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Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that as Botswana borders Zimbabwe hundreds of refugees flee Zimbabwe for that country each week? Given the good relationships that the noble Lord mentioned, what help do the Government plan to give
Lord Grocott: My Lords, not for the first time during my short period in this House I rather wish we had a Speaker who could rule what is or is not in order in relation to the Question on the Order Paper. The Question concerns the Bushmen of the Kalahari. The issues to which the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, referred are the kind of issues which, as she knows, are discussed in the various fora of the Commonwealth and in other institutions. If I may say so, if she wants a specific Question on refugees from Zimbabwe to Botswana, obviously, it is within the rules of the House to table a precise Question on that subject.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, if no one else wants to intervene, can I ask the noble Lord to understand that the situation is much more urgent than he suggests because the Government of Botswana have threatened to cut off tomorrow the only water pump serving these people who want to remain where they are and continue their way of life? They are being forced to live on land where there is no water because others, such as refugees, have occupied the land where they have an ancient right to live. Can the noble Lord also ask Mr David Merry, the High Commissioner, to examine the allegations, now widespread, of torture of Bushmen and of their being prevented hunting on their land using ancient methods?
Lord Grocott: My Lords, these issues are raised. However, I caution the noble Lord when he makes a human rights allegation of that kind. It is right to say that the Government of Botswana have a very good human rights record, by any comparison, not just within the region but internationally, with proper procedures for dealing with such allegations when they occur. I agree with the noble Lord that this is an important issue. As I said, it is an issue on which the Government have expressed concern. The High Commissioner has visited the area, although he has been in that post only since last September, and plans to visit it again. I absolutely assure the noble Lord that the matter will be kept under constant review.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that welcome reply. Will he join me in paying tribute to the staff who successfully treat millions of patients every year in our National Health Service on the back of rising investment? Does he agree that it would be irresponsible for a Member of this House or another placea Back-Bencher or a party leaderto raise the complaint of a named patient without first consulting the hospital and the doctors concerned? Should not the patient come before the politics?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I would not disagree with my noble friend. In individual cases it is of course very much for politicians to check the facts before making statements. People in this country support the NHS and want it to do well. Informed attacks on the services provided by doctors and nurses do untold damage to the morale of dedicated people.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords. In the speech that he gave to the NHS Modernisation Network two weeks ago the Secretary of State made it clear that we want to decentralise down to individual NHS trusts. We believe that that is the best way to allow for the innovation and development of services. In a situation in which a patient has caused information to come into the public domain, it is appropriate, if the NHS trust concerned wishes to do so, to give factual comments on the case that is so raised.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister accept a complaint from me on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Corbett? Clearly, his treatment for amnesia about practices in the House of Commons before 1997 has been singularly unsuccessful.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am afraid that it is noble Lords opposite who suffer rather more from amnesia. They seem to forget that their record on the NHS led, as the Kennedy report said only a few months ago, to a service in which there was under-investment and which lacked capacity, and there were falling numbers of staff in training. Let us get on the record the facts about the party opposite's stewardship of the NHS.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that for many years the complaints procedure for patients has been very slow and cumbersome? If it was quickened up, not so many people would have to go to the press. Slowness is the problem. In his Answer, the Minister did not use the word "quick".
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as I said in my Answer, there has been an evaluation of the way in which the current complaints system operates. I accept the noble Baroness's point. Four key problem areas were identified in the current system: that complaints were badly handled and took a long time to resolve; that communication between staff and patients was sometimes poor; that the process was not sufficiently independent; and that there were no real mechanisms for learning lessons. We take all of those points and seek, in introducing a revised complaints system, to deal with each of them effectively.
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, may I say that the Question is very well framed? I have worked on the Citizens Charter for many years and accept that patients who are ill, afraid and frightened to complain need the best possible access. I also point out that
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although the NHS is free at the point of delivery, the NHS is not free? It is paid for, as is any other service. Does he also agree that a patient within the NHS should expect the complaints procedure to be as good as, if not better than, that in the private sector?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly accept that the NHS must have an effective complaints procedure. On the point about vulnerable people who may be concerned about the consequences of making complaints, yes, I believe that we have to make sure that it is safe for people and their relatives to make complaints. We are doing that partly through the new arrangements that we are bringing forward, in which independent advocacy services will be available for members of the public to make complaints. We are also requiring every trust to establish a patient advisory liaison service to deal with problems as they arise; that will ensure that problems are dealt with and that complaints need not be made.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I declare not a present interest but my previous experiencefor 10 years I dealt with NHS patient complaints both as a district health authority member and as chair of the Whittington Hospital NHS Trust. Does the Minister agree that the prime objective of the complaints procedure should, if at all possible, be to resolve the situation for the individual patient and to build a considered understanding of the causes of complaints in order to improve services overall? If he agrees with
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, of course. My noble friend will know, through her chairmanship of the Whittington Trust in particular, of the splendid work that that trust has done to improve services to patients. In relation to the question of a speedy resolution, I very much agree. Feedback from the current complaints service shows that the initial resolution stage has received many commendations from the public; more criticism comes in at the second stage. We need to learn lessons. That is why we have to ensure that we have information about complaintswe must be able to track through and identify areas in which there are common complaints across the health system as a whole. We should then have a better chance of eradicating systematic failures.
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