked the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton):

Unfortunately, the Minister was very unhelpful in his summing up and he seemed to think that my hon. Friend was speaking complete rubbish. It is easy to dismiss remarks, buy my hon. Friend was obviously making very prescient comments.

It has been clear throughout-the current Secretary of State for Health was, I think, on the Health Committee at the time-that the three-star trusts usually gain that status because of financial issues. If finance is put alongside quality ratings, there is often a mismatch. I agree entirely with all those who have said in today's short debate that quality is being sacrificed at the altar of financial probity. We cannot separate the two, because quality is something that should not be allowed to drop under any circumstances. My original question about whether the process or Monitor were at fault remains pertinent, as there has clearly been a lack of liaison and a lack of attention to aspects other than financial ones.

The Liberal Democrats will not oppose new clause 12. Although there is some regret about the fact that it has appeared so late in the day, I think that ultimately it is a good thing. It will allow more transparency and make decision making more accountable, and that can only be good.

5.30 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is having to chair a meeting of a Committee of the House, which is why he is not present now. He did intervene briefly earlier.

I must make it plain that since 1997, fewer of my constituents have gone to Mid Staffordshire hospital than before. Before the new Stafford constituency was created in 1997, when I represented the whole of South Staffordshire, a very large number of my constituents received excellent treatment in the hospital as it was then. I echo what was said earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), our Chief Whip, who cited the excellent treatment received by his late mother before she died in that hospital.

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The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney)-I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench-my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase now have far more constituents treated at Mid Staffordshire than I do, but I have nevertheless heard a number of very distressing stories. What happened at Mid Staffordshire was deplorable and inexcusable. All that concerns me in the context of this brief debate-and I will be brief-is that it must not happen again, but if by any unfortunate chance it does, there must be a mechanism to deal with the situation expeditiously.

Mid Staffordshire should never have become a foundation trust, and after it became one, it was judged according to the wrong criteria. We were taken by surprise when it was revealed just how dreadful some of the treatments had been, how shoddily managed the place had been, and what a disgrace to the national health service it was. That should not happen in a civilised country.

I am grateful to the Minister of State and the Secretary of State-as well as their predecessors-for the readiness with which they have discussed these matters with Staffordshire Members. I am grateful, too, for the keen and real interest that they have taken in these matters. I do not doubt for a moment that in presenting the House with the new clause, they are trying to ensure that a terrible disaster like the one at Mid Staffordshire does not happen again.

As I said briefly to the Minister in an intervention, what worries me is that the process that is being proposed is extremely cumbersome, and I doubt whether it can produce the sort of expeditious result that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and I both want. I would much prefer-my hon. Friend made the same point in his intervention-a quick mechanism allowing the Secretary of State, with whom the buck always stops, to intervene very quickly. When something like the Mid Staffordshire disaster comes to light, there should be no opportunity for long discussions and debates about who does what and all the rest of it. There should be an instant opportunity for dismissal, and for taking over management before anyone else dies or is treated in the inhuman way in which, sadly, so many patients were treated at Mid Staffordshire.

When some time ago the Minister discussed with us-and the Secretary of State-his wish to introduce a mechanism to take away trust status, all of us around the table responded very positively. However, I am not entirely persuaded that the mechanism that he is proposing now will be as effective and expeditious as I would like it to be. Like him, I sincerely hope that what happened at Mid Staffordshire will never happen anywhere else, but human beings are fallible, and it could happen. If it did, I would want a lightning reaction; I would want the culprits to be got rid of, because at the end of the day all that matters is the quality of care that our constituents, wherever they live, receive in the hospital to which they have had to be taken. The tragedy of Mid Staffordshire is that the people who placed their trust in the medical care of that institution were in many cases terribly let down-not in every case, but in many, many cases. That must not happen again. One reason why people did not have too many fears was the fact that this institution bore the flagship label of a foundation trust, and yet never was any flagship holed below the waterline more often.

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I just hope that the Minister can reassure me; and because this should never be a party political matter, I would like him to enter into conversations with the shadow Secretary of State and other colleagues on my party's Front Bench to see if we can come up, even at this very late stage, with a solution that is acceptable to all of us, and one that can persuade all of us that there is indeed a remedy if disaster strikes again.

Mr. Cash: I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) has just said, and I am very glad that he agreed with some of what I said in an earlier intervention. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) that we want effective early intervention; I think we are all agreed on that.

I am also very happy to pay tribute to the Minister and the Secretary of State for the manner in which they have looked at this issue in Mid Staffordshire with both some of my colleagues from Staffordshire and me personally on a number of occasions. If I may say so without implying any disrespect, they have dealt with this matter far better than their predecessors; that is my frank opinion

This is a huge issue, and it is about lessons to be learned as well as what actually happened. As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), I am sorry that the Select Committee gave only one sitting to these major issues-although we do now have the Francis committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the real problem arose in the granting of trust status in the first place, and, as I pointed out in my intervention, that was largely because the chairman of Monitor was present at that meeting and gave clear criteria. I have seen the minutes, and I have handed them over to the Minister-not that he needs me to hand them over to him-because it was astonishing that the Monitor chairman laid down criteria for finance and governance, and that was followed up by a number of questions that showed that that was the primary concern. The consequence was the Healthcare Commission report, and now what the Care Quality Commission is saying as well.

I want the current inquiry under Mr. Robert Francis to be as successful as possible, but both the Secretary of State and the Minister know that I have grave reservations about whether it can achieve its objectives. I still profoundly believe-I am glad that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is present because we both know this, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury-that it is essential that we have a full public inquiry if the consequences of this latest inquiry under Mr. Robert Francis do not work out. This all started with a failure of Monitor, and we must have a full public inquiry if the results of this inquiry are not successful.

I must tell hon. Members that only last week I received yet another letter from a constituent-I have passed it on-about a grandfather who died in the most appalling circumstances, and that demonstrates that things are not going as well as they should in this hospital. The Secretary of State may not recall the letter immediately, but it is with him. I am profoundly concerned about merely leaving these issues to Monitor. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, this is very convoluted stuff; I have no doubt that many lawyers have sat down to plough through the relative
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powers and functions of Monitor and the Secretary of State, and are seeking a way to get the right result, by nudging rather than by pushing or, indeed, by having things taken over. This situation would have been a lot more straightforward if we had been given a straight answer to the straight question that I have put so often: why cannot the Secretary of State take for himself powers-like special measures in schools-to override everybody in the interests of the health of our constituents?

Mr. Lansley: I share my hon. Friend's view that restoring public confidence-on the face of it, that is the Government's intention-can now be done in Staffordshire only on the basis of an independent and public inquiry. We are committed to that. However, he must recall that the problems-the quality issues-at Stafford hospital started not with foundation status, but before that. They had started over a considerable period of time when the trust was an NHS trust under the scrutiny of the strategic health authority and the Department of Health, directly under the scrutiny of the Secretary of State. As the events at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells told us, the Secretary of State's direct line of sight to hospitals does not mean that the Secretary of State knows what is going on and is doing anything about it; we have seen too many instances of that.

Mr. Cash: I hear with great interest and respect what my hon. Friend says, but I must mention that in this particular case there is a connection involving Mr. David Nicholson, who was the chairman of Shropshire and Staffordshire strategic health authority at the time that is being described. Subsequent appointments followed and he moved seamlessly up through the ranks to become the chief executive of the national health service. I shall not go into some of the more recent commentary that I have seen in the newspapers, but I must repeat a point that I have made on the Floor of the House and in other contexts: the problems do go back, but the real issue is that there is insufficient power for an override. Although Monitor and a degree of regulation can be in place, swift and last resort action can best be undertaken by the Secretary of State.

I am passionate about this subject and deeply concerned about the effect it has had on my constituency. I shall bring my remarks to a close simply by saying that a lot of the problems that arise-we will see how the Francis report goes-relate to gagging clauses. This week, I have been in communication with a number of people, and I must say that gagging clauses on those who want to blow the whistle should be banned. The trouble with the Act that enables whistleblowing to take place-the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998-is that it is not working. Gagging clauses should be banned by law; they should be made unlawful. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister could refer to that matter, because many of the problems that have accumulated result from people not coming forward. However, in the last resort the Secretary of State has to carry the can.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): On the last point that the hon. Gentleman made, I should mention that I was the Minister responsible for the passing of the disclosure Bill; the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) was also involved, having many years ago promoted it. We secured an amendment-a change has now been made. It instructs chairmen of
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tribunals, even where there is a gagging clause or someone withdraws the complaint, that the matter has to be submitted to the regulator. I suggest that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) contacts the relevant Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that that is being applied. The reason for the provision was to try to prevent people from using gagging clauses or other mechanisms to prevent this type of information from coming out via the tribunal system.

5.45 pm

Mr. Cash: I am extremely grateful for that intervention and I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says with great interest. I had heard of that, but great ingenuity is being used by certain trusts-not just Mid Staffordshire but other trusts of which I am aware-that are using their lawyers and their medical establishment effectively to bypass and shut out consultants-in some cases, as many as 20-odd. I am concerned about that. It is no good having good intentions in an Act if the provisions can be bypassed in the way that they are being bypassed at the moment. I would have thought that it was Monitor's job, and that of the Secretary of State, to deal with that. Will the Minister please take note and get rid of these gagging orders, ensuring that there is no way that the gagging clauses can be used to bypass whistleblowers?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: May I begin by responding to the three hon. Gentlemen who represent Staffordshire seats-in particular, I acknowledge the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who has been present during this debate? The contributions that we have had from Staffordshire Members have been excellent and have reflected the enormous local concern about Mid Staffordshire. I appreciate and am grateful for the kind comments of several Opposition Members about the way in which the Secretary of State and I have dealt with these matters.

We need to ensure that the deplorable and inexcusable situation, as it was described by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), does not arise again. We need to ensure that the Care Quality Commission, which is an organisation that has recently been set up, has the power to look at trusts. We also need to ensure that Monitor is much more aware than it has been in the past of the problems that might arise with regard to various foundation trusts and that we have a process that will enable Monitor to de-authorise.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire asked whether the process was fast enough. The time scale is 14 days. A number of parties are involved and we think that it is right that they should be able to express a view and that an investigation should be conducted. The process looks more cumbersome in legislation than it would be in practice. Our aim is that this should be a fairly brisk process and that everyone should know publicly what the time scale is. The Secretary of State should publicly make a request and there should publicly be a response within 14 days. There is potential to extend that time frame if necessary and if investigations need to be conducted for a longer period. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the need for expedition and would seek to ensure that we can deal with matters as quickly as is reasonably possible.

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