§ Mr. Dismore
I beg to move amendment No. 17, in title, at end add'to extend the provisions of the Act to persons who have retired or resigned from the National Health Service; and for related purposes.'.The amendment seeks to change the long title of the Bill because the present long title is extremely confusing. On Second Reading, when you were in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I tried to make a detailed speech about the problems relating to the NHS commissioners. Two or three times, you told me off for straying beyond the scope of the Bill. You saidThe Bill before us is a very narrow piece of proposed legislation, and it is determined by its title and by its contents. The hon. Gentleman—that is a reference to me—is looking at matters that could be amended at another time, and I remind him that we can consider only what is before us this morning.From time to time during the rest of the debate, I strayed a little, and you pulled me up again.
§ Mr. Dismore
I am sure that you did, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would not question that. I took to heart your words: 611The hon. Gentleman is looking at matters that could be amended at another time—[Official Report, 3 March 2000; Vol. 345, c. 682.]I spent a happy evening last week drafting a raft of amendments, but the Bill is tightly drawn and it was difficult to draft amendments to it, especially as the original legislation has been amended. Trying to work through all the cross-references and cross-checks was an extremely difficult job, even though I had a consolidated version of the Bill, pulled off Lexis. I probably have the only copy in the entire House, and ended up lending it to the Table Office so that officials there could check the amendments.
I tabled a great list of amendments to try to improve the Bill, and the following day I received a letter from Mr. Priestley, the Clerk in charge of private Members' Bills, whose patience I have also sorely tested over the past two weeks, and who has been very helpful in advising me about the scope of the Bill.
In a letter to me, Mr. Priestley states:I am writing because I think I should draw to your attention the fact that, notwithstanding its broadly drawn long title—which I seek to amend—the Health Service Commissioners (Amendment) Bill is a Bill with a single, narrow purpose. This means that the scope for amendment of the Bill is very limited indeed.Mr. Priestley goes on to state that he does not wish to pre-empt the Speaker's exercise of her power to select amendments for debate, and he continues:I think it only fair to tell you that, having looked carefully at your amendments…they all appear to relate to matters outside the scope of the Bill.I was rather peeved about that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I thought that I had been following your advice in drafting those amendments and had spent some time doing so, as I had done when preparing my speech for the Second Reading debate, based on my understanding of the content of the Bill from the long title. That is why I believe that the long title needs amending; it is very misleading.
With Mr. Priestley's assistance, I consulted "Erskine May" about the scope of a Bill. It states:Amendments to the preamble and the title are also admissible where amendments have been made to the bill which render them necessary.We have made some amendments to the Bill today which make the amendment of the long title necessary. I propose that it should refer to the retirement or resignation from the NHS of the practitioner, "and for related purposes". We have dealt with a few of those matters today.
"Erskine May" goes on:An amendment is out of order if it is irrelevant to the subject matter or beyond the scope of the bill.It also states in paragraph (5) on page 526:Where the scope of a bill is very restricted, the extent to which it may be amended at all may thus be severely limited.Fair enough.
I asked Mr. Priestley where in "Erskine May" the scope of a Bill is defined. He flipped through many hundreds of pages and the index but, believe it or not, nowhere is the scope of a Bill defined.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The background material is very interesting and it describes the way in which 612 the hon. Gentleman arrived at the amendment. However, now that the amendment has been selected, he should speak about it, not the reasons for tabling it.
§ Mr. Dismore
I was told that drafting an amendment to the long title would be a way round the problem. I did that in amendment No. 18, which was not selected. I did not realise that I could speak only to amendment No. 17.
Drafting amendments that were within the scope of the Bill was difficult when the long title was so misleading. To try to ensure that the amendments—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. As I said earlier, we cannot debate amendments that were not selected. However, Madam Speaker has selected amendment No. 17. That allows the hon. Gentleman not only to move the amendment, but to speak about it. He must confine himself to amendment No. 17.
§ Mr. Dismore
I referred to amendment No. 18 in parenthesis to explain the reasons for drafting amendment No. 17 in the way in which it appears on the amendment paper.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not like interrupting hon. Members' speeches; I want the hon. Gentleman to speak about amendment No. 17. He has finished with stories about the Public Bill Office.
§ Mr. Dismore
That is a pity, because they are entertaining. Never mind, perhaps I can tell you them in the Tea Room some time, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The long title of the Bill is broad and has been misleading when we tried to debate the Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and today. The amendment would tackle that flaw. I hope that the Bill will receive a Third Reading today, and move to another place. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, those in another place may wish to table amendments. I should hate them to go through the same palaver as me, and find that they were drafting amendments that were out of order because they were misled about the scope of the Bill by a broad long title.
If we could amend the long titleto extend the provisions of the Act to persons who have retired or resigned from the National Health Service; and for related purposes,it would help to clarify the Bill's purpose. It would make the long title match the scope of the Bill. Standing Orders state that that should be done for Government Bills, but private Members' Bills are an exception to the rule. They are often tabled with a very long title before the detailed text becomes known. Government Bills are caught by Standing Orders, which require a change when necessary to the long title, but private Members' Bills are not.
In the light of the difficulties that I experienced, I believed that it would be worth while to amend the long title to reflect the contents of the Bill more accurately. That would enable those in another place—and the public, if the measure is enacted—to understand the Bill's purpose and not assume that it is about something different. That is how I got into difficulties.
§ Mr. Hammond
I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's case. By extending the long title, I am not 613 sure whether he is aiming to expand or restrict the scope of the Bill. The extension of the long title for which the amendment provides would reduce the scope of the Bill.
§ Mr. Dismore
The amendment would do neither. I am simply trying to make the long title reflect the scope of the Bill. The long title is broader than the scope of the Bill. You have made it clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as have other hon. Members, that the scope of the Bill is narrow. It covers only bringing within the scope of the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993 people who have retired or resigned from the NHS. The right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) confirmed that on Second Reading. He repeated that this morning. If that is the case, the long title should reflect the Bill's objective.
The amendment would not restrict the Bill; it tries to mirror the Bill's contents and thus make its purpose clearer. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the amendment, which will make matters easier for people who consider the Bill later.
§ Mr. Forth
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has done the House a great service, because such matters often confuse people, including myself. One might have thought that a BillTo Amend the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993would give enormous scope to do just that and that, if it were taken literally, there would be ample opportunity to achieve many different things. However, he has found out that that is not the case. The scope of the Bill as defined on Second Reading by its promoter, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), turns out to be narrow. There is a difference between what the title says and what the Bill means.
§ Mr. Dismore
It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman draws that conclusion, but I do not think that that is the case. The problem is that "Erskine May" does not define the term "scope of the Bill". Contrary to what he says, I was given to understand that the Bill's long title and text, not what the promoter may say it is, constitute its scope.
§ Mr. Dismore
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I tried to find out whether such a ruling had been given, as the House works on precedent. The only one that I could find on a long title's relevance to a Bill's content was made in 1960; no other could be found. Perhaps custom and practice rather than precedent governs our proceedings.
§ Mr. Forth
Indeed. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—listening, as ever, with your keen ear and watching with your eagle eye—may think on reflection, perhaps after consulting Madam Speaker and your 614 colleagues, that it would be helpful to guide the House on the matter. Perhaps a statement could be made from the Chair. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but if, unusually, there is no explicit guidance in "Erskine May", and if the last time that an utterance was made on the matter was as long ago as 1960, there is a danger of unnecessary confusion arising between the Bill's short and long titles, its content and what the promoter may say on Second Reading. That should be cleared up for the benefit of us all.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. A ruling was made, with which the Chair is entirely satisfied. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman discuss the amendment.
§ Mr. Forth
I shall seek out that ruling shortly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
All in all, I find the hon. Gentleman's remarks persuasive. It strikes me that amendment No. 17 would be helpful, if only for the sake of consistency. That may be useful, given that the Bill may have to be considered in the other place as a result of this morning's positive and useful debate. Unless I am persuaded otherwise, I am inclined to support the amendment.
§ Ms Stuart
The amendment would add to the Bill's title and extend it to cover those who have left the NHS either by resignation or on retirement and, to quote the amendment, "for related purposes." The Government have made it clear that the Health Service Commissioners (Amendment) Act 1996 and our proposed amendments cover the required ground.
We acknowledge the importance of properly protecting the interests of patients and the public by enabling the health service commissioner to investigate complaints against NHS providers thoroughly and properly. However, the helpful and instructive Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) will fill the gap that he identified in respect of the family health service practitioners and independent contractors.
Although there is no opposition in principle to clarifying the long title, the amendment does not accurately reflect the Bill's intended purpose and would produce confusion. Had an amendment been tabled to reword the long title so that it was more accurate, it could have been considered. The clear purpose of the Bill is to close a loophole, and the title states that clearly. I fail to see how the amendment would be helpful.
§ Mr. Dismore
My hon. Friend has left me in a quandary. In the debates on Second Reading and today, the assumption has been that the Bill does precisely what my amendment to the long title states that it does. If my hon. Friend is saying that the Bill does other things that are not covered by my amendment to the long title, could she specify what they are? I could then be sure that, if those in the other place want to produce another amendment to change the long title to make it accurately reflect the scope of the Bill, they will have some guidance from the Minister as to how they should word it.
§ Ms Stuart
In the previous debate, it was considered that amendments should be made, and legislation should 615 be amended, to be helpful. We believe that the title of the Bill as it stands accurately, clearly and precisely reflects the scope of the Bill. We are not convinced that the insertion of "for related purposes" adds clarity. Accordingly, we recommend that the amendment should be rejected. It does not bring greater clarity to the proceedings.
§ Mr. Dismore
I am unconvinced by my hon. Friend's answer to that point. It is still not clear to me in what respect my amendment is defective. I do not intend to press it to a vote because we want to get on to Third Reading and give the Bill a fair passage. I hope that the issue can be considered in the other place.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Is the hon. Gentleman seeking the leave of the House to withdraw his amendment?
§ Mr. Dismore
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. In doing so, I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that at a future date we need more guidance on the definition of the scope of a Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. That is an otiose comment in view of the fact that the Chair has given a ruling, and it is unnecessary for that ruling to be repeated. It was quite clear and specific.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Order for Third Reading read.12.37 pm
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I do not want to detain the House. I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, and most especially to the Minister for the trouble that she and her staff have taken over a modest Bill, but one of considerable significance.
One of the lessons that we have learned from the debate is that other, related issues need to be tackled. I understand that there will be a wider review of the role of the ombudsman, which will embrace the different ombudsmen who help to remedy injustice and provide a fair, level playing field between those who make complaints and those who are complained against. I hope that the Bill will continue to have support on Third Reading, and that it will be a success when it goes to the other House.
§ Angela Smith
As a sponsor of the Bill, I should like to make a few brief comments, although I shall not repeat what was said on Second Reading. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on his wisdom in choosing this subject for his Bill. I also thank the Government for their support and consideration, which has been helpful.
The Bill has limited scope, but it is welcome. The right hon. Gentleman may have been surprised by the number of amendments that have been tabled today after such a swift 13-minute Committee stage. We are grateful that many of those amendments have been withdrawn.
616 I have little to add to the comments that I made on Second Reading, except to stress the aspect of the Bill that will allow commissioners to investigate the actions of a private practitioner who has provided treatment to an NHS patient under contract to a health service body, such as a health authority or an NHS trust, even if that practitioner no longer treats patients under such a contract.
The Bill is about accountability and faith: faith in doctors and faith in the system. It closes the loophole that allows a person under investigation to retire from the NHS to take up private practice so as to escape that investigation. That loophole does the medical profession a disservice. I was disappointed to read in Pulse magazine that a GP had declared that the Bill wasmore about revenge than justice.I am pleased that many doctors have distanced themselves from that comment. Indeed, the health service commissioner has given the Bill his support.
The Medical Defence Union has put its comments on record by lodging them with the House of Commons Library. According to the MDU, the health service commissioner already hasthe power to impose sanctions if he considers that a GP has not responded to a complaint correctly. For example, he may choose to "name and shame" the doctor concerned.That is inadequate. It is not good enough, and that is why the Bill has had to be presented.
A constituent of mine who has fallen foul of the existing legislation will welcome this Bill. I am sure that he will also say that the MDU's response to it is not good enough. In his case, when a doctor did not respond to a complaint, all that happened was an extension of the time allowed for a response. I think that, at a later stage, we should consider how long investigations take. Sometimes our constituents feel that there is undue delay, increasing the agony that they experience at difficult times.
The MDU says:The MDU does believe that currently if a doctor retires before a complaint has been fully investigated that is almost certainly coincidental.I am sorry, but I do not share that view. It may be coincidental in some cases, but certainly that does not apply to all cases. If it did, there would be no opposition to the Bill, no doctor would deliberately retire for such reasons, and no one would complain about being investigated after retirement.
I stress that no hon. Member has been "anti-doctor". I am sorry that some people have seen the Bill in that light. My local branch of the British Medical Association has been here twice for dinner—there are annual receptions—and, although I think that the Bill will be needed in only a tiny number of cases, I know that the BMA welcomes it.
A change in the law is needed for those few cases—cases of which we all know from our constituency surgeries. It is necessary in order to maintain—or reinstate, where it has been lost—public confidence in the medical profession, and I am pleased that we have been given the opportunity to support it.
§ Mr. Forth
The Bill is a good, perhaps even a model, example of a private Member's Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) deserves enormous credit for the skill with which he identified the 617 need for such legislation, consulted about it and put it together. The Bill's scope is modest, but its potential and, I suspect, actual impact on those whom we are here to serve are significant. Moreover, my right hon. Friend, with his usual courtesy and skill, has drawn on his considerable experience in guiding the Bill through its stages.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) that I would have thought the reason why the Committee stage was so remarkably short—at least, I hope that this was the reason—was that, while the Minister accepted that there was further work to be done, she and the Government were not yet in a position to give the Committee guidance. The Committee was prepared to accept that, on the understanding—I think—that the matter could be properly dealt with here, on Report. That is indeed the way in which things have worked out—and they have worked out very well, in a co-operative spirit.
Our debate has demonstrated a number of things, including the wisdom of private Members' Bills being modest in scope, and the value that should be attached not only to the opportunities that arise in Committee in normal circumstances, but to the opportunity that legitimately arises on Report to consider a Bill further and, if necessary, improve it. My right hon. Friend can take great pride in what he is, I suspect, about to achieve in securing a Third Reading for his Bill; I am sure that we all wish it well.
I acknowledge the work of all concerned, and I certainly wish the Bill well. I hope that we have managed to improve it today; that is my sense of what has happened, and I am confident that it will be on the statute book before long.
§ Mr. David Stewart
I shall not delay the House.
I compliment the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on his excellent private Member's Bill. If I am fortunate enough in my future career to come high up in the ballot, I shall certainly model my Bill on the form and content of this Bill, and learn from the excellent debate today.
I made the point earlier about the range of the Bill. It does not apply to Scotland, but the 1993 and 1996 Acts do. I commend to the Scottish Executive that it takes on board the fact that there is a loophole in the Health Service Commissioners Act. I hope that it will look at that.
We should commend the various organisations that have been involved. Some of the input from the Consumers Association has been first-class. The BMA and all hon. Members have been active in supporting the excellent work that has gone into getting rid of the loophole in the Act.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith
May I say how pleased I am that the hon. Gentleman has referred to the work of the Consumers Association? It is something that I should have mentioned; I intended to do so. I warmly endorse that comment.
§ Mr. Stewart
I thank the right hon. Gentleman.
618 I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his work in preparing the Bill. I believe it is sensible, practical and strengthens the rights of patients in the NHS.
§ Mr. Heppell
I thought that it was probably wise, as I grumbled a bit about the new clauses, to stress that, while I may have had doubts about some of them, I certainly have no doubts about the value of the Bill.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on introducing the Bill, which takes forward the complaints procedure for my constituents even more. I suspect that many people out there do not realise how the ombudsman's role has changed over the years. After being set up in 1973, it changed dramatically after the Wilson review and the report by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in 1993. The clinical judgment element was introduced in 1996, which was a further step forward. The Bill plugs a loophole.
I do not think that it is the end of the story. One of the things that the process has identified is that more changes could be made to make the system even better. In some respects, I can understand the arguments on why private medicine is not covered by the ombudsman, although there are probably arguments to say that the private sector should be part of the process. None the less, I, and, I think, my constituents, find it amazing that someone who is operating as a locum within the NHS is not part of the process.
People must make their choice. If they go to the private sector, they must realise that they will not be covered by the ombudsman, but I would expect to be covered in respect of any locum that took the place of my doctor. I hope that we will re-examine that matter, but, again, I do not want to end on a sour note. My congratulations go to the right hon. Gentleman and to the Consumers Association for their excellent work on the Bill.
§ Mr. Miller
I, too, put on record my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). He said earlier that he normally gets involved in things to do with the defence of the realm and so on, but the defence of the ordinary citizen, which is at the heart of the Bill, is an important aspect of our work. The way in which the debate has been conducted this morning illustrates the House working at its best. There has been a certain amount of banter, good humour and agreement on both sides.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on carrying her last amendment as promised. Some of us are still a little confused about the detail. I think that the debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) said, will continue to unfold as the function of the commissioner settles down, with the Bill becoming an Act in the near future.
It has been a worthwhile exercise. I hope that the Bill receives a speedy passage in the other place and goes on to the statute book in a very short time.
§ Mr. Hammond
I add my congratulations to those already paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on choosing the subject 619 and piloting his Bill so expertly through the House. As he himself has acknowledged, it is a relatively small measure to fill a specific loophole. However, it deals with a significant perceived injustice, albeit that that injustice affects a relatively small number of people. The injustice arises from the distinction between the independent status of general practitioners and the rather different status of health authorities and NHS trusts, so that if general practitioners cease to provide services, there ceases to be a continuing entity to be held liable for previous malpractice.
On a much broader front than the provision of medical services, there is a growing feeling that people—whether in our police services, health services or in other spheres—should not be able to escape proper scrutiny of their actions simply by taking the easy option and resigning. My right hon. Friend's Bill ensures that, in one sphere, that will no longer be possible.
I tell the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), in response to her comments, that the Bill deals not only with those who are actively seeking to avoid being held to account or scrutinised for their actions, but with a perhaps much larger number of people whom the ombudsman is unable to investigate—in the example that the Minister gave a few moments ago, simply because of the natural process of retirement. Although they have not sought to evade the ombudsman's attentions, the law prevents scrutiny of them.
On Second Reading, there was a wide consensus in favour of my right hon. Friend's Bill. However, there was also a recognition of the need to balance the proposals with a limitation on the potentially open-ended jeopardy that practitioners might face. Today, with the amendments tabled by the Minister, we have addressed that issue and made the Bill into workable legislation.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) was right to say that this legislation is not the end of the story, and I hope that, in a few moments, the Minister will be able to tell us something about the timetable for the Government's wider review of the complaints procedure in the national health service.
I do not agree with the statement of the hon. Member for Nottingham, East that, if people go to the private sector, they have to accept that they will not be covered by the health service commissioner. As we saw yesterday, in our consideration of the Care Standards Bill, the Government are moving towards a recognition that there is a need for unified regulation and registration procedures across sectors, so that, wherever patients choose to go for their medical and social care provision, they can be sure that they are being treated in a properly regulated environment, which includes a proper complaints procedure.
The Opposition are delighted that the Government have acknowledged and taken on board the Secretary of State's responsibility for all patients within the system, not merely those within the national health service. I very much hope that, when the Government consider wider reform of the health service complaints procedure, and possible proposals for a complaints procedure in the private acute sector, they will see the merits of a unified system that allows all patients equal access.
Public confidence requires that the complaints procedure in any body or sphere work effectively. The Bill is a small but important step in dealing with the clear 620 concerns that a group of people have felt about how the NHS complaints procedure works. It brings those who have felt excluded from the process—disfranchised—back within the net.
The Bill leaves the House with two small concerns still hanging over it. On new clause 6, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) identified a further small group of potentially aggrieved people who may find that the Bill does not extend the improved access and scrutiny to their cases. It would be ironic and unfortunate if a Bill that set out to address the grievance of a group of people who are excluded from the complaints process inadvertently excluded another group. No doubt that will be considered in another place.
The other point is whether there should be different periods of jeopardy for practitioners who resign from the service in the normal way and those who are dismissed as a result of malpractice. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, I suspect that our noble Friends in another place may wish to look at that again.
However, those minor points in no way detract from the achievement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden in piloting the Bill successfully through the House. Congratulations are due to all those who participated on Second Reading, in Committee and today on the constructive and positive way in which the Bill has been made into useful and workable legislation.
§ Ms Stuart
I thank all those who have taken part at the various stages of the debate, particularly today. We have dealt constructively and positively with the Bill. I particularly congratulate the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) on choosing a good Bill with a clear purpose and remaining focused on that purpose.
We have had interesting and wide-ranging debates. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) will take a close interest in the further proceedings on the Care Standards Bill, which will address some of his points on complaints outside the national health service. I am sure that he will be able to make a positive contribution.
Some may have regarded the Bill as minor, but we do not see complaints as a minor issue, even if they affect only a limited number of people. Complaints are important, even when they are sometimes uncomfortable for those on the receiving end. They can be a positive means of improving services. We firmly believe that complaints are a tool for improvement and I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue.
An effective complaints process is not just about taking complaints seriously and learning lessons from them; it is about responding to the complainants' concerns sensitively, providing answers to their questions and reassuring them that their worries are not being swept under the carpet.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked about the revision of the complaints procedure. The review is high on our agenda, but there is no precise date at this stage. It will have to be seen within the outcome of the national plan discussions.
There will inevitably be some cases in which even the best endeavours of the NHS complaints procedure will not be satisfactory. In those cases, the commissioner 621 provides an essential further option for complainants who might otherwise be left without the assurance that their complaint has been taken seriously.
The Bill seeks to plug a loophole which has been identified in the existing legislation relating to the health service commissioner. As is so often the case, it hinges on what appears to be a minor technical point, but for those affected, the problem is very real.
Section 2A of the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993 brings family health service practitioners—GPs, family dentists, opticians and pharmacists—within the commissioner's jurisdiction. Section 2B does the same for independent providers. The intention was to ensure that NHS patients would have access to the commissioner irrespective of where or how they were receiving care and treatment.
It was only when those provisions began to be used as the basis for instigating investigations about practitioners that it came to light that there was a problem because the provisions are phrased entirely in the present tense. As a result, an additional hurdle was placed in front of a small minority of complainants: to investigate a complaint about a GP, for example, the commissioner had to make sure that the GP was still in practice, and was likely to remain so until the investigation was concluded. If the GP retired while the complainant was still pursing his or her concerns through the NHS complaints procedure, the commissioner would not be able to consider the complaint if it was subsequently submitted to him.
Worse still, the commissioner has told us that on a couple of occasions he has been forced to close down an investigation that had already started, because it was being conducted under the auspices of section 2A, and the subject of the complaint retired half way through. Clearly that is highly unsatisfactory. The Bill would amend sections 2A and 2B so as to remove that additional hurdle and bring those such as retired GPs within the commissioner's remit.
As I have said previously, the Government have no difficulty with the principles and motivation behind the Bill. However, as I also said during earlier consideration of the Bill, I have a duty to look at the issues from all perspectives. I must ensure that, in righting one injustice, 622 we do not unintentionally create another. Therefore, it did not seem to be in keeping with natural justice that GPs or other practitioners who have reached retirement age after a long career committed to providing the very best care and treatment to their patients should have to spend many years wondering whether one day they might find themselves the subject of a complaint to the health service commissioner. On Second Reading, I described it as a sword of Damocles hanging over them. That may seem melodramatic to some, but I have no doubt that that is how it would feel for many conscientious and hard-working practitioners. I therefore said that the Government would table an amendment to the Bill to place an absolute time limit on how long after practitioners or providers permanently ceased to provide the relevant services they should be susceptible to investigation by the commissioner. I am pleased that the amendment considered earlier today was agreed to.
I am equally pleased that the Government's other significant amendment has also been successfully incorporated into the Bill. It may have seemed to be a trivial matter, perhaps even unnecessary to some, that the Bill should be explicit in excluding from re-examination complaints which have already been considered and rejected by the commissioner on the grounds that they fell outside the scope of sections 2A or 2B. Nevertheless, experience has shown that we should never be complacent about such matters, or make assumptions about how legislation will be interpreted. It was entirely right, in my view, that the new clause should be included, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wealden and to the House for accepting it.
This has been the first Bill I have had to deal with since becoming a Minister and it has been a great pleasure and joy, not least due to the support from right hon. and hon. Members. The Bill clearly showed the purpose, function and scope of private Member's Bills. I am sure that we shall look back on today's debate with some satisfaction because the Bill has closed a loophole. Throughout the Bill's progress through the House, the right hon. Member for Wealden has been most supportive and I thank him for that. The Government have no objections to the Bill and we wish it well in its further stages.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.