The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I regret that I have to inform the House of the deaths during the Recess of Baroness Chapman, Lord Gregson, Lord Buxton of Alsa and Lord Plummer of St Marylebone. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to their families and friends.
To ask Her Majesty's Government why they did not make representations to the Scottish Secretary for Justice on whether Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi should be released from prison on compassionate grounds.
The Minister for Europe (Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead): My Lords, the decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing on compassionate grounds was solely for the Scottish Executive to take. As the Prime Minister said in his statement of 2 September, he respected the right of Scottish Ministers to make that decision.
Lord Pannick: I am very grateful to the Minister. Will she confirm that there is absolutely nothing in the Scotland Act to prevent the Government from expressing their view on this matter? Will she acknowledge that it is deeply regrettable that on an issue of such public importance our Government took no position either in public or, apparently, in private for reasons of pure expediency? Will the Government please allocate urgently time in this House for a full debate on this matter in the interests of all those who lost their lives in the Lockerbie murders?
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: On the last issue, I am advised that it is the usual channels that need to be consulted. I totally reject the view that the UK Government have in any way not been doing their duty. Throughout the whole process, we have said that it is the business of the Scottish Executive and the Scottish judicial system to make decisions on this. We did not put any pressure on them at any time, which was the correct thing to do.
Lord Astor of Hever: Does the Minister agree that the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber was quite wrong? According to the Justice Secretary, the Prime Minister was involved in discussions about compensation for UK victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism but not in discussions about al-Megrahi during the negotiations over the UK-Libya prisoner transfer agreement. It is clear that this overwhelmingly affected the national interest of the United Kingdom. Why was the Prime Minister not involved?
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: I repeat, the Prime Minister did not take any part in the decision that the Scottish Executive chose to make. There was no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil and no attempt to instruct Scottish Ministers. This is what our Prime Minister has said and I believe that to be the case.
Lord Morris of Aberavon: My Lords, international affairs are not a devolved matter, although the actual decision in this case was for the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, should the external interests of the United Kingdom be affected, would it not be open to the Government to take whatever action is necessary to protect those interests either by way of comment or in some other way?
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: The Government always take interests into account, whether they are those of British nationals, of business or of many other concerns. But it is the case, and I shall repeat it, that the British Government played no part in the decision taken by the Scottish Government. It was absolutely the right of the devolved authority to make the decision, and that is what they did.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I should declare a professional interest as the former co-counsel for Mr al-Megrahi in his unsuccessful application to the European Court of Human Rights. In the interests of justice and for the sake of the Lockerbie families, would the Government now seek to persuade the Scottish Executive to set up a full judicial inquiry into the matters raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission and the UN observer, Professor Köchler, about a possible miscarriage of justice and abuses in the investigation, prosecution and trial?
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, as yet the British Government have made no decisions on these matters. The Lockerbie investigation took place and the result was that al-Megrahi was imprisoned in Scotland under that legal system. That remains the case and nothing can change in terms of what is possible from the investigation. The Libyans paid substantial compensation to the Lockerbie victims, but we accept that that is no justification.
The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, have the Government established to their own satisfaction that the medical opinions delivered in respect of the release of al-Megrahi were the result of proper examination? At that level, surely they are able to talk to the Scottish Executive to check the facts? It would have allowed the appeal to go forward, which would have resulted in a much more satisfactory outcome.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I am sure that full medical examinations did take place. Under Scotland's system of compassionate release, they take place when it is considered that the person concerned will live for another three months. That decision was taken on the basis of clear evidence. The Scottish Justice Secretary set out the process by which he decided to refuse a prisoner transfer, but as noble Lords know, then decided to grant compassionate release.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, is it not a reality that any representations as suggested would almost certainly have been resented by the Scottish Executive and therefore totally counterproductive? If we believe in devolution, and there is now a consensus in favour of the devolution settlement, we must allow for the consequences of devolution-which is the decision by the Scottish Executive.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, the point is that no pressure was exerted on the Scottish Executive. That was made clear by the Justice Secretary in the statement he made on 20 August. It would have been absolutely wrong for us to intervene in the case on foreign policy grounds because we would have been criticised very severely for doing so. Foreign policy was not among the criteria used by Scottish Ministers to reach that decision and that is an important factor. Clearly, as the noble Lord said, it was right under the terms of the devolution arrangements that all decisions on prisoners in the Scottish prison estate are taken exclusively by Scottish Ministers. Therefore, that was the recourse that we took.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, would the Government agree to invite and encourage the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to publish its 800-page report in which it recommends that an appeal should be carried out by the Scottish judiciary into the verdicts and the sentences? That report has not been published; do the Government agree that it should be?
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I am aware that the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee will be looking into the decision very carefully. We should leave it up to that committee to make the kind of decision the noble Lord is suggesting.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of how the Nursing & Midwifery Council and its judging panel, the Professional Conduct Committee, is carrying out its duty to represent the public interest with reasonable punctuality.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the assessment carried out by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, CHRE, in June 2008 on the Nursing & Midwifery Council, NMC-I apologise for all the acronyms-raised a significant number of concerns, one of which was the length of time the NMC was taking to deal with its fitness-to-practise cases. The report noted that significant improvements have been made in the past 12 months. It expects further improvements to be made and will continue to monitor closely progress in the next 12 months.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her helpful Answer but is it not appalling that six years after serious allegations of abuse and neglect in an old persons' home came before the NMC, the case has not yet been heard? The patients concerned have long since died but their relatives are entitled to at least a verdict in this case and six years is simply not acceptable.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for sharing these concerns with me. I absolutely agree that it is completely unacceptable that the proceedings in this particular case have taken so long. It is unfair on both the complainant and the staff in question. I am pleased to say that the NMC and its new leadership are well aware of this matter and have a plan to address these issues. Improvements can and will be seen and will continue in the coming years, including resolving the issues that the noble Baroness has raised.
Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, the CHRE, which has already been mentioned. Is my noble friend aware that one of the ways in which CHRE operates is to encourage co-operation, information exchange and shared learning between the healthcare regulators to help improve their practices? Are the Government now giving consideration to implementing that section of the Health and Social Care Act which places a duty of co-operation on regulators?
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point about sharing information across healthcare professional organisations. I am pleased to say that the consultation on the duty of co-operation is imminent. I will write to my noble friend with further details but we are expecting the date very soon.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, at any one time about 2,500 fitness-to-practise cases are being considered by the NMC-that is, 0.2 per cent of the number of registered nurses and midwives. We are talking about a very small number. It is disappointing that there are still a small number of cases which are taking longer than they should. I think there are eight cases still outstanding which have taken more than five years. We are very unhappy about that and the matter is being pursued by both the regulator and the CHRE.
Baroness Barker: My Lords, the Prime Minister announced earlier this year that there would be a commission on the future of nursing and midwifery. Will that commission address how nurses and midwives should be held accountable for their actions?
Baroness Thornton: The Prime Minister's Commission on the Future of Nursing and Midwifery in England has been hard at work over the summer; I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, who is a member of that commission, has spent a large part of her holidays doing this. Last week it published its 10 hot topics that it intends to pursue, and I note that number nine is taking responsibility and bringing to account the quality and safety of patient care-that is, how well nurses and midwives are supported in the job that they do, and whether the performance development supervision systems are fit for purpose. The commission will be looking at that.
Baroness Thornton:I do not know the answer to that specific question, but the average time that cases are taking is coming down. When the special report was published, that time was 29 months, which is clearly unacceptable. The average age of cases is now 13 months, and the aim is that, within the next two years, 90 per cent of cases should be settled within a 15-month period. I will ask about the specific point that the noble Earl has raised.
Baroness Emerton: My Lords, I declare an interest as a previous chairman of the UKCC, now the Nursing & Midwifery Council, and I have experience of the professional conduct and fitness-to-practise systems. What concerns me is that there are 2,500 cases still waiting. Is there any information on the progress in implementing a new computerised system that will assist case management? That seems to be one of the aspects that is holding things up.
Baroness Thornton: I thank the noble Baroness for her record of helping to improve nursing practice in this country. She makes an important point. The NMC has appointed a permanent director of fitness to practise. The electronic case management system has been developed for that, and will be implemented by the end of the year. These are complex cases and better monitoring of them, improved agreement for the provision of services for their investigators, additional staff and the redesign of their fitness-to-practise processes are all in hand. I hope that by this time next year we will have seen some significant improvements.
The Minister for International Defence and Security (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, before turning to the Question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of those killed in operations since the House last met: Guardsman Christopher King, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards; Bombardier Craig Hopson, 40th Regiment Royal Artillery; Warrant Officer Class 2 Sean Upton, 5th Regiment Royal Artillery; Trooper Phillip Lawrence, Light Dragoons; Craftsman Anthony Lombardi, The Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers; Private Kyle Adams, The Parachute Regiment; Lance Corporal Dale Thomas Hopkins, The Parachute Regiment; Corporal Kevin Mulligan, The Parachute Regiment; Private Jason George Williams, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Rifleman Daniel Wild, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton, 40th Regiment Royal Artillery; Captain Mark Hale, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Private Richard Hunt, 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh; Sergeant Simon Valentine, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Fusilier Louis Carter, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Fusilier Simon Annis, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Lance Corporal James Fullarton, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Private Johnathon Young, 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment; Serjeant Paul McAleese, 2nd Battalion The Rifles; Fusilier Shaun Bush, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Sergeant Lee "Andy" Houltram, of the Royal Marines; Private Kevin Elliott, The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland; Sergeant Stuart "Gus" Millar, The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland; Lance Corporal Richard Brandon, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; Private Gavin Elliott, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment; Corporal John Harrison, The Parachute Regiment; Kingsman Jason Dunn-Bridgeman, 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment; Trooper Brett Hall, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment; Acting Serjeant Stuart McGrath, 2nd Battalion The Rifles;
12 Oct 2009 : Column 8
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