HL Deb 26 March 1987 vol 486 cc289-91

3.15 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how they justify the abolition of the Health Education Council and the Joint Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education (JACNE).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the situation is that the Health Education Council is being reconstituted as a special health authority. We have felt for some time that health promotion ought to be an integral part of the National Health Service, and that the main agency for health education in this country should be a body within the service with a clear statutory basis. The change recognises that. The Joint Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education, like all the other advisory committees and groups that the Health Education Council set up, will automatically cease to exist when the council comes to an end on 31st March.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that almost 20 years ago I was involved in the appointment of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, as the first chairman of the independent Health Education Council, which was free to comment on government policy concerning health education? Can the Minister say why this independence is now being destroyed and the Health Education Council replaced by a body which is "directly accountable to the Secretary of State"? Why did the Government intervene—if they did intervene—on Thursday to stop the publication of a major report by Sir Douglas Black, who is one of our most distinguished physicians? Does the noble Baroness agree that this interference is quite intolerable?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, perhaps I may first answer the second part of the noble Lord's question. The Government did not stop publication. If your Lordships are agreeable, I do not wish to go into that because I understand that there is a Question on the subject from the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, tabled for next Monday. With regard to the first part of the question, your Lordships will be aware that the problem of AIDS has given a new dimension to the role of health education. My right honourable friend feels that the time is right to recognise that change by establishing a central body on a statutory basis as an integral part of the NHS. Perhaps it would not be very gallant of me if I did not pay tribute to the work that has been done in the past by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the justification sought by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, is to give the new authority more money and special responsibility for AIDS prevention and education? While we on these Benches support that aim, can we have an assurance from the noble Baroness that this will not inhibit its independence and ability to make recommendations in other spheres, as has been the case heretofore?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the role of the HEC has always been essentially to assist Ministers in promoting health education in line with government policies and priorities. One of the ways in which it does that is by offering its advice and views on government policies that bear on health. We do not see the reconstitution of the council as making a fundamental difference to those relationships.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether it is unusual for a public body of that kind to draw up a report and then call a press conference before it has even been considered or read by members of the council? Is that not rather unique?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, my noble friend's question falls, alas, rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper. He will have an opportunity to put it again when the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, is debated on Monday.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank the Minister for her kind remarks. Is she aware that, although I was appointed by a Labour Secretary of State, my term as chairman was extended by a Conservative Secretary of State and that both of them recognised the great advantage of being advised by an independent body, even if sometimes it was uncomfortable for them? Such a body can run campaigns of considerable impact, such as the "Pregnant Man" poster of 18 years ago, which understandably a government department would not be able to do. The same applies to the AIDS campaigns today. Can the Minister tell me whether the new authority will have the freedom to commission and publish research on controversial subjects irrespective of whether they are, in Sir Brian Bailey's words, "political dynamite"? Will it also be able to initiate controversial publicity campaigns without feeling a heavy departmental hand on its shoulder?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the new authority will be expected to provide advice to my right honourable friend on matters that are within its remit for health education, and doubtless that advice will sometimes be critical. The chairman of the new body will be actively participating in regular meetings that regional chairmen have with Ministers and will be in a position to influence the formulation of health services policies.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I am reassured by something that I understood the Minister to have said, but did she actually mean that the new authority will be independent and able to speak its mind regardless of the views of the Secretary of State? Is my understanding correct that the term "directly accountable to the Secretary of State" gives it the freedom to have a mind and a voice of its own?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I can only repeat what I have just said, which is that the new authority will be expected to provide advice to my right honourable friend on matters within its remit.