HC Deb 20 March 1970 vol 798 cc850-6

Section 3(1) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 shall be amended by adding the words "and one such officer shall deal specifically with complaints affecting chronically sick and disabled persons as defined by this Act".—[Mr. Weitzman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12 noon.

Mr. Weitzman

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Section 3(1) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act, 1967, reads, The Commissioner may appoint such officers as he may determine with the approval of the Treasury as to numbers and conditions of service. My new Clause seeks to add and one such officer shall deal specifically with complaints affecting chronically sick and disabled persons as defined by this Act". We all recognise how valuable is the work done by the Ombudsman, but his powers are limited in a number of ways. For example, he cannot deal with complaints about the health and welfare services of the hospitals or with complaints about local authorities. My new Clause does not seek to remedy that but it will enable the Ombudsman to deal specifically with complaints which emanate from chronically sick and disabled persons. They might not be large in number but it is felt that these claims ought to be dealt with in some special way.

I know that the Government have said that they propose that a local government commissioner shall he appointed to deal with complaints about local authorities, but that still leaves the problems with which my Clause seeks to deal. I draw attention to it because it is felt by the associations connected with the chronically sick and disabled that their complaints ought to be dealt with specifically.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I warmly welcome the Clause, which was initiated by Mr. Duncan Guthrie of the Central Council for the Disabled. I welcome it because it makes provision for a special category for the disabled, and if there is one section of the community which requires the special attention of a Parliamentary Commissioner it is the chronically sick and disabled.

My only regret about the Clause is that it specifies "one … officer". I should like to place on record my hope that if the demand is as great as I think it may be, the one officer will be regarded as a minimum and there will be a possibility of other officers being appointed to look into what I regard as the wide range to be covered.

I therefore welcome the Clause and express the hope that it is only the beginning of investigations into the special complaints of disabled people.

Dame Irene Ward

I find myself in some difficulty in speaking to the new Clause because I am privileged to sit on the committee which is allied with the work of the Parliamentary Com- missioner. While I see the advantage to the disabled of the provisions of the Clause, I doubt very much whether the present terms under which the Parliamentary Commissioner operates would enable the Clause to be effective.

The Parliamentary Commissioner's job is to deal with complaints relating to maladministration. The new Clause would cover complaints in respect of local authorities, public bodies and individuals who have not acted to relieve the position of the disabled, and I doubt whether that would be included in the term "maladministration". It might include lack of judgment or a failure to meet the needs of the disabled, possibly because some request had been refused, but it does not necessarily follow that there would have been maladministration. It is an ingenious Clause which attracts my heart, but I do not know that it attracts my head.

The matter has never been brought before our committee, nor have I had the advantage of hearing the Parliamentary Commissioner's views on the Clause. The Parliamentary Commissioner has had very great success in the way in which he has handled some of the problems which have been legitimately presented to him, and it may be that the time is coming when we should reconsider his terms of reference. That would perhaps be a more suitable opportunity to widen the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner, and we could include in a Bill dealing with that matter a new Clause along the lines of that under discussion.

I feel in an awkward position in having to comment on the Clause, but I do not see how it could be brought within the meaning of the term "maladministration". Perhaps someone who is interested in the new Clause would explain that point to me. I am not at all certain that the Clause does not ask the Parliamentary Commissioner to undertake work which it would not be within his power to undertake. In any event, it might be possible to seek his advice. If he thought it right to include this new Clause in the Bill, it could be introduced in another place after we had had the opportunity of a discussion of the subject with the appropriate committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner.

Mr. Pavitt

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) drew attention to the fact that it is intended to overcome the difficulty that the Ombudsman cannot investigate local authority matters. I hope that the Minister will look at the Clause from the point of view that the whole question of complaints by sick people—not only the chronically sick—is under very serious consideration by the Government.

The Standing Committee has been anxious not to make a separate category of the disabled and chronic sick—to have compassion for their problems but not to label them or to put them into categories separate from other people. We therefore hope that when the Minister considers the Clause he will keep in mind the need for every citizen to be entitled to have complaints dealt with on all questions affecting health.

Dr. John Dunwoody

It is useful that we are having a short debate on the new Clause, which has drawn attention to the value of the work which has been performed in recent years by the Parliamentary Commissioner. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said, that work is limited in some respects.

The new Clause would specifically give the Parliamentary Commissioner power to appoint one officer to deal with complaints affecting the chronically sick and disabled. The Clause is technically defective in one respect, in that it refers to sick and disabled persons as defined by this Act". The phrase "this Act" means the Parliamentary Commissioner Act, 1967, which, in fact, does not define sick and disabled persons.

But the defect which I find in looking at the Clause is more than just technical. I am prepared to receive communications from hon. Members on the subject, but we have no evidence that chronically sick and disabled people are at any disadvantage or face any particular difficulty in respect of having their cases referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner by hon. Members. There is no evidence which would warrant singling out this group of persons for special treatment. The problems which the chronically sick and disabled may face tend to fall outside the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner as it is at present defined.

Complaints one would anticipate would often concern the health and welfare services of the local health authorities and the hospitals and other services in the National Health Service. There are accepted means by which complaints of this sort can be investigated, and consideration is being given to alterations or extensions of the means by which complaints can be investigated. The Government have announced that a local government commissioner will be appointed to look into complaints concerning local authority services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) has said, the Green Paper on the future structure of the Health Services promises consultations with professional and other interested bodies about the possibilities of establishing a health commissioner in the reformed N.H.S.

These two possibilities obviously cover a large proportion of the area of particular concern to the chronically sick and disabled. It would be premature for us to consider making special legislative provisions in the Bill to handle these complaints at the very moment when consultations on more far-reaching proposals are in hand. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West that we do not want to single out particular groups of people, more especially the chronic sick and disabled, any more than we have to. The Act under which the Parliamentary Commissioner operates does not specify the type of people whose complaints are to be examined. If we were to amend it and to specify that a particular group of complaints should be examined it would mean that other classes of complaint would be left out and a distinction made.

We have deliberately put no limitation on the type of people who may bring a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner, through their Member for Parliament, and no preference should be given to one complainant over another. When those who are disabled and chronically sick think about this I am sure that they will not want any preference, but will want to be in the same position as others. It is essential that we should maintain this absence of preference between one group and another. It is an essential part of the fairness of the Parliamentary Commissioner system which I think hon. Members on both sides would agree is by and large working satisfactorily. I hope, having put these points, that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw his new Clause.

Mr. Weitzman

I recognise the difficulties that this new Clause involves. I would say to the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) that there was no intention of getting round the limitations of the Parliamentary Commissioner. This new Clause deals with complaints of the chronically sick and disabled, which lie within the present powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner with regard to maladministration. I am impressed by the fact that the Central Council for the Disabled is very anxious to have a power of this kind inserted because it feels that such complaints should be specifically dealt with.

Dr. Dunwoody

With the leave of the House, perhaps I could take up the point made by my hon. and learned Friend. If he would approach me and put the evidence before me which suggests that the chronic sick and disabled have been treated in any way differently from the community at large in respect of cases going to the Parliamentary Commissioner I will be pleased to look into this. As the new Clause stands, it will not help the situation, and there are technical difficulties.

Mr. Ashley

I hope that we shall keep the new Clause. It is no reflection on the Parliamentary Commissioner but simply a recognition that the chronically sick and disabled have special problems. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke-Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) is quite right to move it. It makes no difference whatever to the existing responsibilities of the Parliamentary Commissioner. What it does is to encourage disabled people to make complaints, which they tend not to do because they lack the confidence. This new Clause will be a definite incentive to the chronic sick and disabled, and I hope that it will be passed.

Mr. Weitzman rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are not in Committee. We do not want a series of speeches, even from the mover of the new Clause.

Mr. Weitzman

I shall be glad to accede to what my hon. Friend has said, but there is great insistence that this new Clause ought to be included and the Government could perhaps look in another place at the difficulties. As there is no certainty about this, I shall have to press it.

Question put and negatived.

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