HL Deb 13 September 2004 vol 664 cc893-6

2.58 p.m.

Viscount Goschen asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is appropriate for general practitioners to be paid for referring patients to personal injury lawyers or claims management companies.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, we would find any such practice distasteful but this is a matter of professional medical conduct for which the General Medical Council is responsible. The council's guidance to doctors, called Good Medical Practice, states, You must act in your patients' best interests when making referrals and providing or arranging treatment or care. So you must not ask for or accept any inducement, gift or hospitality which may affect or be seen to affect your judgment".

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, is it not wholly unacceptable to have two professional regulatory bodies at odds with each other on this issue? As the Minister said, the GMC has been extremely clear in its views that this practice is unethical and improper, whereas the Law Society earlier this year amended its own regulations for this practice to allow fee sharing despite the fact that the GMC had ruled it unethical. Will the Government now urge the Law Society to change its regulations back again to outlaw this ambulance chasing?

Lord Warner

My Lords, in this country we have a system of professional self-regulation through the General Medical Council and the Law Society. The GMC, as I have said, has made its position crystal-clear. In GMC News in April it said: Doctors generally have no expertise in legal services on which to base their recommendation of a particular firm and their chief interests in such schemes is a financial one. For these reasons such schemes are not appropriate". It is for the Law Society to consider this matter in the light of what the GMC has said and, I understand, it is balloting its members on the change in its introduction and referral code.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in a report published in May of this year called Better Routes to Redress, the Better Regulation Task Force recommended that the Chief Medical Officer and the NHS chief executive should issue immediately joint guidelines to hospitals and surgeries on the content of advertising by claims management companies on their premises? Is he aware that these companies and, indeed, solicitors compete in order to gain an exclusive franchise to distribute advertising literature in these articles? Have the Government taken that report on board and what are they doing about it?

Lord Warner

My Lords, we are aware of the Better Regulation Task Force's report. Indeed, it was this Government who set up the Better Regulation Task Force. We are considering very carefully the proposals in its report, Better Routes to Redress.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the essential thing is a matter of choice for the potential litigant? No single name should be put forward at any time and clear choice is essential. Does he agree also that it is vital that the potential client should understand that having a claim against a particular person or institution should be pursued and that any doubt about that is undesirable?

Lord Warner

My Lords, the Government recognise that great harm can be caused to people and that they have rights of redress. On this particular question we are discussing, the issue is whether the particular proposal from the Law Society is deemed to be appropriate medical conduct by the professional body—the General Medical Council. I think it has made its position crystal clear.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, do I not detect a hint of hypocrisy about the criticism of the Law Society? The Government have permitted, indeed have stimulated, the cult of speculative litigation. Before the previous government permitted that, no professional body would have allowed it. Now ambulance chasing has been made legitimate by the Government in relation to solicitors. This pompous comparison between the two professions overlooks the source of the authority.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I refute that absolutely. Perhaps I could give your Lordships a few figures. The figures from the Compensation Recovery Unit show that the overall number of accident claims went down by 9.5 per cent in the year to March 2004. Of those, public liability claims were down by 16.7 per cent; clinical negligence claims were down by 10.8 per cent; and employers' liability claims down by 14 per cent. That hardly represents government encouraging a compensation culture.

Earl Howe

My Lords, what is the position with regard to health service employees, or indeed other public servants, such as the police, in the context of this question? Is it appropriate for such individuals to be paid to refer people to personal injury lawyers? What is to stop that happening?

Lord Warner

My Lords, people must make their own judgments in these cases. But this is rather wider than the particular question that was raised. I shall look into the matter and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Christopher

My Lords, have the Government given their views on this matter to the General Medical Council? I declare an interest as a past member of the GMC. I am a little surprised at what he has told us as it was news to me. I should have thought that it was inappropriate for any medical practitioner to give particular advice to a patient in a matter of this sort. If a patient seeks an opinion, it is fine to say, "Well, in those circumstances it is not for me to say what you should do. Perhaps you should consult your solicitor". But to go beyond that seems to me to be entirely inappropriate. I am troubled at the prospect of a ballot of GMC-registered doctors coming out the wrong way.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I think my noble friend may have misheard me. I said that the ballot taking place relates to the Law Society and its members on the changes to its introduction and referral code. I think that the GMC's position is absolutely clear from the quotations I gave from both its Good Medical Practice guide and the GMC News in April.