Clause 68 - Right of Entry

Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 12th June 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss briefly clause 68,

which deals with the right of entry under the reviews for investigations. Clauses 69 to 71 inevitably flow from clause 68, which is the main clause. I am particularly pleased because the content of those clauses is also dealt with in clauses 62 to 65, but relates to a different body. Indeed, the argument will be repeated in clauses 95 and 98 for a third body. We were unable to debate how those clauses refer to CHAI under clauses 62 to 65 because of the guillotine at the end of the sitting on Tuesday.

I want the Under-Secretary to clarify several issues that flow from the powers that clause 68 proposes to grant. It is logical that if a piece of legislation allowed a review and investigation system, those who carry those out must have sufficient powers and abilities to satisfactorily conclude them. However, it seems that the powers of the right of entry under clause 68 are extremely wide ranging with few checks and balances, which means that the system could be abused. I do not suggest that there will be abuse. However, if one prepares legislation and confers powers of such a sweeping nature, one has a duty to consider that it is possible that an individual might abuse those powers. There should be sufficient safeguards against that.

Under clause 68, if it considers it necessary or expedient, the Welsh Assembly can authorise a person to:

''at any reasonable time, enter and inspect any—

(a) premises owned or controlled by a Welsh NHS body;

(b) any other premises used, or proposed to be used, for any purpose connected with—

(i) the provision of health care by or for a Welsh NHS body; or

(ii) the discharge of any of the functions of a Welsh NHS body.''

That is an all-embracing power. Will the Under-Secretary tell us his intentions so far as that is concerned? For example, what is meant by

''considers it necessary or expedient''?

Attempts are made in subsequent clauses to give greater information about that. I will not stray too far down that line, because I might be considered out of order. However, will the Under-Secretary expand on that in layman's language?

What is meant by ''at any reasonable time''? What might be a reasonable time to one person may not be a reasonable time to another. For example, in sensitive investigations, the police regard a reasonable time to be 5 o' clock or 6 o' clock in the morning. Will the Bill give that sort of power to authorised individuals? An explanation of ''any reasonable time'' would be helpful.

In clause 68(1)(b), the power to enter and inspect ''any other premises used'' seems straightforward. However, what is meant by:

''or proposed to be used''?

There should not be an opportunity for nit-picking arguments to arise over what would seem to a non-lawyer to be a nebulous definition. What are the checks against abuse? Are they in another part of the Bill? Is the Assembly the right body to have sole authorisation of a person to carry out rights of entry?

Would it not be an improvement, and a greater protection against abuse, if a court order were required following an Assembly decision to hold an investigation or review and it was necessary for a person to have right of entry to premises? In certain circumstances, such as in more serious and sensitive reviews and investigations, the requirement of a court order would provide an additional safeguard to ensure that there was no abuse.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Welsh Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) (also in Wales Office)

Clauses 68 to 71 provide the Welsh Assembly with rights equivalent to those conferred on CHAI, and clauses 62 to 65 provide for the right to enter Welsh NHS body premises to inspect documents and records, to interview people and to require documents, information and explanations. If an inspectorate is to do its work properly, it must be able to have access to premises and appropriate records. The powers conferred under those clauses will allow the Welsh Assembly to undertake reviews and investigations into the provision of health care by Welsh NHS bodies. As I have said, the clauses complete the review and investigation of the Assembly's powers and ensure that the Assembly can carry out the duties we have placed upon it regarding the delivery of the health service.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) mentioned right of entry and queried the phrasing in clause 68(1):

''A person authorised to do so by the Assembly may, if the Assembly considers it necessary or expedient for the purposes of this Chapter, at any reasonable time enter and inspect . . . ''.

A ''reasonable time'' would not necessarily be in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning. The hon. Gentleman mentioned how the police would operate. Clearly, the police would deal with matters of a suspected criminal nature. We consider that a ''reasonable time'' would be an appropriate time—such as working hours—to allow the Assembly to access records so that it could carry out a proper and thorough investigation. That would allow the Assembly to ensure that all complaints or failures of delivery were properly assessed and that the appropriate action is taken.

We covered some of these points in our debates on the Health (Wales) Act 2003, where we gave community health councils in Wales rights of access to obtain documents and information, and gave patient forums in England the same rights regarding complaints about the running of the health service there. It is entirely consistent with the proper discharge of the duties of a body charged with responsibility for inspection and assessment to have rights of entry and access to the necessary documents so that it can produce reports and conclusions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.