HC Deb 11 June 2002 vol 386 cc713-4
31. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What representations the Lord Chancellor has received on the impact of the Data Protection Act 1998 on hospital chaplaincy. [57409]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper)

Five hon. Members have written on behalf of constituents about the effect of the Data Protection Act 1998 on hospital chaplains. The hospital chaplaincies council of the Church of England will shortly meet officials in my Department.

Mr. Brady

I welcome the Minister to her new position. Does she agree that hospital chaplaincy provides a vital service to many thousands of people who are in severe need of help and support? Does she share my concern that an over-zealous interpretation of the Data Protection Act is standing in the way of the work of hospital chaplains? Will she undertake to consider whether changes to the legislation are necessary in order to allow chaplaincies to carry out their functions properly?

Yvette Cooper

I agree that hospital chaplains can provide a vital service of spiritual support and care to many people in hospitals who want it. It is important that patients who want that support should be able to get it.

The Data Protection Act does not prevent hospitals from passing on information about a patient's religion, but it states that they can do so only with the patient's consent or, if the patient is unable to give that consent, if it is in their vital interest. Consent is an important principle and we need to take it seriously in those circumstances. It is possible for hospitals to seek consent when they collect information, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we need to ensure that the practical issues are properly addressed, so that hospital chaplains can give the care that people so often want. That is why the issue has been raised with the patient information advisory group. I understand that it will be advising the Department of Health on a new code of practice for the NHS on consent and confidentiality. The points that the hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of his constituents will certainly be taken into account.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

May I welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities? I got on extremely well with her predecessor and I trust that we shall be able to maintain that, even with all the necessary opposition that we shall bring to bear on her Department.

Will the hon. Lady tell the House what action she will take in the light of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that Church ministries and their pastors in hospitals are unable to function properly because of the Data Protection Act 1998? Hospital patients often need their advice urgently and emotionally. The measure is an example of the triumph of technicality over compassion. Does the Minister agree that the Act in its present form, and in relation to this case, denies our citizens and constituents their fundamental and human rights, and that that cannot simply be dismissed as over-interpretation of the Act? May we please have clear guidelines, issued by her Department—not just consultation—so that the law will protect people, rather than detract from their quality of life?

Yvette Cooper

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcoming words. I, too, look forward to working with him. To understand what issues he was interested in and might be keen to raise, I inquired what parliamentary questions he had tabled previously. I drew a blank, however, as he has not asked any written parliamentary questions of the Lord Chancellor's Department since 1997, although he has asked many questions of the Foreign Office.

On the hon. Gentleman's question, I take very seriously the points raised, as I have made clear, and the need to ensure that hospital chaplains provide the service that patients want. Equally, however, it is important that we recognise the principle of consent. It is possible for hospitals to collect information and, at the same time, to ask for consent. It is also important to address the practical issues, to make sure that the rules are implemented properly. That is why the Department of Health is drawing up a new code of practice for the NHS, and why the Department of Health's patient empowerment team is working with the multi-faith joint national working group on new guidance for hospital chaplains. We take these issues seriously. It is also important, however, that we recognise and respect the important principles behind the Data Protection Act.