In their first week back at Westminster in 2001 MPs spent 10 hours of prime time discussing the NHS, mostly on the second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill. Yet I doubt if any of their words, wise or foolish, will have the same impact as that shocking Sunday paper photo of the makeshift mortuary in the chapel of rest at Bedford Hospital.

It certainly put the second-reading debate into perspective - all those pledges and those multibillion pound figures, all that talk about a patient-centred service. Even in a pretty godless age people care about that old phrase, dignity in death. Surely the outcry about infant organ retention by trusts (which also resurfaced this week) taught us that?

Would the bill's proposed system of patient representation, the scrutiny committees set up by local councils, the patients' forums and the patient advocacy and liaison service have done a better job than (one assumes) the local CHC did in Bedford after a combination of closures and cuts left bodies on the hospital chapel floor?

Alan Milburn clearly thought it would. For far too long a Victorian system has left 'patients too much talked at and not enough listened to', he told MPs. That said, he got little enough support from any side, including his own, though Lib Dem health spokesman Nick Harvey was one of several MPs who agreed that we should not be 'too starry-eyed' about the past successes of CHCs.

That didn't make North Devon's Mr Harvey an enthusiast for the Milburn blueprint, though. It is plainly going to have to be further amended in committee or the Lords. Even Mr Milburn concedes that the complaints system needs more work if it is not to be seen as a tool of hospital management or of central government. In the present suspicious climate the minister's insistence that the independent appointments commission will be just that probably carries less weight than it should.

In the wider context of the bill, MPs are again bothered by what they see as the centralisation of powers, which lie behind the bill and its budget. Department of Health funds for personal medical services, for example, will rise to£2.24bn by 2003-04, while local social service budgets will rise only from£8.6bn to£9.9bn.

Dr Liam Fox pointed this out as he formally committed a Hague government to matching Labour's NHS spending across the board - not just in hospitals - another costly commitment for Mr Hague to square with his tax-cutting rhetoric.

Labour GP Howard Stoate voiced concerns that the abolition of the medical practices committee would undermine the relatively fair distribution of GPs across the country.

When Minister Milburn said the MPC had 'failed to do the job' for many inner cities, up popped Bury North's David Chaytor, the only MP whose family was once registered with Harold Shipman, to ask (guess what? ) about better monitoring of murderous GPs. Not murder, but poor performance is a recurring problem, countered the minister.

'Everyone knows that there is a problem, except of course the patients themselves. It is gossiped about by managers and clinicians in the local health service, but nobody does a damn thing about it.

That is what we must change.'

Let me finish on a jollier note.

Dr Fox showed his support for widening the right to prescribe by telling MPs how he, an asthmatic, had tried to get a new inhaler while conducting a (political) surgery on a Saturday morning. His GP's receptionist said, 'you'll have to come in and see the doctor'.

He shot back, 'I am a doctor'.

A member of the royal college, no less. They fought by phone.

But he still didn't get his inhaler.