NHS: Front-line and Specialised Services — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 13th January 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench 5:15 pm, 13th January 2011

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly. I welcome her and congratulate her on having made a superb short maiden speech in the time available. She has shown a deep affection and critical praise of the NHS. She brings to us experience from engineering and maths, and the critical thinking from that, as well as extensive personal, administrative and provision experience in the NHS and the voluntary sector. I am sure the Liberal Democrats celebrate her being on their Benches, and we must celebrate her addition to this House.

I speak as a clinician in the NHS, and declare all those interests in so doing. The Government have inherited much from the previous Government. They have inherited the problem of the PFI burden, with high interest rates that will increase the burden on hospitals. This will not go away during reorganisation. They have also inherited, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, has illustrated, very high levels of satisfaction with the NHS as we know it. In 2009, indeed, 64 per cent of the population declared themselves to be satisfied or very satisfied. Even among Conservative voters, the figure was 61 per cent.

The public out there fear the loss of the NHS. They fear the escalating costs that they see in US healthcare. A major concern is the concept of "any willing provider" and its effect on primary and secondary care. The competition engendered by this concept seems to work against collaboration. In private-provider competition there seem to be three main problems. The first one, identified in the US, is fraud. The biggest department in the FBI is that which investigates fraud in healthcare, yet we have US providers advising us. I find that worrying. The second problem concerns the role of Monitor. Will Monitor promote competition? The US system and others show that health outcomes are better where collaboration is higher. I ask the Minister why collaboration between primary and secondary care is not the key marker rather than a pre-requirement to competition. The third problem relates to European law. Current law on services of general intent allow subsidiarity for publicly provided healthcare, but if it is privately provided it will become subject to general interest regulations. If the reorganisation fails, can the service effectively be renationalised?

I turn briefly to financial failure. Current legislation allows for a failing foundation trust to be brought back into public administration, but that will be repealed. What will happen if a GP consortium runs out of money? Will the patients be left with less or no care? I understand that there is to be a central levy to allow for failure. I ask the Minister how it was calculated, and whether the Government are confident that it will be enough to continue care provision, particularly if faced with multiple failures at the end of the financial year. If a GP consortium fails, will it be taken over by the private sector, as is happening with hospitals?

The NHS is there for patients. The phrase "nothing about me without me" is both clever and wholly appropriate, referring to clear simple terms of informed consent, but when transposed to choices in healthcare provider it can become distorted rhetoric. The choices that people have to make relate to decisions across all parts of care: whether to remain at home when ill; whether to have a gastrostomy, as swallowing fails in neurological disease; or whether to try physiotherapy to defer joint replacement surgery. There are decisions about immunisation versus infection risks and about how to manage psychotic disease relapse.

These decisions depend on services being integrated, not operating in isolation or in competition. They require excellence in clinical standards, not just "any willing provider". The problem is that private providers can cherry-pick services to provide in neat packages, but most patients do not fit neat packages. Choice in packages requires a surplus to choose from, but we cannot afford that. Those with complex co-morbidities are optimally managed by a service leading their care and collaborating with others, avoiding duplication and minimising the risk of patients falling into a gap.

How will secondary care integration with primary care be promoted and long-term planning secured? Patients want choice to be seen by the right person at the right time. Pathfinder consortia may be achieving this in the short term, but if Monitor is to ensure competition, how will such collaboration continue? To ensure data on fair competition, will commercial confidentiality clauses be overturned by statute? How will outcome data be collated? Will they be meaningfully interpreted to account for those with multiple co-morbidities?

I ask the Minister these questions because we are embarking on a reorganisation that will cost up to £3 billion. There is a genuine fear that an integrated NHS is being dismantled under the influence of for-profit organisations.