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The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the shortage of beds in the NHS is largely as a result of people contracting diseases caused by the side effects of existing drugs which are provided by the pharmaceutical companies? Would there not be great benefits to be gained, in terms of the bed situation, if we could arrange for drug companies to produce less dangerous drugs, and perhaps if the health service paid attention to complementary medicine?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I know of my noble friend's great interest in complementary medicine. The pharmaceutical industry of this country is a great success. Indeed, it produces a positive trade balance of £1.7 billion a year and I believe that Glaxo is one of the most successful pharmaceutical companies in the world. As regards hospital infections, we have not seen an increase since the survey was done in 1980 and despite the increasing numbers of patients who are being treated the levels are still about the same.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, is it not disturbing that senior microbiologists with whom we have discussed the question say that one of their problems with MRSA is that new managers in the health
In addition, is the noble Baroness aware of the reported comment of a doctor at St. Thomas' hospital that the understanding of the nature and extent of the infection was being minimised because hospitals were in competition with each other? Is that not another example of the NHS managers perhaps putting market values above their clinical responsibilities?
Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, perhaps I may respond first to the noble Baroness's point about research. We are doing a lot of research on MRSA. There are two research projects specifically on this particular bacterium, totalling £46,000 a year. A further £2 million a year is being spent on other studies on hospital infection control generally. The noble Baroness must see the management of the health service in the light of the fact that never before have we treated more patients and never before have we had shorter waiting times. Clearly managers are concerned, because if there are infections the performance of their trust will be reduced. Therefore, managers will be as anxious as anybody else to ensure that infections are kept to a minimum.
Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that last year at Addenbrooke's hospital 183 operations were cancelled and wards were closed for 263 days due to the incidence of MRSA? Since then the position has deteriorated somewhat. Therefore, does she not agree that the microbiology services in hospitals become of increasing importance? Can we have an assurance that those services will not be cut under any circumstances, despite the problems of finance in the health service?
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, the Government will of course consider the National Consumer Council's very recent report. In general, we are content with the existing consumer representation arrangements in the utilities, even though these do not conform to any one particular model.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I do not accept the first question that the noble Lord directed at me. I should think that those electricity consumers who will receive a £50 rebate will be far from disconcerted by that.
On the subject of representation within the utilities, it is clear from the report prepared by the National Consumer Council that the different models which exist have different virtues and strengths. I am not wholly persuaded that to adopt the model of the Gas Consumers Council is necessarily appropriate in every circumstance, although I accept that it has performed well. For example, I doubt whether those who live in some parts of the country who have anxieties about the water industry in their area would believe that a national council would necessarily be the best way to deal with their misgivings.
Lord Molloy: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the general tone of the National Consumer Council's report could well lead to better understanding and to increased trade? Are those two issues not important for the industries involved?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am not sure how the recommendations contained in the report would lead to an increase in trade. However, there are a number of recommendations in the report with which we agree in general terms. For example, one of the recommendations is that there should be greater openness in the way in which the councils carry out their affairs. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that that is a desirable objective.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, was not one of the purposes of privatisation to prevent Ministers and governments interfering in the running of the industries as they used to interfere in the nationalised industries? Is it not at least possible that a high proportion of the directors and shareholders of the utilities are consumers?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: Yes, my Lords, they are indeed. I certainly wish to resist the notion that, because we have a system of regulators for the various utilities, it is desirable for Ministers to interfere. The arm's length approach which has been adopted has, in the main, been successful. We would not wish to revert to a situation where Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry or other departments sought to assume a more significant role.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is it not a fact that Ministers do interfere? That concern is expressed by the National Consumer Council and other consumer bodies in relation to the draconian cuts that were made in their resources between 1993 and 1995. Is it pure coincidence that those cuts coincided with a period when strong criticisms were made by those consumer bodies on behalf of those they represent about, for example, VAT on fuel bills, threats to the Post Office and Cedric Brown's unwarranted pay rise? Does the Minister agree that those cuts can and do impact on the ability of the consumer councils to do their job as independent bodies; namely, to represent those who are least able to represent themselves?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am astonished to hear the noble Lord suggest that VAT matters might appropriately be a subject for decision by consumer councils. That is clearly a matter for central government. The individual consumer bodies which are funded by the Department of Trade and Industry have received their 1996-97 settlements at the baseline. The funding of a number of other councils--as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, and he would not wish anyone to be misled--is a matter for the regulators concerned. As the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, urged, it is not for us to interfere with the work of the regulators.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make provision for grants and other assistance for housing purposes and about action in relation to unfit housing; to amend the law relating to construction contracts and architects; to provide grants and other assistance for regeneration and development, and in connection with clearance areas; to amend the provisions relating to home energy efficiency schemes; to make provision in connection with the dissolution of urban development corporations, housing action trusts and the Commission for New Towns; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a first time.