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House of Lords

Thursday, 13 January 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

NHS: Refugee Doctors

Baroness Neuberger asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, over the past four years we have invested over £2 million in providing support, advice and training for refugee health professionals. That has been good value for money as over 1,000 refugee doctors have benefited from the funding. We believe that at least 160 refugee doctors are now working in the NHS as a result of our support. Many more are beginning to reach the position where they can apply for jobs.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has praised our pioneering work in this area and pledged support for the work that we are doing and which the NHS will continue to do.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Indeed, the Government have done extraordinarily well in supporting refugee doctors thus far. Until August 2004, the money to support refugee doctors was held centrally and now it has been spread out to the special health authorities, to the strategic health authorities and to the Workforce Development Confederation. Will the Government consider reinstating central funding to support refugee doctors because refugee doctors move around so much and local funding makes it difficult for them to reach the support that has already been given to them by the Government?

Lord Warner: My Lords, we took the advice of our Refugee Health Professional Steering Group, which believes that it has fulfilled its original purpose to increase the awareness of the skills and knowledge offered by refugees. We made the final allocation of central funding in August 2004, but it will continue to be overseen by the steering group.

It is worth giving one example: the North East London Strategic Health Authority, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, has developed a national website to provide career advice and support for refugee health professionals. That shows that there is commitment at the strategic health authority to continue with that work.

Lord Chan: My Lords, is the Minister aware that a number of centres have been helping refugee doctors,
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particularly in honing their clinical skills? That means more than just attending a course or receiving advice from a body. As that money is now being localised, will the Government, together with hospitals and GP practices, give direction, particularly on university-based courses, so that there is continued support for that very good work and to ensure that the refugee doctors find employment? The figure of 160 out of 1,000 is not very high.

Lord Warner: My Lords, it is worth bearing in mind that one of the conditions for receiving funding for particular projects from the central fund was that they had to demonstrate that they had plans for future sustainability. We are wise to the problems with central funding projects, in that one runs the risk that they may not continue. That is why we have ensured that partnerships are being put in place with pump-priming money that has been spent over the past four years.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, four government departments—the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office—have a role to play in regard to refugee doctors. Can the Minister explain what steps are being taken to ensure the successful collaboration of those departments?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that all those government departments have to work together. We have worked very hard to ensure that our work in the health sector fits with other polices across government. There is a close working relationship with colleagues in the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills. It is a tribute to that close working relationship that the United Nations gave such a resounding vote of support to the work that we have undertaken in this area.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, is the Minister happy with the facilities to enable refugee doctors to learn English, and perhaps Welsh, in the different areas where major hospitals are situated?

Lord Warner: My Lords, there is a requirement on the doctors to demonstrate their mastery of English before they can practise in this country. Part of the support that we have given is to help doctors to attend language training courses and to improve their English so that they can practise medicine in this country.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the Minister has already mentioned the Home Office, so will he ask his colleagues in that department to ensure that their specialised agency providing services for asylum seekers makes the maximum possible use of refugee doctors, both while their qualifications are being recognised in this country and once they are recognised?

Lord Warner: My Lords, as I have said, there is a good close working relationship with the Home Office
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on this point. People want to give refugee doctors the opportunity to practise in this country when they have attained the necessary qualifications. We have to bear in mind that there are patients at the other end of the equation and we have to ensure that the doctors are suitably qualified to practise in this country.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, perhaps I can press the Minister further. Given that only 160 out of over 1,000 refugee doctors that we know about are at present working, does he feel that still more could be done? For those who are ready to work and who can be registered by the GMC, but who are prevented by immigration rules, could an exception be made, given that we are so short of doctors in this country?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I have said that we believe that at least 160 are now working in the NHS. There are over 1,000 doctors registered on the British Medical Association's refugee database and many of them are in the process of qualifying. As I tried to demonstrate in my reply, we hope that we shall see more of those doctors completing their qualifications and working in the National Health Service.

Public Assets: Disposal

Lord Clement-Jones asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, it is the responsibility of individual departments to determine whether to retain or dispose of assets. Departments are aware that they need to take into account all aspects, not just financial, when deciding to dispose of an asset. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has published specific guidance on the disposal of surplus heritage assets, such as historic buildings. This is referred to in Chapter 24 of Government Accounting. The department will also advise on proposed disposals affecting heritage assets. This guidance has not changed in the light of Sir Michael Lyons' report, which made no specific recommendation in relation to the disposal of heritage assets.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, it is that latter point which concerns many of those who have read the Lyons report. There is, as the Minister has confirmed, no central register relating to the disposal of heritage assets. As a result of government targets, which are to dispose of some £30 billion of publicly owned assets by 2010, there will be pressure on government departments. What
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guarantee can the Minister give that the DCMS will ensure that the guidelines are observed by other government departments?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the short answer is that the guidelines of 1999, to which I have referred, which are in Government Accounting, still apply and are not affected by Sir Michael Lyons's report. They say that the aim must be the best return for the taxpayer, consistent with government policies for the protection of historic buildings and areas. That is the protection which is required.

In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, may remember that a couple of years ago the House of Lords scored a victory when it prevented the sale at auction of what was called the "Treasury silver", the Privy Council silver. Those cultural assets were transferred to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is protection for heritage assets; there is no threat to heritage assets from the Lyons report.

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