Clause 3 — Functions of the Centre

Part of Health (Wales) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 9th January 2003.

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Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales 2:45 pm, 9th January 2003

They were all listening or watching on the monitor.

I also note the point of Mr. Williams about communications and how he was watching club rugby and drinking good French wine. I did exactly the same in the Dordogne last year. Long may those methods of communication, and French wine, continue.

The previous debate centred on the links between the health protection agency and the Wales centre for health. What is extraordinary about the amendment is that it will put a complete block on a key area of collaboration and communication between the health protection agency and the Wales centre for health. The amendment would impose unjustified restrictions on the Wales centre for health's ability to make information available to the public in Wales. It will prevent the centre from publishing information in any way that might lead to it reaching people anywhere outside Wales, without first getting the specific agreement of those public health information bodies responsible for the communication of health information in that area, as the amendment states.

The amendment raises two issues: the role of the Wales centre for health in communicating with the public; and the need for the centre to collaborate with other bodies. On the first issue of the role of the Wales centre for health, there may be some misunderstanding. Let me clarify the matter. The role of the centre is to assess evidence and provide information and advice on public health issues to the public, to the Assembly and to other public sector organisations in Wales, including the new national public health service. It will also monitor trends and undertake surveillance, identify gaps in information and data and encourage action to fill those gaps, build partnerships with other bodies in the public, voluntary and academic sectors, and develop the skills and knowledge base that underpin public health practice.

What the centre will not do, however, is conduct health promotion programmes, as it appeared that Mr. Evans was suggesting when he spoke a moment or two ago. That will remain the responsibility of the Assembly together with the national public health service in Wales, which will take over the health promotion work done by the health authorities when they are abolished later this year. There are already several campaigns in Wales addressing such issues as smoking, HIV and sexually transmitted infections in accordance with the Assembly's national health promotion strategy, XPromoting health and well-being". There has been no need to impose restrictions on those campaigns in terms of the media used, nor do they cause cross-border problems. There can be no justification for imposing such severe restrictions on the freedom of the Wales centre for health to provide information to the public, if it wished to use such media.

The amendment refers to

Xmedia channels widely accessible in any area outside Wales".

That would include publications such as newspapers and magazines, including medical and professional journals, radio and television channels and the Wales centre for health's website. Many of those can be readily received in areas outside Wales. The amendment would therefore prevent publication through numerous media popular within Wales simply because they are, or could be, accessible in England, as Hywel Williams pointed out.

I made it clear at column 58 in the second sitting of the Committee that the centre will have its own website, which will provide an important means by which it provides information across the planet. The amendment would prevent the centre from being able to post valuable information on its website simply because it would be accessible to people outside Wales. It could only overcome that embargo if it could secure joint publication with public health providers in the rest of the world. It is hard to see what form of communication would be accessible to the centre. Even locally distributed leaflets could stray across national boundaries: a wind might blow them across the border into England, and the centre would be in trouble. That shows the quality of the amendments being tabled by the Conservative party.

At a time when communications have never been more fluid, nor information more accessible, the amendment would impose unacceptable and unreasonable restrictions on the Wales centre for health. It would restrict the free flow of information across Wales' borders—information that could benefit the rest of the United Kingdom.

On the second issue of collaboration with other bodies, on which part of the debate on the previous group of amendments focused, I can confirm that the centre, in its shadow form, is already taking steps to co-ordinate its work with other bodies. For instance, it is to seek partner status with the public health observatories in England, and it is in contact with the Public Health Institute of Scotland and the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. It will work closely with the Health Development Agency in its development of a public health evidence base.

Paragraph 20 of schedule 2 gives the centre the power to co-operate with other public authorities. The Assembly intends that it should do so with other bodies in Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom and with other countries in the world. The centre will co-operate with other bodies in providing evidence and information. The amendment, however, would place severe restrictions on the means available for the centre to do so. It would also restrict the means by which public bodies outside Wales could learn of the information provided by the centre.

The amendment is too prescriptive and is unworkable. The Bill requires the centre to make information about matters related to the protection and improvement of health in Wales available to the public in Wales. It must be up to the centre to decide how it intends to make that information available within Wales. I can only suggest that the author of the amendment must have been somebody related to comrade Ceaucescu.