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Data Protection Act

31. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): What representations the Lord Chancellor has received on the impact of the Data Protection Act 1998 on hospital chaplaincy. [57409]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): Five hon. Members have written on behalf of constituents about the effect of the Data Protection Act 1998 on hospital chaplains. The hospital chaplaincies council of the Church of England will shortly meet officials in my Department.

Mr. Brady: I welcome the Minister to her new position. Does she agree that hospital chaplaincy provides a vital service to many thousands of people who are in severe need of help and support? Does she share my concern that an over-zealous interpretation of the Data Protection Act is standing in the way of the work of hospital chaplains? Will she undertake to consider whether changes to the legislation are necessary in order to allow chaplaincies to carry out their functions properly?

Yvette Cooper: I agree that hospital chaplains can provide a vital service of spiritual support and care to many people in hospitals who want it. It is important that patients who want that support should be able to get it.

The Data Protection Act does not prevent hospitals from passing on information about a patient's religion, but it states that they can do so only with the patient's consent or, if the patient is unable to give that consent, if it is in their vital interest. Consent is an important principle and

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we need to take it seriously in those circumstances. It is possible for hospitals to seek consent when they collect information, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we need to ensure that the practical issues are properly addressed, so that hospital chaplains can give the care that people so often want. That is why the issue has been raised with the patient information advisory group. I understand that it will be advising the Department of Health on a new code of practice for the NHS on consent and confidentiality. The points that the hon. Gentleman has made on behalf of his constituents will certainly be taken into account.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): May I welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities? I got on extremely well with her predecessor and I trust that we shall be able to maintain that, even with all the necessary opposition that we shall bring to bear on her Department.

Will the hon. Lady tell the House what action she will take in the light of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) that Church ministries and their pastors in hospitals are unable to function properly because of the Data Protection Act 1998? Hospital patients often need their advice urgently and emotionally. The measure is an example of the triumph of technicality over compassion. Does the Minister agree that the Act in its present form, and in relation to this case, denies our citizens and constituents their fundamental and human rights, and that that cannot simply be dismissed as over-interpretation of the Act? May we please have clear guidelines, issued by her Department—not just consultation—so that the law will protect people, rather than detract from their quality of life?

Yvette Cooper: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcoming words. I, too, look forward to working with him. To understand what issues he was interested in and might be keen to raise, I inquired what parliamentary questions he had tabled previously. I drew a blank, however, as he has not asked any written parliamentary questions of the Lord Chancellor's Department since 1997, although he has asked many questions of the Foreign Office.

On the hon. Gentleman's question, I take very seriously the points raised, as I have made clear, and the need to ensure that hospital chaplains provide the service that patients want. Equally, however, it is important that we recognise the principle of consent. It is possible for hospitals to collect information and, at the same time, to ask for consent. It is also important to address the practical issues, to make sure that the rules are implemented properly. That is why the Department of Health is drawing up a new code of practice for the NHS, and why the Department of Health's patient empowerment team is working with the multi-faith joint national working group on new guidance for hospital chaplains. We take these issues seriously. It is also important, however, that we recognise and respect the important principles behind the Data Protection Act.

Enduring Powers of Attorney

32. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): If he will make a statement about the fees for enduring powers of attorney. [57410]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): In its report on the Public Trust Office, the Public Accounts Committee was highly critical of fees paid by some clients subsidising different services used by others, and of the pattern of cost recovery. Fees for Enduring Powers of Attorney Act 1985 cases were changed on 17 April 2002. The new fees mean that EPA clients no longer receive subsidy from users of other services provided by the Public Guardianship Office, and that fees are set to recover costs. Improved remissions guidelines make sure that less well-off EPA clients pay less than before the fees were changed, or pay nothing at all.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will she give an undertaking to the House to publish a yearly total of the number of EPA registrations, to enable us to see whether the recent trebling of the registration fee is acting as a disincentive to vulnerable people?

Ms Winterton: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, so far, the number of registrations has not altered since the fees were changed. About 11,000 EPAs were registered last year, and, so far, the figures seem to be similar. I shall investigate whether the figures can be published. I am not sure whether they are published in the annual report, and I shall consider whether we can do that.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): On 3 April this year, in reply to my written question, the Minister made it clear that

It has become clear that that reply was not correct. The House therefore deserves an explanation for the misleading reply, and I wait to hear the Minister's explanation.

Ms Winterton: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I became aware of the situation, and he is right that by the time the written answer to which he refers appeared in Hansard, it was out of date. I discovered only yesterday what had happened, and I take this opportunity—I spoke to the hon. Gentleman earlier about this—to say that I am extremely sorry for unintentionally misleading the House. I know that my noble and learned Friend Baroness Scotland has acknowledged the error in another place. Although my written answer was formulated in good faith, I hope that hon. Members will accept that I am sorry for the error, and I welcome the opportunity today to correct the matter for the parliamentary record.

Courthouse (Colchester)

33. Bob Russell (Colchester): When work will start on a new courthouse in Colchester. [57411]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): I understand that work on building the new courthouse in Colchester is planned to start in early 2005.

Bob Russell: Will the Minister confirm that the additional delay in building the new courthouse has been

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caused by the nonsense of putting all the court services in Essex in the same private finance initiative basket, and by problems elsewhere in Essex?

Yvette Cooper: The magistrates courts committee has to decide about the programme of work and investment in courts in Colchester and the surrounding area. The hon. Gentleman will know that Thurrock borough council has appealed against the MCC decision to close the Grays courthouse. That decision and an appeal against it need to be considered. Ministers have to take account of all the factors raised by both the council and the MCC. However, it is important that the programme of work continues and, as I said, we expect work on the new courthouse to start in 2005.


The President of the Council was asked—

European Union

43. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): If he will bring forward proposals for improving the procedures for discussing EU legislation and for considering EU expenditure in the House. [57423]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The House has already implemented almost all the Modernisation Committee's recommendations of the last Parliament on this issue and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will consider carefully today's report from the European Scrutiny Committee. It and its sister Committee in the other place play an important role in examining EU legislation and expenditure.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Does it not worry the Minister that the European Union, to which we send more than £1 million every hour, has become such an uncontrolled centre of graft and corruption? The most recent examples of that are the awarding of grants for more than twice the number of sheep and goats that actually exist in Italy, and a massive grant to a gentleman from Essex, although not from Southend, to help to provide prostitutes in Hungary with guidance—money that he has spent on buying a new house and two new cars.

In case the Minister thinks that the answer might be the Court of Auditors, does he accept that the court finds those practices just as disgusting as I and most hon. Members do, and has declined to approve the EU's accounts for six years? Is there not a case for someone to supervise expenditure?

Mr. Bradshaw: The whole House will agree that the common agricultural policy needs radical reform. However, if the hon. Gentleman is alleging criminal activity, he should report that to the police. As I said, we in this House and Members of the other place have two effective Committees. I have served on one of them, and they do an excellent job of scrutinising the expenditure and decision making in Brussels that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

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Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. Does he think that there is further room for exploring how we can subject the decisions of the European Central Bank to greater scrutiny, especially as we hope that those might have more direct relevance to the economy of the United Kingdom in a year's time? Has he received specific advice from Mr. Rupert Murdoch about how we might examine legislation on European matters?

Mr. Bradshaw: In the few days that I have been in my present job, I have not had time to receive such advice. I agree, however, that the European Central Bank has much to learn from the workings of our central bank, which have been extremely successful.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I, too, welcome the Minister to his new position. He was doing a good job in his previous post and I cannot understand why he was moved.

How can the Minister say that there will be fiscal controls over expenditure in the EU, when his former colleague, the Minister for Europe, told me in parliamentary written answers that the Government have conducted no analysis whatever of the total costs or total benefits of this country belonging to the EU, and have no intention of doing so in the future?

Mr. Bradshaw: I cannot speak for my colleague in the Foreign Office, but colleagues of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) will have an opportunity to scrutinise my right hon. Friend on this very subject when he appears before the House of Lords European Union Select Committee on 9 July.

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