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Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 27 April 1993


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Barry Jones

Barnes, Mr. Harry (Derbyshire, North-East)

Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)

Carrington, Mr. Matthew (Fulham)

Coombs, Mr. Anthony (Wyre Forest)

Corbyn, Mr. Jeremy (Islington, North)

Deva, Mr. Nirj Joseph (Brentford and Isleworth)

Fenner, Dame Peggy (Medway)

Gardiner, Sir George (Reigate)

Godman, Dr. Norman A. (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Hanley, Mr. Jeremy (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office)

Hendron, Dr. Joe (Belfast, West)

Jessel, Mr. Toby (Twickenham)

Lightbown, Mr. David (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)

Mitchell, Sir David (Hampshire, North-West)

O'Brien, Mr. William (Normanton)

Ottaway, Mr. Richard (Croydon, South)

Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)

Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast, South)

Mr. R. G. James, Committee Clerk

3 Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 27 April 1993

[MR. BARRY JONES in the Chair]

Draft Access to Health Records (Northern Ireland) Order 1993

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Jeremy Hanley): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Access to Health Records (Northern Ireland) Order 1993. The order will bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with the Access to Health Records Act 1990, which applies in Great Britain. It will give people a right of access to manually held health records relating to themselves, prepared by health professionals. Access to computerised records is already available under the Data Protection Act 1984. There will be some exemptions from the right of access, principally where disclosure of information might result in injury to a person's physical or mental health. However, a patient who feels that the provisions of the order have not been properly applied in his or her case, and who has not been able to obtain satisfaction through the relevant complaints procedures, may apply to the courts for an order requiring compliance. The order is the latest in a range of measures to extend people's rights of access to information. I commend it to the Committee.

4.31 pm

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton): The Labour party does not intend to oppose the order. One of my hon. Friends introduced the original Bill as a private Member's Bill and was successful in securing it a place on the statute book. We welcome the extension of the Bill's principle to Northern Ireland. I have a slight criticism about the time that it has taken to apply the measure to Northern Ireland. The order applied to England and Wales from, I believe, November 1991, but the Committee is considering the instrument relating to Northern Ireland in 1993. Perhaps we could take heed of that. I hope that the Minister will note our concern about the considerable delay. In future it might be better if statutory instruments such as this, which is very important to the people of Northern Ireland, were introduced much earlier to ensure the availability of the information in the document. From what date will the legislation apply? Will records be available from the date of the order, or is 4 there some retrospection about their availability? I do not see any difficulty, if the records exist, in providing access to them under the statutory instrument. To what period will the order apply and when will people in Northern Ireland be able to gain access to their records in accordance with the provisions of the statutory instrument?

4.34 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Like the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), I do not intend to oppose the measure, but seek some information. The earlier private Member's Bill specifically excluded Northern Ireland. Was that because the Northern Ireland Departments wanted time for consultation? In the light of such consultation, will the Minister tell us what arose in Northern Ireland that was different from other places? It is ridiculous that a measure such as the one that we are considering should be dealt with by such a formal, yet easy-going approach. Some hon. Members are not terribly happy about Northern Ireland Members prolonging the Committee's proceedings because they have more urgent business. Such business could have been dealt with if we had been able to deal with the matter in an Act covering the United Kingdom. The medical profession in Northern Ireland is likely to have the same opinion as the profession in Great Britain. We have been told that there is a separate corpus of law in Northern Ireland and that there is a desire to keep it separate. But there is a separate corpus of law for Scotland, which existed long before there were any problems about Northern Ireland. We legislate for Scotland, allowing for specific differences that may arise in the diverse parts of the kingdom, and should no longer tolerate the delaying tactics that time and again have delayed the implementation of legislation which the House—and Committees in partnership with it—believed was good for the rest of the United Kingdom. Such tactics have meant that legislation has not been extended to Northern Ireland. In the light of experience of the main Act, can the Minister tell us what reactions there have been? How much opposition among medical practitioners is there to releasing notes for which they have been asked? There have been difficulties in going into different hospitals and obtaining consultants' notes. Sometimes consultants hold them as their notes rather than the record of a patient's treatment. It is exceedingly difficult to follow that through. It is rather similar to being assured by a hairdresser that one's previous hairdresser made a botch of the job. Perhaps there is a degree of fear that something like that may occur. Is the Minister aware of such problems? Could exemptions on the ground that the release of notes might be injurious to physical or mental health allow a physician not to reveal notes to a patient? If it were necessary to go to law to make such notes available, would that come under the usual 5 process of law? Would a patient receive legal aid to fight a case when he was faced with the opposition of the medical establishment?

4.38 pm

Mr. Hanley: I am grateful to the hon Members for Normanton and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) for their contributions. I shall try to give some of the answers, but would prefer the Minister responsible for health and social services in Northern Ireland, my noble Friend Lord Arran, to reply in writing to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, South, particularly that about the availability of legal aid if complaint procedures are not satisfactory.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Is there no "seamless" robe?

Mr. Hanley: The hon. Member for Normanton spoke about delay. The Access to Health Records Act 1990 came into operation on 1 November 1991. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we had protracted consultations in Northern Ireland. We took up the time available and attracted 25 proposals. It took time to consider them, and there was a general election in the middle of the consultations, which caused further delay. We have dealt with the matter properly through consultation. In answer to the hon. Member for Belfast, South, four substantive alterations were made to the published proposals and it may be convenient for the Committee if I write to the hon. Gentleman about them. If he contacts me in the Corridor later, I shall provide him with a list. That might save the hon. Gentleman some time and whet is appetite. On the question of why this provision was not included in the Access to Health Records Act 1990, we reach well-trodden ground. It remains the Government's policy that transferred legislation for Northern Ireland should normally be enacted by Order in Council, under the Northern Ireland Act 1974. On the timing of this legislation, we shall wait for the Privy Council to meet in May or June. It will be late summer or early autumn before the provision comes into force.


As I said to the hon. Member for Belfast, South, my noble Friend Lord Arran will write to him in detail about any matter that I have not covered.

Mr. William O'Brien: The original Bill stated that access to records would be available back to January 1991. Will the same principle apply in this case or will another date apply to access to records in Northern Ireland? As the Minister said, we are referring to manual records, so it would be helpful if advice were given on how far a person has the right to examine records that may be held by a doctor or by any other medical organisation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hanley: I understand that the records that are available for access are those that relate to patients from the date of the commencement of the order. It may be necessary to refer to earlier records if they relate to the current condition of a person, but I shall try to obtain clarification on that point.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I intended to press the point on retrospection. As I understand it, the Act was not retrospective and did not cover earlier records.

Mr. Hanley: That is right. The basic principle of the order is that the records that are available for inspection shall be available from the date of commencement of the order. Some earlier records that relate to current treatment may be made available, but the right is for access to records from the date of commencement. I shall draw to the attention of my noble Friend Lord Arran other issues that have arisen in the Committee. Hon. Members who wish to see the answers, particularly those on the consultation that gave rise to change in the original published order, will find me willing to supply them. I am grateful to you, Mr. Jones, and I hope that I have not caused you too much trouble.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved. That the Committee has considered the draft Access to Health Records (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.

Committee rose at seventeen minutes to Five o'clock.


Jones, Mr. Barry (Chairman)

Barnes, Mr.

Canavan, Mr.

Carrington, Mr.

Deva, Mr.

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Hanley, Mr.

Jessel, Mr.

Lightbown, Mr.

O'Brien, Mr. William

Ottaway, Mr.

Parry, Mr.

Smyth, Rev. Martin