Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, there will be plenty of events up and down the country. This is a national celebration. There are literally hundreds of voluntarily organised events. The Government have sought to support events in the four capitals of the United Kingdom. I am certain that the whole country will be able to join in the celebration of 50 years of peace. When we reach the VJ weekend, I hope that there will be even more opportunities for us to thank the veterans for our deliverance 50 years ago.

Spanish Strawberries

3.25 p.m.

Viscount Mountgarret asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe): My

4 May 1995 : Column 1480

Lords, my noble friend is, I believe, referring to the examination by the Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate of a consignment of Spanish strawberries in Hull on 8th March. A significant proportion of the fruit was found to be white, rotten, hollow, or a combination of all three. Some of the fruit was also distorted in shape but that is allowed for in the legislation. It was the other defects that determined the inspector's decision to withhold a Class I or Class II designation from the consignment as a whole. On the inspector's advice, the consignment was re-sorted and the wholesome fruit legitimately sold on the open market.

Viscount Mountgarret: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very expansive response. Is he aware that the article in the Yorkshire Post, which is a highly respected daily newspaper not given to general tittle-tattle, suggests that it was the shape of the strawberries in that consignment that may have encouraged Her Majesty's inspectors to take their decision? Having said that, will he ensure that the whole question of inspection, environmental health, and so on is looked at with a view to examining the remit of those officials and at least give people the chance to make up their own mind on whether they wish to purchase fresh or rotten fruit? Can the decision not be left in their hands?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I can reassure my noble friend that the EC quality standards for strawberries and indeed other fruits permit defects in shape. The newspaper story to which he referred was incorrect. The point to note is that the quality standards that the inspectorate applied are applied to all stages of the marketing chain and not just to supermarkets. There is a value to consumers and traders in having a general level of assurance that produce is marketable and that the quality is consistent and predictable.

Lord Carter: My Lords, it is clear that the Government are in something of a jam over this. Is it correct that the inspectors did not insist that the strawberries were square but that they were flattened and not sufficiently strawberry-shaped?

Earl Howe: No, my Lords, that is not correct. The reason why the consignment was rejected was, as I said, that it was unfit to be marketed.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the references to the two-dimensional projections of a solid object are evidence of somewhat sloppy drafting? To be specific, to which of the five platonic solids—tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, and so on—is the ideal strawberry supposed to approximate?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am not aware that Plato mentioned the platonic form of the strawberry.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, has it occurred to the Government that the final cost to the consumer of fruit and vegetables depends far too much on the packaging? Does the Minister agree that that would be reduced if strawberries, carrots or whatever were more square in

4 May 1995 : Column 1481

shape? Having said that, is he aware that the House will be well relieved that the consignment was rejected on grounds of quality and not on grounds of shape?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point about packaging. There is a general awareness that packaging is an expensive ingredient in the marketing chain. We certainly encourage retailers in particular—not that they need encouragement, because they undertake it of their own accord—to make sure that packaging is economical and subject to minimum waste.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the shape does not matter and packaging does not matter? Does he agree that what matters is the taste of the strawberry, and the taste of the Scottish strawberry is superior?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, is correct. That gives me the cue to say that over the past few years the British strawberry industry has been a major success story and, thanks to the innovation and skill of our breeders and growers, we can now grow strawberries from April till Christmas to a standard that cannot be beaten anywhere in the world. I commend to noble Lords some of our excellent British varieties such as Eros, Pegasus and Cambridge Favourite.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, even if the strawberries in question were condemned for their lack of quality rather than their shape, the same cannot be said for the London bus, our fishermen or lettuce growers? They are all facing genuine threat of extinction under the Treaty of Rome and the crazy bureaucracies in Brussels and in this country.

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend highlighted a number of matters. The trouble is that many of the stories we read in the press are complete myths. Whether it is strawberries, the curvature of bananas, hairnets for fishermen, WI jam stalls or the Euro-lavatory, it seems that if one has a good story that can be dressed up so as to knock the European Union, it does not matter where the truth lies. Trivial as this instance may seem, the cumulative effect of such misleading stories can do great damage, and that is to be regretted.

Lord Geddes: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on failing to slip on a straight banana skin.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, will my noble friend agree that he is being slightly ungenerous in not congratulating our noble friend Lord Pearson on the extraordinary way in which he can propagate myths using all possible weapons?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I was merely seeking to ensure that the strawberry story was well and truly squashed!

4 May 1995 : Column 1482

Jobseekers Bill

3.32 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the amendments for the Report stage of the Jobseekers Bill be marshalled and considered in the following order—

Clauses 1 to 18,

Schedule 1,

Clauses 19 to 38,

Schedules 2 and 3.—(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Deputy Chairmen of Committees

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Lord Dean of Harptree, the Lord Geraint and the Baroness Nicol be added to the panel of Lords appointed to act as Deputy Chairmen of Committees for this Session.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Health Authorities Bill

3.33 p.m.

Read a third time.

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 1:

After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:

("Report on implementation of Codes of Practice

.—(1) The Secretary of State shall annually lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on the monitoring of the implementation of the Codes of Practice set out in subsection (2) as they relate to any function carried out before 1st April 1996 by a Regional Health Authority, District Health Authority or a Family Health Services Authority.
(2) The Codes of Practice referred on in subsection (1) are—
(a) the Code of Practice on Openness in the NHS;
(b) the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information; and
(c) any other Code of Conduct or Accountability.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the first amendment stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington. It is a further and last attempt—this being Third Reading—to try to stiffen the Government's resolve regarding openness and accountability.

As the Bill proceeded through both Houses we heard a great deal about openness and accountability. Amendment No. 1 seeks to put on the face of the Bill a mechanism which will allow Parliament to review annually the performance of the National Health Service in terms of the three codes listed in the amendment:

    "the Code of Practice on Openness in the NHS; the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information; and any other Code of Conduct or Accountability".

4 May 1995 : Column 1483

It applies to the officials who will be taking over in large measure the responsibilities that were formerly the function of the regional health authorities.

In the course of the passage of the Bill the issue of complaints was discussed. For instance, we know that complaints in regard to hospitals have risen by 133 per cent. since the year before the reforms. In 1990-91 hospital complaints numbered 37,350; by 1993-94 they had more than doubled to 87,184—according to government figures. I mention that because although machinery has been devised to deal with complaints—we discussed this in the course of our debates—there is still a problem. It is not clear how the new machinery will work in practice. An annual report on compliance with the three codes would help to show how the NHS in all its forms is dealing with complaints and other matters of concern to patients, particularly as it is the NHS Executive which will be responsible for monitoring the procedure.

I am sure that the Minister will not agree with me but anyone who spends any time around the health service knows that to a large degree public confidence in the service has been undermined and staff morale is very low. That is because it is market mechanisms rather than public scrutiny which is used within the service. That has removed accountability from the process. The RHAs, which are to be abolished from April 1996, though they are not perfect, allowed for a degree of accountability. A number of their vital functions have been transferred to central government.

I was struck by a recent article in a magazine called the Health Director, a journal for directors of NHS boards produced by the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts. I shall paraphrase some of the remarks in the article to show why the machinery of accountability needs to be redrafted in the form we suggest. I remind your Lordships that this is an article written from within the health service and intended for directors of trust boards. It points out that the entire NHS reforms quickly ran into a communication mire. It continues,

    "a new language of 'purchasers', 'providers', 'contracts' and 'extra-contractual referrals', which came across as meaningless bureaucratic twaddle ... Yet inescapably throughout, there has been the imperative of the internal market, requiring trusts to compete with each other for patients; and health authorities and GP fundholders to shop around for the best deal. Encouraged to communicate with local communities, each part of the NHS has developed and honed its public relations skills and used them to establish its own position in the market".

The article is referring to hospitals, health services and the family doctor, not Tescos or Sainsburys. It continues:

    "'Negotiation by press release' has become an essential addition to the skills of the modern NHS chief executive. Newspapers and airwaves buzz with NHS people, ever-available, buying, selling, criticising and marketing health services. And the public gets more and more confused by the messages and more and more dispirited as they listen to NHS people squabbling among themselves".

When one considers that those remarks come from within the health service and are written for a magazine aimed at directors of health service boards, one can see

4 May 1995 : Column 1484

why openness and accountability are largely missing. Apparently a simulation exercise took place for officials regarding communication and,

    "it becomes clear that 'the public', although in this case made up of NHS people, actually don't understand much of what is said, and much of what they do, they don't believe. They feel patronised and ignored, and quickly become genuinely angry and confused".

At Report stage I asked the Minister—and she was kind enough to reply to me—what would happen after the Government conducted their initial monitoring of the implementation of the codes of conduct and accountability in relation to public service officials. I asked when the exercise would be completed and whether the results of the monitoring would be made public. I said that I hoped that the Government would not wait to see the outcome of the exercise before deciding whether or not to publish the results. I am grateful to the Minister for replying to me. In her letter she said,

    "I can confirm that this monitoring is almost complete and that the outcomes will be reported to the Secretary of State for Health in mid-May".

She concluded,

    "It has not yet been decided how the results will be reported to a wider audience",

which rather confirms my suspicion that the Government are waiting to see what the monitoring exercise says before they decide whether or not to make the results public.

In Committee and on Report I gave a local example concerning hospital plans which I shall not repeat to your Lordships. I shall merely say that it is a classic example where the preparation of a secret business plan which was not made available to the people concerned has led to bitterness, distrust and disbelief in the whole operation in the area where I live.

I turn to the code of openness. I referred to this matter on Report but I think it is worth pressing the Minister again regarding the business of charging for information. The code says, entirely fairly:

    "It is recommended that charging [for information] should be exceptional".

It says that the trusts and authorities may make a charge for providing information but are not required to do so. It is recommended that charging should be exceptional. It also suggests in the ground rules that there should be no charge for the first hour and a charge not exceeding £20 per hour for each hour thereafter. One can well understand how, with a small community that is trying to put together a scheme to save its local hospital, this could be a very useful weapon in the hands of the trust or authority concerned if it wished to stifle that group just by charging excessively for the information that is being asked for.

Finally, I wish to turn to the question of communication with the public and the media and the guidelines produced by the NHS Management Executive entitled Guidance for staff on relations with the public and the media. With regard to whistle blowing and the gagging of employees, the document states that,

4 May 1995 : Column 1485

    "any employee contemplating making a disclosure to the media is advised to first seek further specialist guidance from professional or other representative bodies and to discuss matters further with his or her colleagues and, where appropriate, line and professional managers".

One can see how that could be used to stifle employees.

For all the reasons I have given it is clear that there must be some means of monitoring these codes. I give credit to the Government for issuing the codes, but it is not just a case of having them available. We must see how they are actually working, how the health service is reacting to the codes and how it is performing against them. Although the Government are monitoring the code of practice on openness, is that information to be made available to the wider public? What we are asking for is an annual report to Parliament on how the three codes are working out in practice and what is happening with regard to openness and accountability. We want to see how this vast organisation is conducting itself in terms of the openness and the accountability which we all want to see. A report to Parliament would provide a mechanism to enable that to be done. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page