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Lord Alexander of Weedon: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Justice, the all-party law reform group. First, I am grateful that the Minister has emphatically refuted the suggestion that this problem is caused by abuse. Is she aware that Justice takes a similar view to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips? This is an issue for litigants, not for lawyers, although lawyers give the service. Is the Minister aware that we take the view that this is the closest we have had to a crisis for a considerable number of years?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand that that is the view being expressed. As I have already said, we are absolutely determined that there should be a proper maintenance of cover throughout the country. We are monitoring the situation carefully. We are taking every opportunity to encourage younger people to enter the profession, and to help others do legally aided work. Of course, we are restrained by the resources available. I reassure the noble Lord that, within the resource constraints, not only do we value those practitioners who do legal aid work, but we very much want them to continue. We shall continue to do all that we can to ensure their valuable work is available to the members of the public who desperately need it.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, is the crisis exacerbated by the setting up of the public defender who will be in competition with the private solicitors for public funded work?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not think that that is right. Noble Lords will know that only six offices have been set up. The areas have been carefully chosen as a means by which the Government will judge exactly the nature of the work undertaken and the quality of the work given. We do not perceive that this will cause any unhelpful competition with other practitioners.

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PFI Procedures

3 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What changes they have made in private finance initiative procedures as a result of the shortcomings revealed by the Audit Commission report on experience with private finance initiatives.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Audit Commission's report found that, while teaching staff and pupils were generally pleased with their new schools, there had been some difficulties with procurement and design. However, the report focused only on a small number of very early PFI pathfinder schools. Since then, as the report itself makes clear, the department has refined and improved the schools PFI process and will continue to do so.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. She is, however, not explicit as to what the ministry has done as a result of the Audit Commission's report. She will be aware that there are over 2.5 billion-worth of PFI contracts outstanding in the schools sector, and that it is in effect the only game in town for LEAs that wish to renew and upgrade school buildings. Is that wise? Is not one of the lessons of the Audit Commission's report that public benefits from competition in tendering procedures are considerable, and that the inclusion of a straightforward public sector option in compulsory competitive tendering techniques might yield better value for money?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, in looking at the Audit Commission's recommendations, the noble Baroness might see that we have taken on board or are already working on the vast majority. Where we do not agree with the Audit Commission is in its view that there should be a straight option between public sector finance or the private finance initiative.

The current capital for schools this year is 3 billion. Of that, 72 per cent, or 2.15 billion, is in conventional capital, and only 850 million, or 28 per cent, is in PFI credits. Thus far, 500 schools are covered by the PFI and 400 more are in the pipeline. We believe that this is a good deal for local education authorities.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, what would be the quantum of the department's obligation to the PFI if the figure were to appear on balance sheet as opposed to off balance sheet?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am happy to confirm the figures that I have in front of me: of the 3 billion-worth of capital that we have, 72 per cent is in conventional capital; 850 million, or 28 per cent, is in PFI credits for this year. I am, of course, happy to give a running total to the noble Baroness

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and to place a copy in the Library. A total of 1.3 billion in private sector investment is going into our schools—often in very creative and innovative ways. It is a huge asset to the education service.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, does not the Audit Commission's report simply confirm what many of us have known for a long time; namely, that in many key areas PFI represents poor value for money? Is it not high time that the Government accepted that and therefore ceased to skew the whole of the financing of both health and education away from public sector finance and towards the PFI?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not agree. The noble Lord may be aware that all projects are required to have a public sector comparator before entering procurement. That comparator is continually refined to reflect current needs. We look at the lifetime of the PFI contract because part of the purpose of the contract is to enable us to have at the end of it stock for our country that is able to be used and is of good quality. In addition, it enables teachers to concentrate on teaching—and in the health field, in which the noble Lord has a particular interest, it enables doctors, nurses and managers to concentrate on running the NHS—without worrying about buildings and maintenance.

Community Health Councils: Abolition

3.3 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice; namely:

    Whether, in the light of Her Majesty's Government's announcement that community health councils are to be abolished on 1st September 2003, every NHS trust and primary care trust will have a fully functioning patients forum and independent complaints advocacy service by that date.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the intention of the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health is to have patients forums in place as soon as possible from 1st September. From that date there will be: new, different and better ways of supporting patients; patients' advice and liaison services; overview and scrutiny committees; expert patient programmes; patient environment access teams; and a duty on the NHS to involve and consult independent complaints advocacy services and the commission itself.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister recall that during the Committee stage of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill last April he gave an explicit assurance that CHCs would not be abolished until patients forums were in place and that no gaps would be left in the system? Am I right in understanding from his reply that some areas

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of the country may not in fact be served by a fully functioning patients forum or advocacy service until some indefinite time after 1st September? Is that not a very serious matter? Will the Minister take it upon himself to ensure that the Government's decision about the abolition date is revisited with the utmost urgency?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it was certainly the intention to ensure that CHCs remained in place and that there would be a smooth transition programme. The fact is that it is becoming clear that many CHCs are facing problems in terms of losing both their staff and their membership. The judgment has been made that it would be better to give people a clear date for the winding up of community health councils, at the same time ensuring that the mechanisms that we are putting in place—including patient advice and liaison services, overview and scrutiny committees of local government and all other mechanisms—will be put in place as quickly as possible.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, is the Minister aware that our suspicions are being confirmed by what he and his colleagues have said over the past few days, with under-resourcing and delay taking place in the formation of PALS and ICAS. What are the Government doing to secure the continuing services of experienced CHC staff in the gap between 1st September and the creation of PALS? What assurance can the Minister give about the creation of the independent complaints advocacy service, which is vital and on which no information has been given?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, in terms of funding, the noble Lord will know from our previous debates that we are still discussing the exact amount of funding to be made available, but that it will undoubtedly be more than CHCs are currently allocated. So far as concerns independent advocacy services, of course it is our intention that those services will be available to all people in England from 1st September. The Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health will be operating a national helpline. We will, of course, ensure that any paperwork in relation to individual complaints will be transferred to the appropriate body around 1st September.


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