NHS and Social Care Commission

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:19 pm on 28th January 2016.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Minister of State, Department of Health 4:19 pm, 28th January 2016

I will. We had this discussion in the Health Committee the other week. I will of course look very hard at the evidence, whether it comes from Greater Manchester and shows that somebody is working effectively and appointments are being filled, or from places where that is not currently the case. We have to wait and see in that regard.

The spending review showed our continued commitment to joining up health and care by confirming an ongoing commitment to the better care fund. Again, the integration process is extremely important. In terms of the general argument about what should be done, a clear commitment was made, based on an independent assessment of what was required. That required a Government who were prepared to make difficult decisions, and a strong economy, and we assumed that responsibility.

Let me deal with some of the remarks made by right hon. and hon. Members during this conversation—for it is, as Dr Whitford said, a conversation, and a really good one. If more debates about health had the flavour of this afternoon’s discussion, the public might be happier. She said that her preferred method for dealing with things, as with most of us, is bringing people into the same room and having a conversation—but perhaps not this room. However, there are other rooms in this place in which to do that. Indeed, my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston, the Chair of the Health Committee, does so regularly. This place can provide opportunities for the sorts of discussions that would be at the heart of any cross-party consideration of what we want to do. We should not neglect the fact that we can do that, and we have had a good conversation today.

I agree with Heidi Alexander in that I am fundamentally shy of the idea that we can just put this on to others and with one bound we are free. I understand the sentiment that we somehow need to get, if not the politics, then the heat of the politics, out of it in order to allow for the conversation that we need to have. However, at the end of the day, that still requires a process. Like her, I believe that the process is that we discuss it, come to conclusions within our own party about what we can do, and offer it in a sensible way to the electorate. I entirely agree with those who say that there are times when we have all been guilty of the most ridiculous adverts. At the end of the last general election campaign, I was in a marginal constituency and had a piece of paper in my hand that was our last-minute leaflet. I knocked on doors and said, “Look, we have a choice—I can either hand you this leaflet, which is complete nonsense, or you can give me 20 seconds to explain why you should vote for David Cameron tomorrow and keep a Conservative Government.” They laughed and said, “Go on, then”, and I had my 20 seconds. We all know that we are sometimes guilty of producing material that in the cold light of day we would not wish to, and in relation to health we need to be extra-careful about that.

As the debate went on, I was concerned about whether the commission that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk and his colleagues is proposing can bear the weight of the many different things that we would like it to cover. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes wanted it to report rapidly, but my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell intervened to say that it had to be for the longer term, so which is it to be? My hon. Friend also spoke about the problem of variation in the system, but that is not to do with resources. No commission could be so directive as to make sure that best practice is delivered everywhere. We have to do that in another way.

Liz Kendall in, as always, a very thoughtful and sensible speech, recognised the political problem in agreeing on this, and she was right to do so. It is very difficult for her, or any other Labour Member, to talk about the introduction of private medicine. If I did not stand here and say, with no deviation, that the Conservative party and the Government believe in a tax-funded health system free at the point of delivery, the roof would fall in. Therefore, there are constraints on what we can say politically, and we have to be thoughtful about how we deal with those responsibilities.

My hon. Friend Dr Lee added more weight to the commission by talking about structure, and how we deal with these reviews of where hospital premises might be located. Again, there is this problem of politics. When approached by patients or doctors with a vested interest in keeping a physical bit of bricks and mortar and in saving “our” hospital, it would be a brave one of us who said, “Do you know what? That may not be the best thing.” That difficult problem was alluded to by my hon. Friend Dr Murrison. No commission can get us over that sort of problem.

Jim Shannon invited me to Northern Ireland to see some integration at work, and I would be keen to visit. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire and a number of colleagues made the point about public health. Prevention is about not just the public health budget—significant resources are still going into public health—but what we are trying to do with the shift from secondary to primary care to ensure that people are seen earlier.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire talked about ensuring that we keep people well longer. She said that instead of seeing the national health service as an organisation that looks after just the ill, we should consider what it can do before that, which is very important.

Mr Clegg spoke principally about mental health. As a Health Minister, I know full well what the coalition Government as a whole did in relation to mental health. They picked up a trajectory that had been disappointingly low, but we are now well on track. I wish gently to correct something that has been creeping into the narrative, which is that it was all going fine until six months ago, but it has slightly come off the rails now. It has not. It was not all sorted during the coalition, and I reject the charge that it is now all about rhetoric and not delivery. We are delivering, and making sure that CCGs spend the increased money that they get on mental health, and we are tracking it for the first time.

That £1.25 billion for children and young people’s mental health, which was a very significant delivery by both the right hon. Gentleman and the coalition, has been increased to £1.4 billion, and it will all be spent in that area by 2020. We are dealing with the issue of mental health tariffs as well, and we want to have waiting and access times for children and young people’s mental health services.

I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to see, at least in this part of my portfolio, that what I seek to do is to build on what the right hon. Member for North Norfolk did in my role. I would rather that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam did not talk in that manner and think that it has all come to a halt, because it has not. We are having to repair one or two things, such as perinatal mental health, in which we have put significant resources. The conversation has been advanced enormously in exactly the right way by consensual discussion, and we will certainly carry that on.