HL Deb 24 June 1991 vol 530 cc467-9

5.53 p.m.

Lord Belstead rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order makes provision for Northern Ireland corresponding to two Acts, both of which were introduced as Private Members' Bills in another place and piloted through your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff; namely, the Access to Personal Files Act 1987 and the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988. During the passage of both Bills, undertakings were given that similar measures would be brought forward for Northern Ireland. That briefly is the background to the order. As this is a harmonisation measure, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I am brief.

Part II (that is, Articles 3 to 5 and the schedule) contains the framework for statutory rights of access for individuals to certain manually-held housing and social services records which are defined in the schedule and held by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Health and Social Services Boards. The principle of access to computer-based records is of course enshrined in the Data Protection Act 1984. Much of the detail of the statutory scheme for access to housing and social services files needs to be prescribed in regulations under Article 5. Before the regulations are made, there is an obligation on the departments involved to consult appropriate authorities and bodies. I assure noble Lords that consultation will be extensive and thorough.

Among the matters that regulations will provide for, two seem to me to be particularly significant in respect of the individual's rights to ensure accuracy in records relating to him or her. For instance, Article 5(2) (b) imposes obligations on the relevant authority to rectify or make erasures in records containing inaccurate information and Article 5(2) (e) provides for decisions taken by the relevant authority regarding access to or correction or erasure of information in records to be reconsidered or reviewed.

Part III (that is, Articles 6 to 14) gives individuals rights of access to medical reports on them sought by employers or insurers for employment or insurance purposes. The insurer or employer must have the individual's consent before applying for a report and the individual has a right to stipulate before the doctor supplies the report that he or she (the subject of the medical report) wishes to see it. The individual can discuss the report with the doctor and request him to amend it. If the doctor refuses, the individual has two options. He can either refuse his consent to the supply of the medical report to the employer or insurer or, less drastically, he can have a statement of his views appended to the report. There is also a right of access to a medical report in the six months after it has been supplied to the insurer or employer.

Much of what is in the order is regarded by those concerned as good practice. The order gives statutory effect to that and it has been welcomed on consultation in Northern Ireland. I therefore commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th June be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches it is my pleasure to welcome this modest but virtuous order. As the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, explained, it applies to Northern Ireland the principles and detailed provisions of the Access to Personal Files Act 1987 and the Medical Reports Act 1988. I have read both Acts and the order faithfully mirrors their provision. However, I regret that the Northern Ireland citizen has had to wait three or four years for the order. I appreciate the need to protect the integrity of the Northern Ireland statute book, but I regret that the citizens of Northern Ireland have had to wait three or four years for identical rights to be enshrined in legislation.

My other regret is that the opportunity has not been taken to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with the equally virtuous provisions of the Access to Health Records Act 1990. There is a growing recognition, and rightly so, that patients should have the statutory right of access to their health records as well as to their medical reports. I very much hope that the Minister will tell your Lordships that discussions are taking place with the medical profession and other health professionals and authorities with a view to introducing at an early date a statutory right to enable patients to have access to their medical records, subject to appropriate safeguards as provided for in the Access to Health Records Act 1990. Meanwhile, I welcome the order and hope that the professions in Northern Ireland will fully co-operate with the department in making the regulations under its provisions.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I rise to support the order most warmly. I do so with some pride for, as the Minister so kindly reminded the House, it was from these Benches, in the shape of my noble friend Lord Tordoff, and originally in another place in the shape of my honourable friend Mr. Kirkwood, that we were able to demonstrate parliamentary leadership on these important questions of access to medical reports and personal files.

I believe that the Act deals effectively with those important areas in which openness is the remedy for potential misunderstanding and injustice. It is good to see it extended to Northern Ireland.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I hope that we shall soon see the principle of greater freedom of information extended to health records. I believe that it is in those areas that one can develop the quality of life and the standards of administration which are so much needed in Northern Ireland. I support the order.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Holme, for their reception of this order, which, as I said when I introduced it, is a harmonisation order. We are indebted to the Benches of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for this legislation so far as concerns Great Britain.

Perhaps I may reply to the only question raised—the straightforward question put by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, of which he kindly gave me notice; namely, why the Access to Health Records Act 1990 harmonisation has not been included in the order. Both noble Lords hoped that something would be done about it.

This afternoon I can say that the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland is about to begin preparatory work on a draft order in council which will introduce provisions for Northern Ireland similar to those in the 1990 Act. Our aim is to have Northern Ireland legislation next year. I hope that we shall be able to achieve that aim. With that single reply, I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.