HC Deb 08 June 1999 vol 332 cc457-8
13. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

If he will make it his policy to publish the annual Audit Commission NHS management letter. [85010]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham)

The Audit Commission does not produce an NHS management letter. However, it does prepare a summary of the findings of its appointed auditors, and the decision on whether to publish that summary is for the Audit Commission. The view of the Department is that publication would duplicate the statutory work of the National Audit Office, which covers similar ground in its annual report to Parliament on the NHS accounts. The NAO report is, of course, published.

Mr. Heath

That is extraordinary. Is the Minister aware that, year after year, members of the Audit Commission asked the previous Secretary of State to allow publication, but that their request was always refused? The current Secretary of State has continued the practice of refusing to allow publication. Is the Minister aware that, at the end of next month, the Audit Commission will produce a package containing the annual report and the management letter—as it is usually described—for local authorities in England, for local authorities in Wales and for the police authorities, but that the one package it cannot publish is the one for the health service, because the Secretary of State will not allow it? Is that freedom of information?

Mr. Denham

I repeat: the decision on whether to publish is for the Audit Commission. However, I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman: the Department's view is that the summary is valuable, and one of the reasons for that is that the informal status of the document allows for a degree of subjectivity which is quite helpful. To be frank, if the document were to be published, we would expect to agree the text, and the process of doing that would result in the document losing much of its value and many of the messages being lost.

The hon. Gentleman, who was an Audit Commissioner, will be aware that the NAO audits health accounts and the Audit Commission audits the accounts of local government. That is why it is quite appropriate for the Audit Commission to publish its local government management letter and for the NAO to fulfil the same function in respect of the NHS.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Before either the Audit Commission or the NAO produces its next letter or report, will the Secretary of State ask them to investigate the matter of young doctors' hours, and to take special note of the most serious aspect of the problem, which is young doctors who are on call but working continuously, with the result that they work continuously from 9 am one day to up to 5 pm the next? That is contrary to the Secretary of State's own health circular, so will he ask for a report to ensure that the practice is stopped?

Mr. Denham

As I said earlier, last December we agreed and introduced more stringent criteria for rest periods as part of the new deal. That is evidence of our commitment to work to improve the working conditions of junior doctors, not only because it is in the interest of junior doctors, but because it is in the interest of patients. I shall meet junior doctors to discuss that and other matters later this week.