|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
My ambition is therefore that we should discuss those safeguards and take note of the way in which the Government have sought to address them. That will enable me to explain what we have sought to do and noble Lords to move their amendments and to have that very important debate. If we remove Part 5, we do not prohibit alternative business structures. We inhibit their development, for sure, but we do so without
18 Apr 2007 : Column 278
Current protections are not enough. It is right and proper to develop alternative business structures, but it must be done within a proper regulatory framework to ensure that we have competition and greater innovation to the benefit not only of the consumer but of the legal services sector. We want to do that in a structured way that enables us to protect the consumer and the legal profession. We know that a healthy supplier base is absolutely essential to the provision of legal services and to achieving the objective of improving access to justice.
We also know that many legal professionals do not fear competition: quite the opposite. There are tools in Part 5 that will enable them to respond to changes in legal services and the business environment and to competition from new entrants into the market. They can use them to provide even better services to clients, which is at the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said he wished to achieve. I know that he wants to ensure that the quality of service provided to clients is of the highest order and the right calibre, hence the rather gloomy picture that he paints. I understand why he does not want the legal profession to lose face-to-face contact and the ability to talk to the client to give the best advice and to have that replaced by some remote structure, which he described by alluding to the call centre experience that he has had.
We want to achieve nothing other than better legal service. We do not want to do anything that will prevent rural communities from getting the best possible services. I do not think that the noble Lord intends this, but removing Part 5 could stifle innovation and prevent change. We believe that there is quite a lot of welcome, cautious though it may well be in part, for what might be achieved through alternative business structures to ensure a higher quality of services, a strong and vibrant legal profession, and good advice and support to consumers.
I therefore hope that the noble Lord will allow Part 5 to remain on the basis that noble Lords have quite reasonably wished to ensure that we have the right safeguards in place. I very much look forward to debating those later in our consideration of the Bill.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, the Minister has replied helpfully in her customarily persuasive and courteous way, but I am afraid that we feel totally unpersuaded by what she has said. There is already a competitive market. We fear that the competition in that market will be removed. There is nothing that good lawyers like less than seeing legal work done badly. We believe that, despite the safeguards that are
18 Apr 2007 : Column 279
The Minister spoke of the existing possibilities of lawyers entering into unincorporated associations with one another. That is certainly possible now, but it is a very different professional picture from one in which there are very large incorporated organisations with a very large profit element to them. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who spoke constructively to this amendment, that flexibility already exists, but the evidence is that what has been produced is not that good.
In the very large-scale market in personal injury cases, for example, we have seen more litigation with less merit. We have seen significant corporate fraud in the way in which cases have been obtained by corporate vehicles that have placed themselves in that market. Those of us who have been in the profession for a long time have also seen the unseemly picture of commercial organisations persuading people who have been injured in accidents to go to them, but then selling the cases, at a fee per case, to solicitors who then conduct them. I do not understand how that improves the competitive environment for consumers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, now we have the Governments response, it might be thought that this Question, which I put down some time ago, is somewhat redundant, but I believe I am not too late because the White Paper leaves open the prospect of much further consultation on the ways in which it might be put into practice. Thank goodness for that, because there are some areas of uncertainty which give rise to concern. I am going to concentrate on the proposals as they affect the General Medical Council, and I declare my interest as a former dean of a medical school, past president of a medical royal college, a one-time member of the GMC and currently president of the Medical Protection Society. In all those roles, I have strived to raise the standards, quality and safety of the care that patients should expect to receive from their doctors. So it should be clear where I am coming from when I say that I wonder whether the Government have got it quite right.
It is all too easy to focus on the incompetent or malicious practice of individuals and seek to build a system from that starting point instead of recognising that excellent health professionals far outnumber the few who let patients down substantially.
Most health professionals meet high standards routinely and have a lifelong appetite to be even better. That professionalism is an unquantifiable asset to our society, which rules, regulations and systems must support, not inhibit.
Unfortunately, what follows falls somewhat short of those sentiments, yet the facts entirely support her statement. Over 1 million patient/doctor interactions take place each day in primary care alone, and every MORI poll shows high levels of trust in doctors by their patients. The most recent poll undertaken in 2006 showed that 92 per cent trusted their doctors. I hesitate to compare this with public trust in politicians or journalists, so I am not going to embarrass my noble friend, but it is considerably lower. I am afraid that this is a political reaction to journalists reports of the infrequent scandals which do occur and may have driven the way in which parts of this White Paper have been drafted. Unlike patients who largely trust their doctors, the White Paper gives a clear impression of mistrust.
Of course we have to protect patients from bad doctors, but we have to be sure that the right balance is struck between protecting the public and being fair to doctors, and I am not sure that we have got it quite right. Despite that, I have to say that there is much which is helpful and deserves support: the GMC continuing to oversee undergraduate medical education is very welcome because it does a good job and should
18 Apr 2007 : Column 282
But we are left with a number of problematic aspects, and I shall concentrate on just two. First, the effect of the rest of the paper is to introduce a much heavier bureaucratic and, I fear, oppressive regulatory burden. It is worth mentioning here that in the UK we have one of the most over-regulated health systems in the world. A recent publication by the NHS Confederation complains bitterly that there are more than 57 regulatory and inspectoral bodies which attract enormous costs not just to run themselves, but also in the time and effort that trusts and doctors have to put into responding. Against that background, the White Paper suggests that we need not only to enhance the role of medical directors to include the monitoring of doctors in their patch and to introduce GMC affiliates at regional level to monitor those medical directorsalthough it is not yet entirely clear what their role will bebut also strengthening the role of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, a body set up to monitor the activities of the GMC and the other bodies, presumably because they cannot be trusted.
In addition to all that, two further new levels of regulation are proposed, the first being regional medical regulatory support teams. They are called support teams, but their proposed membership suggests a heavy employer basis set up to exert control of medical directors and GMC affiliates. These teams will also keep a check on the way the colleges undertake the revalidation exercisethey will quality assure it. While it is unclear where they will get the expertise to do this, it does suggest that no one trusts anyone to do their job, and all at considerable expense and the loss of a sense of responsibility on the part of individuals as they hand over their professionalism to yet another body. The second level of regulation is another body at the national level, a national advisory group whose role and responsibilities are unclear and the need for which remains uncertain.
I would ask the Minister to look critically at the ways in which we might fulfil everything needed to ensure high-quality and safe care for patients without introducing such a seemingly heavy-handed and complex bureaucracy to achieve it. Do we really need all these bodies to keep a check on the others?
Finally, I want to spend a moment on the vexed question of the standard of proof. The White Paper proposes that the standard of proof in adjudicating on concerns about a doctors performance should be
18 Apr 2007 : Column 283
The White Paper recognises the problem in suggesting that a higher standard of proof will be required when allegations are more serious, but putting this good intention into practice is so dependent on the training of the judging panels and on their ability to be consistent that it is difficult to see how it will work fairly and justly for both patients and doctors. The costs and burden to everyone of a system which seems so loosely drawn up must be a cause for concern, and I ask my noble friend to take this back and at the very least see if he can think of ways in which the system might be made to work consistently and fairly, perhaps by piloting it in some way.
There are many other aspects of the White Paper which I am sure other noble Lords will cover in the enormous length of time in which they each have to speak, but I finish by pointing out that it was the Shipman affair which precipitated much of this work. While Dame Janet Smiths report failed to throw up any suggestion that the GMC had itself behaved wrongly in any way, we have to ask ourselves whether the proposals in the White Paper would deter a determined murderer who happens to be a doctor. Unfortunately, I rather doubt it. This is an opportune moment to look at what should be done to improve the care and safety of patients, so I welcome the White Paper. But it will be vital to ensure that in the consultations we are now promised, we are able to make it work effectively and, most important, proportionately on the problems we are seeking to resolve.
Lord Colwyn: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on securing this important debate and giving us the opportunity to help advise the Government on their response to Sir Liam Donaldsons report. I declare an interest: I am both a fellow of the British Dental Association and registered with the General Dental Council.
The British Medical Association has described the Chief Medical Officers recommendations as a missed opportunity that has failed to harness the medical professions enthusiasm for change. The Governments
18 Apr 2007 : Column 284
Professional regulation is a complex area and time is short, so I will limit my remarks to two broad areas. First, there is the critical nature of the four interlocking functions of healthcare professional regulation. Any future Bill put before this House should support the role of regulators in maintaining a robust and accessible register of practitioners, in having a key role in setting the standards for practice and supporting educational standards and in dealing with registrants whose performance consistently or seriously falls below acceptable standards. Any significant fragmentation of those roles would be to the detriment of patient safety. I therefore welcome the importance the White Paper attaches to proper co-ordination and coherence across those interlocking functions.
The second issue is that of the mobility of healthcare practitioners across borders, particularly within the European Union. Sir Liam Donaldsons report and the subsequent White Paper both raise the issue of communications skills and language competency. While I recognise that there may be limits under European law for blanket language testing of health professionals from the EEA, I am not sure that the White Papers response deals with the issue sufficiently. Placing responsibility for language testing on NHS employers may be one part of the solution, but that fails to deal with the large numbers of healthcare professionals who operate outside the NHS or in a self-employed environment where the risks to patient safety may be the highest. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify this in his reply.
Three minutes is not long enough to comment on these important changes. The White Paper states that the Government will publish a detailed implementation programme. Primary legislation is expected in the next parliamentary Session, although some of the proposals can be implemented through secondary legislation. I hope the Minister will be able to provide details of the timing of the publication of the implementation plan and details of the groups that will have to be set up to give careful consideration to this wide range of changes.
Baroness Emerton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for introducing this debate. I declare an interest in that I was chairman of the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting and chaired the professional conduct committee. I was also a lay member of the General Medical Council and a member of its professional conduct committee.
The Nursing Midwifery Council is the UK regulator for two professions: nursing and midwifery. The primary purpose of the NMC is protection of the public. It does so through maintaining a register currently standing at 685,000 registrants. The NMC and the GMC both accept the recommendation in the White Paper of moving the standard of proof from criminal, beyond reasonable doubt, to the civil standard, the balance of probabilities. The BMA and the RCN are opposed to the change. Speaking from my personal experience, I
18 Apr 2007 : Column 285
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|