Committee (5th Day)

Part of Health and Social Care Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 14th November 2011.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 7:15 pm, 14th November 2011

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate on a set of important issues, and I am glad to count my noble friend Lord Greaves as one of my staunchest supporters.

The NHS Commissioning Board is one of the key elements of our vision of a modernised NHS-a highly professional organisation, focused on q quality and able to support clinical commissioning groups in delivering the best care possible to patients. I completely accept that these amendments were proposed with the best of intentions, to strengthen the way in which care is commissioned. However, in setting out why the Bill is drafted as it is, I hope that I can explain to your Lordships why I cannot accept them.

It will be key to the effectiveness of the board to ensure that it obtains sufficient advice and input from clinicians, public health experts, other professionals and those with relevant experience of the NHS-patients and the public-and that it has effective working relationships and arrangements with local authority government. We have stated our intention that there should be clinical and professional leadership on the board, but in terms of the legislative framework for the board it is an important principle to maintain that it should have autonomy of decision-making on matters such as its own membership and its structures and procedures, as far as possible, to determine how best to exercise its functions. This would include, for example, whether it has a vice-chair or a senior independent director, as Amendment 52B suggests.

One thing is absolutely clear. Members of the board will, in practice, need to have a range of skills, knowledge and experience appropriate to the issues faced by the board. Ensuring the right balance of non-executive members from a variety of backgrounds is key to achieving a successful board. But if the majority of non-executives were required to have a particular background, such as NHS experience, as suggested in Amendment 54, that might create an unbalanced board and effectively disqualify potential candidates from the private and voluntary sectors. I agreed with the most reverend Primate in what he said here. It is worth remembering that the board and its members will be expected to follow the seven principles of public life-the Nolan principles-one of which will mean that it must appoint a,

"well-informed choice of individuals who through their abilities, experience and qualities match the need of the public body in question".

That sums it up very well.

A number of noble Lords made the point that if we require the inclusion of doctors and nurses or a public health specialist as put forward in Amendments 50, 52D, 54B and 56, what about representation on the board of dentists, pharmacists and allied health professionals? The list could go on. It would simply not be possible to accommodate all interests in the board's membership adequately, and we would surely invite valid criticisms that one group is being prioritised over another. Nor would this be desirable from a Government's point of view, given that the primary purpose of the members of the board is to hold the organisation to account. Nor, in my very firm view, would it be appropriate for a senior member of another organisation with a different purpose or remit, such as the chair of HealthWatch England, or indeed the Chief Medical Officer, to have a seat on the board, as suggested in Amendments 52C and 54A respectively. That could lead to a potential conflict of interest and confuse accountability. I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on that point-although he is not in his place.

Of course, in practice, the board must have the freedom to determine how these varied and legitimate interests are best involved and represented in its work. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, was quite right-the board will want advice and expertise readily available to it-but that is a different issue from board membership. It is worth bearing in mind that the board will have the freedom to appoint committees and sub-committees as it considers appropriate, and this may prove useful to the board to bring in interested parties on specific issues.

A number of noble Lords asked about public health expertise. We are coming on to debate clinical senates, but one main reason for establishing them is to bring in this wider range of expertise in a way that would provide practical benefit. This would absolutely include public health expertise. We amended the duty to obtain advice to make this explicit. New Section 13J inserted by Clause 20 makes it absolutely clear that the board must obtain advice from those with professional expertise in,

"the protection or improvement of public health".

There will be an interrelationship between the board and HealthWatch. The board must inform the body in writing of its response, or proposed response, to its advice; it must also have regard to the views, reports and recommendations of local HealthWatch.

My noble friend Lady Cumberlege asked about the size and membership of the board. The requirements in the Bill are that there is a minimum of seven members; the Secretary of State must appoint a chair and at least five other non-executives, so that is a minimum of six non-executive members. The non-executives must appoint a chief executive, who must be a member of the board. That is to say, there must be at least one executive member. Beyond that, they may appoint other executive members as long as the total of non-executives is always more than the total number of executives. The final decision on the number of other executive posts and the nature of their roles will need to be agreed with the chair and non-executive members, but it is envisaged that the other executive members besides the chief executive will include a nursing and a medical director, a director of finance, of performance and operations and of commissioning development.

All departments are required to ensure that appointments are open, transparent and made on merit. The Commissioner for Public Appointments regulates the processes by which Ministers make appointments to the boards of certain public bodies in England and Wales, and this will continue to be the case. It is not government policy to offer confirmation or affirmation hearings for public appointments, as Amendment 52A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, would require. These are ministerial appointments to make. The Cabinet Office maintains a list of posts that are subject to pre-appointment hearings by a House Select Committee. Ministers would consider the committee's views, but such hearings are not binding and do not represent a power of veto. Your Lordships will be aware that we followed this process in the recent appointment of Professor Malcolm Grant as the chair of the NHS Commissioning Board.