HC Deb 09 January 2001 vol 360 cc867-9
7. Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

When he intends to publish a report on his review of the NHS complaints system. [142902]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart)

The evaluation of the complaints procedure has been completed and the project team will submit its report at the end of this month. We will publish the report as soon as possible, once we have had the opportunity to consider its findings.

Mr. Austin

No doubt my hon. Friend has seen the report by Age Concern "Speaking Out", which expressed concern about upper age limits for treatment, negative attitudes to elderly people and the fact that a third of the respondents recorded the difficulty that they had in accessing the complaints machinery and their fear of recriminations. In the light of Age Concern's report, what action is being taken to combat age discrimination in the NHS and to ensure that elderly people have access to and confidence in an independent complaints machinery?

Ms Stuart

I am aware of Age Concern's report. It is important to put it on the record that we do not accept age discrimination within the NHS at any level, whether in the handling of complaints or in treatment. Many accident and emergency departments have fast-tracking for hip fractures, which particularly affect the elderly. We must distinguish between the process of making a complaint and providing support for that. With regard to speeding up the complaints process and giving people the support that they need, we are making progress with our evaluation at the end of the month, and the new patient advocacy and liaison services and the patients forums will provide independent support for all who need it, taking proper account of the needs of people of all ages.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

How will the new complaints procedure work with the Commission for Health Improvement and, in particular, the National Clinical Assessment Authority?

Ms Stuart

It is important to recognise the Government's commitment that the NHS as an organisation should always learn from its mistakes, and complaints are one of the mechanisms by which we learn that mistakes have occurred. From the chief medical officer's report "An Organisation with a Memory" and our acceptance of that report, to the implementation of serious incident monitoring, to the relationship with the patients forums, whenever the Commission for Health Improvement or the National Clinical Assessment Authority investigates an area, there will be a two-way feedback mechanism whereby both organisations can learn from the complaints received. That two-way valve will allow not only the trusts but the NHS as a whole to learn from such feedback. In addition, there will be an assessment of the complaints made against all doctors as part of their review in our annual appraisal system. We hope that the whole package will reduce any necessity for complaints and ensure that serious incidents are picked up at every level.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a key component of any complaints system should be its independence? Does she accept that the placement of the patient advocacy function contained in the Health and Social Care Bill in the hands of the health authorities that will commission them seriously compromises that independence?

Ms Stuart

We wish independence to be established at every level. The Health and Social Care Bill, which will have its Second Reading tomorrow, contains a clear statutory provision for patients forums, part of whose function will be to ensure that independent support is put in place. Whether local health authorities should provide such independent support or whether there should be some other mechanism will be an ideal subject for debate in Committee.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

What real redress will patients have when they find themselves in a situation such as that described by Mr. Ross Carter, consultant in gastroenterology and pancreatic surgery, who said today that his unit had inadequate theatre access to deal with emergencies and malignancies, let alone those unfortunate patients currently languishing on our waiting lists and little prospect of admission for patients owing to waiting list management transfers on to deferred lists. Ross Carter says: We have … reached the stage beyond the every day chaos … I feel the clinicians and nurses involved within our unit can no longer be held responsible for patient safety. What redress can patients in that situation have?

Ms Stuart

Patients already have means of redress and they will have even more as a result of our increased investment in the NHS which will provide us with more doctors and nurses. Just for the record, if the hon. Gentleman is interested in what has happened since the Government took office, there have been some 290,000 more emergency admissions than under the previous Tory Government, as well as 623,000 more routine admissions and 686,000 more first out-patient attendances. There is a continuous improvement and that will go on. The Tories' proposal to privatise the NHS is no solution.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the part of the NHS complaints system which has the complete confidence of patients because of its independence is the ombudsman system. The ombudsman also has regular dealings with community health councils as they attempt to negotiate people through the complaints system. Has there been consultation with the ombudsman about the Government's proposals for the abolition of CHCs—and, if not, could there be?

Ms Stuart

It is important to recognise that only something like 50 per cent. of CHC 's support individual complainants. To assume that the current structure of dealing with complaints is completely covered by CHCs is not the whole picture. Regarding consultation with the ombudsman, that is something that we can take forward.

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