Committee (5th Day)

Part of Health and Social Care Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 14th November 2011.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 7:30 pm, 14th November 2011

Not at all, my Lords. Of course we have confidence in the chairman. However, it is a little strange to hear from the noble Lord that he suddenlythinks the Secretary of State should not be involved in an area where he has a legitimate interest to make sure, on behalf of the taxpayer and indeed patients, that we have somebody who is capable of fulfilling the role of accounting officer. This is an important role for the Secretary of State to have.

Turning now to Amendments 57, 153ZA and 153B, let me assure the Committee, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we want to reduce the amount of NHS funding spent on back-office bureaucracy. That is why have made a commitment to reduce administration costs across the health system by one-third in real terms, saving £1.5 billion annually by 2014-15. All that money will be put back into patient care.

Clause 21 provides powers for the Secretary of State to impose certain limits on the overall expenditure and use of resources by the board and clinical commissioning groups, including in relation to administrative matters defined through parliamentary regulations, for the first time. The board has the power to set similar limits for individual CCGs. I see no reason to change this to a duty to do so, as Amendment 153B suggests. As the board will itself be responsible for overall administrative spending, I am sure it will want to use this power carefully. Within those limits, it should be for the board to determine how best to use the resources available to it, and to decide on its own structures and ways of working, and the number of staff that it needs to perform its functions effectively. It is not appropriate to set a staffing cap on an arm's-length body.

How big will the board be? In a document called Developing the NHS Commissioning Board, Sir David Nicholson, chief executive-designate of the board, estimated that the board was likely to have 3,500 staff, carrying out the functions currently exercised by around 8,000 staff in the Department of Health, strategic health authorities, PCTs and a number of arm's-length bodies that are being abolished, along with its own new functions. It will deliver these in a much more streamlined way.

Likewise, setting an arbitrary cap in the Bill on the number of clinical commissioning groups or on their expenditure on administration in comparison to PCTs is not, in our view, an appropriate means of controlling administrative costs. CCGs will be different from PCTs. They put local clinicians in charge and align clinical decisions with the financial and quality consequences. It is a little unfair of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, to say that we are creating a complicated and bureaucratic system, and citing clinical senates and networks and health and well-being boards. Clinical senates and networks are not new organisations in their own right: they will be hosted by the board. Clinical networks already exist. Health and well-being boards are also not separate statutory organisations: they will be hosted by local authorities. We are abolishing a whole raft of bodies under this Bill, as I have said on previous occasions. It is important to bear that in mind.

I appreciate the concerns underlying Amendments 58 and 59. It is important that there should be transparency in all the workings of the board. This is why Schedule 5 to the Bill was amended in another place to include the board in paragraph 7 as a body to which the duty in Section 1 of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 applies. This would include any annual meeting that the board may decide to hold. I say "may decide" because the Bill is clear, in new paragraph 12 in Schedule 1, that:

"The Board may regulate its own procedure".

This would also apply to determining when it is quorate.

However, the Bill does include clear procedures around the publication of the board's annual accounts and annual reports, to ensure transparency. The board must send its annual accounts to the Secretary of State and the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The latter must examine, certify and report on the accounts and then lay copies of the accounts and the report before Parliament. The Comptroller and Auditor-General is responsible for the audit of the accounts of all arm's-length bodies. The board must publish an annual report and lay it before Parliament. The Secretary of State must then write to the board, providing an assessment of the board's performance of its functions, publish the letter and lay it before Parliament. That gives an indication that there will be maximum transparency here.

Turning to Amendments 145A, 146A, 147ZA and 147C, I am afraid that I do not agree that it would be worth while to add the unusual burden of an explicit duty of consulting on a draft business plan. The board is already required in new Section 13P(2)(a) to involve and consult the public in planning its commissioning arrangements. Under a duty in new Section 13J, it is required to obtain appropriate advice to enable it effectively to discharge its functions, including the planning of how it will exercise its functions.

I hope I can reassure noble Lords that Amendments 147A and 147B are also not necessary. First, the duty to produce a business plan already provides for transparency by obliging the board to publish its plan. Secondly, while the Bill requires that the board's annual report and annual accounts are laid before Parliament, that is part of specific processes for scrutiny of the board's performance against the objectives it was set and the outcomes it has achieved. It is right and proper that the board should be held to account in such a way. Another clear recommendation by the NHS Future Forum was that the autonomy of the board needs to be respected. With this in mind, although it is right that the board should be required to produce a plan and for that plan to be published for all-including Parliament-to see, I am not convinced that it would be appropriate to have parliamentary scrutiny of the board's plans or draft plans. The Bill places certain functions on the board, and it should be for the board to determine how it will seek to exercise these.

With regard to the questions asked by my noble friend Lord Greaves concerning the size of clinical commissioning groups, I respectfully suggest to him that we defer them to a later group of amendments, where this issue will come up and I shall be able to talk more about it. For now, I hope that the noble Lords are sufficiently reassured to be able to withdraw the amendment.