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Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I suppose that I should declare an interest as a director of the Spectator Ltd. Does the Minister consider that there is something faintly undignified, and, to many people, rather unsatisfactory, about a group of politicians attacking the press for not telling the truth, or for even coming out with unworthy stories? Powers exist to pursue the press in cases such as those for contempt of court. We should all welcome it if they were more vigorously used. Should not politicians remember that when they attack the press they are also attacking those who buy the newspapers with such keenness? As for the noble Lord from the Liberal Democrat Benches, I hope that he gets the job he is looking for somewhere.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, may not be aware of the fact that over 90 per cent of the complaints received by the PCC are from ordinary members of the public. It is right to say that newspapers should be accurate, as should politicians.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the Lord Chancellor is the head of the judiciary, and the judiciary, along with many others, is consulted on the appointment of Queen's Counsel. So the Lord Chancellor is at the end of a line of process that includes independent civil servants, the judiciary, the legal profession, and now lay assessors. Every stage in the process is open to the closest scrutiny by the Judicial Appointments Commission. It is the duty of the Lord Chancellor to ensure that applicants are treated impartially and on their individual merits without reference to connections, allegiances, or contacts that are irrelevant to the award of Silk.
I repeat to your Lordships, as I have previously, that I have not excluded the possibility of an appointments commission to take over some part of these processes. But there are powerful arguments why a quango would not command greater public confidence than the existing system. Moreover, if the function were to be handed over to the profession, I very much doubt whether that would command public confidence or whether, on the contrary, it would be thought that the profession was feathering its own nest by the creation of an excessive number of Queen's Counsel.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, it was a very modest contribution from a practising member of the Bar of some years. Would the noble and learned Lord accept that his assessment of this situation is certainly wholly acceptable to me?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I think that the phrase is "secret soundings". The allegation that judicial and QC appointments rest on secret soundings is false, but it is constantly repeated, presumably because of an unshakeable affection for the expression regardless of its inaccuracy. The names of all consultees are known; there is no secret about them. What individual consultees say about individual applicants is kept confidential.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend recognise that there is a strange conflict in this area? On the one hand, as I understand it, public funds are to be used rarely in employing QCs. On the other hand, as I understand it, the fee that an applicant must pay to apply to become a QC is going to be at least doubled this year.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the state, as any other purchaser of legal services, is entitled to be sparing in the hiring of the services of Queen's Counselwho represent at any one time only about 10 per cent of the Bar. On the other hand, I see no objection whatever to applicants for the rank of Queen's Counsel paying a fee that represents overall full costs recovery for the highly expensive scheme administered. This year, for example, in the current Silk round, we have consulted nearly 500 automatic consultees and nearly 1,500 nominated consultees, making approximately 2,000 in total. It is a massive exercise. There are no quotas, but recent experience shows that anything from about 70 to slightly more than 100 may succeed when 400 to 500 apply, and all deserve to have the merit of their applications scrupulously assessed. The Government took the view that a fee of £720 was fair since it represented, as I just said, overall full costs recovery.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor consider it more appropriate for the ultimate decision to be made by a very powerful Cabinet Minister, nominally the head of the judiciary, rather than by the Lord Chief Justice, who does not exercise any political power and could not then even be thought of as having any appearance of political patronage?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have invested £8.5 million in the current financial year to help reduce the number of cancelled operations and ensure that good practice in operating theatres is implemented throughout the National Health Service.
Earl Howe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is not the high number of cancelled operations simply part of a wider picture of falling productivity in the health service? Is the Minister aware that, over the three years to last April, the NHS budget increased by more than 21 per cent, yet, during the same period, NHS activity increased by only 1.6 per cent and the number of hospital admissions actually decreased? Do those figures cause the Minister any concern? Should we not question whether all the extra money promised for the health service will succeed in treating a commensurately large number of extra patients?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, my Lords, because it is not possible to measure NHS performance purely by hospital activityalthough, by 200102, the number of finished consultant episodes had increased by 11 per cent compared with 199798. Surely the noble Earl will recognise that there has been a great expansion in services. Better and more expensive drugs can improve the quality of life and keep people out of hospital, and an expansion in primary care also is desirable. We need to paint a rounded picture to see the results of the extra expenditure. I am confident that we will meet the targets, reduce waiting, increase capacity and produce the type of health service the public want.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, are not the real figures actually far worse than those published? It appears that only operations cancelled on the day are included in the figures, and that patients put on standby are not included. Whatever happened to the troubleshooting managers who the NHS announced in February and said were capable of tackling the problem?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we have taken action to improve the situation in relation to cancelled operations. The £8.5 million programme to which I referred has been accompanied by direct intervention and action in individual hospitals to help reorganise their processes. The figures I have seen for the first two quarters of the current financial year indicate that, by the end of the financial year, compared with last year, there will be a reduction in the number of cancelled operations.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, what are the most frequent reasons for cancellations? Is it non-availability of operating theatres or other reasons?
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