Committee (1st Day)
Health and Social Care Bill
Baroness Williams of Crosby (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, may I briefly address the proposal put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton? She has made a considerable contribution to the discussion in this House about the health services; not least by organising an impressive series of seminars that were attended by many Members of this House, from all parties and also from the Cross Benches. We are extremely grateful for this.
I am moved very little by the preamble, in the sense that the central issue behind it, which I fully share-that is to say, the clear responsibility of the Secretary of State for a comprehensive health service free at time of need-is primarily, in fact, already embodied in the debate we are about to have on the first group of amendments after the amendments on education and training. The way that this has been addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, herself but also by other members of this House, not least the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, provides the basis for a very satisfactory, detailed and careful consideration of what the role of the Secretary of the State is.
We know that there are still fears about ambiguity. On this I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has indicated. These fears have been very strongly outlined: first, by the Future Forum which said in its report that it had concerns about the accountability of the Secretary of State and, secondly, in the brilliant and concise report of the Constitution Committee, an all-party committee of this House. The committee pointed to its concerns about whether the responsibility and accountability of the Secretary of State emerged sufficiently clearly, and it gave a very impressive argument to the effect that some doubts remain about the position.
Since that time, of course, there have been concerns-rightly so-about some of the knock-on effects of removing accountability of a clear kind from the Secretary of State. All through this Bill, there are situations where the Secretary of State might be or might not be involved. I shall give two examples. The first is about the possibility of conflict between Monitor and the NHS Commissioning Board and how that is to be resolved, where one might suppose that the Secretary of State would be the ultimate decider. The second is on the question of what happens if there is a major emergency in the country of a health nature and whether the public would not, in fact, expect the Secretary of State to be the ultimate source of accountability.
My feeling is that it is better to address these issues very clearly as each one comes up, and to set out in detail, therefore, what the precise responsibilities of the Secretary of State are. Certainly, if one wants simply to assert-which many of us obviously fully understand-a concern and a liking for the NHS, the Secretary of State's responsibility was reiterated and reaffirmed some time ago after intervention by my right honourable friend in another place, Mr Nicholas Clegg, and others.
This is not an issue for which we should hold up the whole of the Committee proceedings but, in assessing once again the commitment of many of this House to the NHS, it is certainly not objectionable. For the reasons I have given, however, it is perhaps not wise to detain ourselves on this issue at the moment.
I would add two other problems. The wording of the preamble before Clause 1 is mostly fine, but frankly I am a bit worried about subsection (3). One thing we must not do is, as it were, encompass the NHS in a form of unchangeability when all of us know that major changes have to be made within its structure. Therefore, subsection (3) could be a rigidification of the situation. Having said that, however, I believe that we should now move on from this issue to look at the most clear, legally expressed considerations of what should be the clear and accountable responsibilities of the Secretary of State.