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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:50 pm, 23rd March 2020

The right hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot just have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to these things. Tonight, the House will give the Government extraordinary powers, like we have never seen before, and it is right that we parliamentarians are given an opportunity, after the appropriate timeframe, to look at how those powers have been used and hold Ministers to account. I agree with the spirit of the point he makes, although I cannot at this stage—I suppose it may emerge later in the debate—give him a commitment one way or the other on a particular amendment. We will see how the discussions proceed throughout the afternoon, but I certainly endorse the spirit of what he says. As I say, these are extraordinary powers that the House will grant the Government this week.

We have tabled a new clause related to schedule 11. We propose that a relevant body, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, should be tasked with overseeing the Bill’s impact on the provision of social care. That body would have to report every eight weeks on the operation of these changes and whether they should be amended. It would provide the oversight that is needed to prevent people’s rights from being undermined.

One of the ways the Bill seeks to free up medical staff is by relaxing the requirements of the Mental Health Act 1983. Specifically, only one medical professional will have to agree to someone’s being sectioned, rather than the two it currently takes. The scale of that change should not be underestimated. No longer will a decision to section a person have to be taken in consultation by two doctors. There will be no requirement for anyone involved to have had prior involvement with the patient. Medical professionals are going to be under huge pressure in the coming months, and mistakes may well be made.

The Bill says that a decision should be taken on the basis of one signature if requiring a second signature would be

“impractical or would involve undesirable delay.”

That seems to be too vague and potentially open to misreading. I hope Ministers can tell us what exactly that means and what safeguards will be put in place to prevent the change from being misused. Our amendments to schedule 7 would narrow the provision so that a second signature could be left off only if acquiring it would mean an undesirable delay. If something is impractical, it will by definition create an undesirable delay. By narrowing the wording in the Bill, we can avoid the potential misuse of powers.

We propose changes to ensure that private mental health hospitals cannot detain someone solely on the single recommendation of one of their employees. That could create a conflict of interest whereby a doctor comes under pressure to sign a detention authorisation because doing so will provide their employer with income from the NHS. No medical professional should be put under that kind of pressure, and our amendment would ensure that they cannot be. [Interruption.] Is James Sunderland seeing to intervene?