Health and Social Care Bill — Report (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:29 pm on 27th February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat 8:29 pm, 27th February 2012

My Lords, the reasons for Amendments 49A and 94A have been briefly-as she explained-and eloquently expressed by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby. One of the fundamental principles which the Government have assured us runs right through this Bill is that the NHS, as reformed by this legislation, will be committed to putting patients first. That is a critical matter for most of us in this House and the public at large. Why do I believe that this principle needs stating in the Bill? It is because the Bill introduces an entirely new structure for commissioning services, with commissioning by clinical commissioning groups within a framework established by the board to requirements and objectives set by the Secretary of State. However well understood here, this proposed structure is widely mistrusted outside this place.

I believe that a legislative statement that the commissioning process will put patients first is very important, both because it will enshrine in law this fundamental principle and because it will give the public an assurance that this is indeed the aim and purpose of the new commissioning process. My noble friend the Minister was kind enough to write to me in relation to this amendment to say that while he completely agrees that we must always put patients first, the Bill already provides for that and that there are "technical reasons" why our amendments should not be accepted.

The Minister is entirely right to point to the commitment to the comprehensive health service in the Bill and to the duties of the board and the clinical commissioning groups, now enshrined in the Bill, to promote the NHS constitution. I agree that those are powerful provisions. The NHS constitution is an important and extremely valuable document. It does indeed contain a commitment to putting patients first. At the back of the document in the expression of NHS values it says:

"Working together for patients. We put patients first in everything we do, by reaching out to staff, patients, carers, families, communities, and professionals outside the NHS. We put the needs of patients and communities before organisational boundaries".

No one could fail to regard that expression of values as admirable, but it covers the whole sweep of NHS functions and is very general. The provisions that we seek by way of these two amendments are specific to the commissioning process. They will impose a binding obligation on the board and the CCGs of which they will at all times be aware. Moreover, our amendments are directed particularly at responding to what is probably the principal concern that members of the public have about these reforms: that the new commissioning process may lead to the marketisation of the NHS and that patients' interests may be lost in that process. I do not believe that, but I do believe that these amendments would help make it crystal clear that this concern is unfounded.

The other problem we face is this: all the evidence, even that emanating from within the NHS, suggests that there is widespread unawareness of the very existence of the NHS constitution, let alone of the detail of its provisions. At the very least, therefore, given the emphasis that we are putting on the NHS constitution, it is crucial for the Government to make it quite clear that a great deal is expected of the board and of CCGs in the exercise of their respective duties under the Bill to promote awareness of the NHS constitution. In addition, the department should commit itself to an even wider, more effective campaign to publicise both the existence and the content of that constitution.

As to my noble friend's second point, I regret that I do not understand the technical reasons which are said to require the rejection of these amendments. It is perfectly true that the NHS will always have to face resource constraints which may necessarily determine many, even most, commissioning decisions, but our amendments accept entirely that the paramountcy of patients is always subject to resource constraints. The board or a CCG must, so far as resources allow, exercise its functions on the basis that the interests of patients are paramount. Nor do our amendments, either expressly or impliedly, reduce the ability of commissioning groups or the board to prioritise the treatment of particular groups of patients where they think appropriate. They simply make the interests of patients in general paramount or, to use my noble friend the Minister's phrase, make sure that commissioners put patients first.

The use of that word "paramount" in these amendments was modelled on the Children Act 1989 and the principle which runs like a golden thread through that legislation that the interests of children are paramount. That legislation has been widely applauded for embodying that principle, which firmly governs its interpretation and its implementation. It is precisely because it is embodied in the legislation itself that that Act is so well respected.

I still hope that my noble friend the Minister might reconsider whether he is not prepared to accept in this Bill the expression of the principle which he has so often expressed: that, throughout the commissioning process, the interests of patients must be paramount.