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Lord Harmsworth: My Lords, I have sympathy with the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, or at least sympathy with the possibility of mounting a complainant-satisfaction survey. However, I have doubts about paragraph (b). It seems to me to be too rigid in its wording. Formal meetings once a year in what may easily turn out to be a very fast-moving and changing game may be inappropriate. Such a formal structure may place the commissioner in a straightjacket which would better be avoided. The commissioner already consults widely and regularly. Under Section 11(3) of the 1993 Act he has discretion in the procedure in conducting investigations into complaints.
Last week the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration published his Third Report (Session 1995-96) on the Child Support Agency. Perhaps I may quote from that report to illustrate how fast he may have to move. In paragraph 1 of the introduction to that report he says:
I hope that my noble friend the Minister may be able to provide us with some helpful news about a complainants' satisfaction survey. On 11th January in Committee in another place, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, John Horam, said that the health commissioner was examining the results of a similar survey done by the local government commissioner. Is such a survey on the health side a possibility within the next three years? Can my noble friend assure us that funds are available?
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I add my interest from these Benches in the topic under consideration and hope that the Minister may be able to reply in an informative, useful and helpful way.
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I shall try to be informative and helpful, but I am not sure that I shall meet the wishes of the amendment's proposer. I am grateful to noble Lords for the contributions made this evening on this issue.
I am very happy to give my noble friend and both noble Baronesses the assurance that the commissioner intends in the next financial year to carry out a survey of satisfaction of complainants with the investigation of their complaints. He fully expects to be able to do that within the resources voted for his office. That fulfils an undertaking he gave in response to a recommendation by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. It is his established practice to draw attention in his annual reports to any matters of significance. I have no doubt that Mr. Reid's successor would be likely to continue that practice and to include reference to the results of a consumer satisfaction survey in an appropriate annual report, because of course Mr. Reid will soon be retiring.
My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State took up concerns expressed in another place about the need for regular meetings with interested parties with the ombudsman. Mr. Reid said that he had every intention of continuing his meetings with professional and consumer bodies. That will enable him to gather useful information about how his own role is perceived and the effectiveness of the new NHS complaints procedures, which will in turn need to be taken account of in future policy making. But he also pointed out that giving him formal responsibility for evaluating the new NHS procedures through such meetings would be a long way beyond his present remit and also not the most effective way of undertaking such an evaluation.
I can also assure your Lordships that the Department of Health is committed to continuing constructive dialogue with professional, NHS and consumer bodies and to evaluating the implementation of the complaints reforms in the NHS. I hope that what I have said will provide sufficient reassurance on the issues which have been raised in the debate by the noble Baroness, the Lady Jay, and other noble Lords. I would urge the noble Baroness in the light of that to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to those who have taken part in this short debate on the matter which will have given the Minister the knowledge that there is strength of feeling about these issues. I was delighted to hear what she said about the ombudsman's intention to conduct a satisfaction survey during the next year of complaints and that he intends to continue to have wide-ranging professional and consumer body gatherings and meetings to discuss the issues which were mentioned in my amendment.
I take the point made by the Minister--indeed she was repeating the arguments made by the commissioner himself--that to extend his monitoring role beyond that may be beyond his general remit. I hope that the Department of Health will fulfil the obligation to undertake clear and positive evaluation of the new procedure and will be able to bring the results of that monitoring to your Lordships' House.
We are at one in wishing to improve the arrangements by which NHS complaints are handled. I have been grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the House for their positive contributions on this Bill and for their support for their principles behind it.
A number of points have been raised during our debates which have served to air some important issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, described the challenges presented by the extension of the commissioner's jurisdiction to cover clinical judgment. She stressed the need to ensure that the actions of professionals are properly and fairly judged. She also sought assurance that all complaints about the NHS, including complaints about purchasing decisions, will come within the ombudsman's remit. I was very glad to be able to give her that assurance.
The noble Baroness also raised concerns about the ombudsman's procedures for checking draft reports with the body complained against but not the complainant. As I hope I made clear, that is not a matter on which we would wish to fetter the ombudsman with primary legislation, but the ombudsman's Select Committee has agreed to a proposal made by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health that it should review with the ombudsman his procedures for dealing with draft investigation reports.
The noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Harmsworth raised the issue of whether the ombudsman would carry out a survey into the satisfaction of complainants with investigations. As noble Lords have heard, I was very happy to give the assurance that the ombudsman does intend to carry out such a survey in the coming financial year.
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, was concerned about the provisions in the existing legislation which prevent the ombudsman from investigating cases which are subject to legal action. I hope that the Bill will reduce the need for complainants to seek a remedy in the courts. We could not, however, contemplate making such a radical change in the ombudsman's relationship with the courts as the noble Baroness suggested.
My noble friend Lady Cox highlighted the need for good training to make sure staff are equipped to deal with complaints. We entirely concur with that view, and a great deal is being done to ensure that staff are well trained.
I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join with me in paying tribute to the ombudsman, Mr. Reid, for his work not just in preparing for the changes resulting from the Bill but for his integrity, thoroughness and sensitivity in ensuring that complainants receive a fair hearing and a just result.
Finally, I am also very grateful for the constructive approach of the health care professions. The professional representative organisations have been fully involved in developing the new NHS complaints system and in discussing with the ombudsman the practicalities of operating his new jurisdiction. We wish him and them well in the future.