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Inquiry chief rebutts care record critics

Health select committee chair says NHS needs national IT scheme

Health select committee chair says NHS needs national IT scheme

After 10 years of New Labour you might expect someone like Kevin Barron to have been sidelined. Men who came to Parliament after working in steel mills and coalmines are a bit thin on the ground amid the ranks of today's politicians.

So are those willing to openly accuse their Government of 'disastrous failure', as the health select committee he chairs did recently.

'I'm a Labour politician and it's a Labour government but my role as chair of the health committee is to tell some truths about the NHS,' he says.

It will be interesting to discover what home truths his committee uncovers in its latest mining exercise, digging for information on the rollout of the controversial new electronic patient record.

Last week, amid ongoing outrage from many GPs about the plans, the committee heard from Professor Douwe Korff, professor of law at London Metropolitan University, that the implied consent model being used in the rollout was illegal under European law.

Barron is somewhat guarded, given the committee's probe is ongoing, but he says: 'If you get two lawyers in a room you'll get three legal opinions about something.'

Indeed, the committee heard conflicting evidence from the Information Commission claiming that the rollout was perfectly legal.

This week Barron jets to the US to look at how a massive electronic record of American war veterans copes with issues such as confidentiality.

'We will also be looking at what is going on in other European countries,' he says.

Barron is enthusiastic in general about the drive to use IT systems in the NHS to share information, and is scathing about some of the criticism.

'Most of the comments you hear in the media at the moment in my view, particularly about the electronic patient record, are comments that are being made that are quite ill informed,' he claims.

'Let's go back to 10 years ago and talk about the lack of cohesion in health service IT. I remember visiting my local hospital. They had a wonderful new computer system in but it couldn't be sent to local GPs because it wasn't compatible – they had to print it off.

'Why haven't we had systems that are able to share some of that information for the betterment of the patient.

'Unless you want to go back to a paper-based system in all parts of the NHS, we should try to get good, secure systems that share necessary – and only necessary – information with different parts of the NHS.'

He claims past IT initiatives have been disjointed.

The select committee with Barron at the helm has not shied away from fierce criticism of the Government. Ministers are still smarting from its verdict over workforce planning, source of the 'disastrous failure' accusation.

Access row

Barron claims, however, that Labour has brought about steady improvement in the NHS.

His new leader in waiting, Gordon Brown, has earmarked improving access to GP surgeries as a major plank in his future plans.

And Barron is in tune with the Chancellor's comments so far on the debate, which has already stirred up fears and uncertainty among many GPs.

'I don't think in this day and age it's wrong to ask GPs to actually work hours when more people are available to go to visit them. This idea in the 21st century of having to have time off work if there is no availability on a Saturday morning for a GP is wrong.

'As we prepare to step into the Brown era, Barron sees no radical change on the horizon. 'That will probably be a good thing. Most of the people working in the NHS keep saying 'for God's sake no more changes, no more reconfiguration, let things stabilise'. If I was giving any advice to Gordon Brown I would say to him the NHS is a big, big, big organisation and to get it really working at its best, give people who work in it down on the ground some ownership.'

As the interview with Barron nears an end, with him signalling his hopes that the NHS will spend more time in the future considering primary care issues, with acute care having dominated in the past, another acute problem arises.

We're being kicked out because Ruth Kelly, in many ways the epitome of New Labour, wants the room. Barron, adaptable as ever, appears happy to conclude the conversation in the hall.


CV Kevin Barron

• Born 1946 in Tadcaster

• First job as underground electrician at a colliery

• Studied social science at University of Sheffield on a day-release course, then went to Ruskin College, Oxford, as a mature student

• Elected as MP for the Rother Valley in 1983

• Parliamentary private secretary to Neil Kinnock MP 1985/8

• Shadow health minister 1995/6

• Shadow minister for public health 1996/7

• Currently chair of health select committee and lay member of the GMC

Barron on...

The electronic care record

'Unless you want to go back to a paper-based system in all parts of the NHS, we should try to get good, secure systems that share necessary – and only necessary – information.'

Health policies under Gordon Brown

'Most of the people working in the NHS keep saying "for God's sake, no more changes, no more reconfiguration, let things stabilise".'

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