HL Deb 27 October 1993 vol 549 cc850-2

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether recent Department of Health guidelines apparently limiting the rights of National Health Service employees to raise issues with their MPs infringe the constitutional rights of those employees.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, the recent advice, Guidance to staff on relations with the public and the media, published on 8th June, does not prevent members of staff from seeking the advice and guidance of their Member of Parliament at any time. Sir Duncan Nichol wrote to all National Health Service managers and chief executives on 7th September to clarify that aspect of the guidance.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the reassurance that further guidance has been issued, which perhaps acknowledges that the original guidance was to some extent confusing. Will the Department of Health now establish an independent complaints commission for members of staff? One of the problems is that the regulations under the new management arrangements are so complex that members of staff feel that if they want legitimately to "blow the whistle", their jobs may be in danger.

Baroness Cumberlege

No, my Lords. There is no suggestion that such an independent body should be set up. But it is important that the National Health Service has an open atmosphere and culture so that members of staff who are worried have the right to go to their employer and immediate managers to express their views. It is important that employees recognise that they have a duty of confidentiality and of loyalty to their employer.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the case of the Wessex shambles over computers, junior members of staff frequently blew the whistle loud and clear to senior members of staff? They took no notice whatever because some of them were the people involved in what was going on. Will the Minister ensure that at all times staff at any level are entitled to approach public representatives, both in another place and in this House, if they believe that something is seriously wrong and is not being attended to, even by the chairmen and directors of the various associations?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the revised guidance is absolutely clear. Members of staff have the right to go to their Member of Parliament at any time if they have a worry that they wish to express.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind that the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association, the Health Visitors' Association, and UNISON meet with the department from time to time and also sometimes with each other, could it not be arranged for the department to meet representatives of all the organisations? They could then put forward a unified point of view on behalf of their members which would also be to the benefit of the department.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, as I have previously told the House, the department meets regularly with all the professional bodies and trade unions involved in the National Health Service. If an individual member of staff has a worry, it is right that they should take that up locally. In fact, our guidance says that they have a right and a duty to raise such matters, especially when they concern patient care.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that revised guidelines entitle a National Health Service employee, in appropriate circumstances, to go direct to his or her Member of Parliament without going through any internal procedure?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I believe that that is the right of every citizen.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many regional health authorities operate an open door policy? That means that members of staff can approach them either with worries directly relating to the health service or with their own personal problems. Surely it is desirable to deal with matters internally first, if at all possible.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Some health authorities have a climate of openness. That is something we commend and we hope that the framework will encourage those which are not so ready to open their doors to members of staff to do so.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that access to Ministers is already fully protected under the laws of privilege of the respective and relevant House of Parliament concerned?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, can the Minister think of some way of encouraging members of staff to report such malpractices as overtime abortions and female circumcision? Can she confirm that those are not taking place in the private sector?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, our guidance was issued to members of staff who work for the National Health Service. If they have concerns, they should take them up with their employer, as I stressed at the beginning of my answers to the Question.

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