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Lord Lucas: My Lords, the doctors involved should be aware of the chronic effects of acute organophosphate poisoning. They receive special training to do the work that they carry out for the Benefits Agency. Organophosphate poisoning is clearly part of the prescribed disease, C3, and should be something with which the doctors are familiar. If it is becoming apparent to the noble Countess that that is not the case, I should be grateful if she would correspond with Ministers as well as with officials.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we welcome the Minister's assurance on that. Does he agree that there appears to be some evidence that different doctors in different parts of the country are responding to similar cases in different ways and that, as a result, some people with the same symptoms are getting benefits while other people in other parts of the country with the same symptoms are not? If that is the case--and the noble Countess appears to have evidence to suggest that it is--may we have the Minister's assurance that he will take up this matter and try to ensure, either through guidance or whatever, that doctors treat similar cases in similar ways?
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has not made the Prisons Ombudsman's terms of reference more restrictive; he has clarified them.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness who has, as usual, defended with much charm the totally indefensible; in fact, the ludicrous. Is she aware that under the new plans the ombudsman will not be allowed to criticise any decision made by a Minister? Moreover, is she aware that under the new plans the ombudsman will not be allowed to criticise or discuss any advice given by civil servants to Ministers? Is the Minister further aware that the ombudsman himself has expressed much regret before the Select Committee at these very significant changes?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Prisons Ombudsman's task is to consider grievances from prisoners who have failed to obtain satisfaction from the prisoners' complaints system. Indeed, the post of Prisons Ombudsman was created by this Government as a result of the Woolf Report which followed the Strangeways riot. While there was no direct criticism of the complaints system itself, it was thought that a further layer of independent scrutiny would be helpful. That was why the ombudsman was appointed. I am aware that the ombudsman has made one or two complaints; for example, he said that 6 per cent. of cases are not easy to investigate because he believes that his work is thwarted. We have asked him for evidence to support that claim, but to date we have not received it. He also believes that sometimes the files are incomplete or even missing. We have asked him for evidence to substantiate that claim and so far he has failed to present it.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong in the question that he has just put to me. Access to documentation is not restricted. The Director General of the Prison Service will ensure that the Prisons Ombudsman has unfettered access to Prison Service documents, including classified material, and to information entrusted to the Prison Service by other organisations but excluding advice or reports to Ministers which invite or result in ministerial decisions. It is well known to this House that ministerial decisions are subject to judicial review and the process by which they are taken is subject to the Parliamentary Commissioner as another form of scrutiny. So the Home Secretary and Ministers are subject to scrutiny.
As regards ministerial advice, all advice that does not result in a ministerial decision is available to the Prisons Ombudsman as long as it relates to the particular investigation that was within the remit of the Prisons Ombudsman.
As regards the report from the Prisons Ombudsman, it is only fair that if there are criticisms of the Prison Service the service should be allowed at least to see them in advance and to have some view about the accuracy of the reports.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that the answer which the Minister has just given is directly contradicted by the letter which the Home Secretary wrote to the Prisons Ombudsman on 7th May? He said:
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I was taught in business that misunderstandings on remit are always the responsibility of the employer and not the employee. If the Minister is right about the relevant documents, who is to decide what is a relevant document and how is the Prisons Ombudsman expected to respond to the invitation which he says has been made to him to give examples of documents that he has not seen?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is entirely a matter for the Prisons Ombudsman to decide what is relevant. When he has an individual complaint from a prisoner who is deemed to have exhausted the complaints procedure, the complaint will be a very specific one. The Prisons Ombudsman will ask for all relevant papers, and there is an obligation on the Prison Service to provide all the relevant papers. If the Prisons Ombudsman believes that he has not been given the relevant papers, he must complaint about it. To date we are waiting for evidence from him, but so far we have not received it. If he wishes to have access to advice to Ministers which does not result in a ministerial decision, he also has an entitlement to see that. It will be the Prisons Ombudsman who will determine its relevance.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if the Prisons Ombudsman is investigating a specific complaint from a prisoner and if the prisoner has exhausted all avenues for having the complaint investigated by the Prison Service, there is an obligation on the service to provide all the relevant papers on the files. If the Prisons Ombudsman believes that he is not receiving all the relevant information--if he believes that files are missing or that they are incomplete--it is for the Prisons Ombudsman not only to complain to the Home Office but to produce the evidence. So far he has not produced the evidence.
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