I was so taken with the Minister’s speech that I felt I ought to reflect on it and I could not find my place, but I have now.
We are largely content with the clause, but it deals with issues of confidentiality that trouble us a little. In my rather discursive remarks on clause 16, I said what I needed to say but I shall reiterate it in the context of clause 17. We need to be clear about the transfer of patient-identifiable material between various health bodies. That worries me considerably. I cite the example of a methadone clinic, where we are dealing with people who are quite vulnerable. We are not only dealing with the generality of medical practice, which is important in itself, but on top of that we are talking about people who have a range of conditions that are sensitive in many respects.
Controlled drugs can be used for a variety of things. They can be used for palliative care, but they can also be related to drug abuse and other sensitive areas of practice. Therefore, it is particularly important that we pay close attention to issues of medical confidentiality. We need to be clear that in transferring material from one body to another for the purposes of the clause, we are doing so in a way that is highly sensitive and preserves, as far as possible, the confidentiality of those individuals.
During this brief debate, I want to press the Minister on that matter and seek her assurance that she recognises the extent of the potential abuse that could take place and the possibility that people will be dissuaded from seeking medical advice for particular conditions if they are not absolutely confident that the organisation that they are seeking attention from will deal carefully and sensitively with information given to it in confidence. The way in which the provisions are drafted means that there is the potential for the whole thing to look far more diffuse to somebody who is seeking help in that way. That is my chief concern. We have talked about how Dame Janet’s initial recommendation might be of assistance in that respect, but clearly the Minister has chosen a different pathway. I hope that she can give me some assurances about the use of the information, particularly in respect of confidentiality.
We do not feel that the amendments are necessary. I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the necessary safeguards already exist. We already plan to provide advice to organisations to ensure that patient confidentiality is upheld. We have already issued for consultation draft guidance on strengthened governance arrangements that makes it clear that organisations should follow existing NHS guidance on confidentiality and protect patient confidentiality. As part of that, the guidance makes it clear that patient information should normally be used only in an anonymised form. Where it is needed in an identifiable form, patient consent should be sought. The only exceptions to that would be where the organisation judges that there is a serious risk to health and safety that outweighs the need to maintain confidentiality. Guidance on confidentiality can already be issued under clause 20(1)(b), which we have not reached yet. That provision allows for guidance to be issued on the discharge of the accountable officer’s responsibilities.
I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman has moved his amendment. He is right to reinforce the need to protect patient confidentiality. We believe that the clause does that and that the protocols and procedures are already in place to ensure that. However, I take his point. I hope that he will withdraw his amendment and accept the reassurances that I have offered.
The Minister has sort of given me some reassurance. Obviously, she understands that this is a difficult area. I suppose that there is no obvious way forward. At the end of the day, if we are going to safeguards patients, clearly there will have to be some sort of transfer of information. The purpose of amendments Nos. 15 and 16, which apply to clauses 17 and 20 respectively, but which are closely related, was to make the Minister aware of our concerns about confidentiality. We have expressed those concerns elsewhere in connection with NHS Connecting for Health and NPfIT and no doubt we will return to the matter at greater length at some point in the future.
Some people might be discouraged from seeking treatment, which is a pity. However, at the end of the day, I guess that a judgment has to be made. I accept the Minister’s assurances and recognise that if we are to enhance the safety of patients, we will have to allow the transfer of information. I hope that it will not be patient-specific unless absolutely necessary and that it will be generic wherever possible. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.