Health and Social Care Bill — Report (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 29th February 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 10:15 pm, 29th February 2012

Since the chief executive has not been appointed yet, I cannot give the noble Lord an answer. Perhaps I might be able to continue, especially as it is almost 10.30.

As I have said, the board will include at least four independent non-executive members of the highest calibre, bringing experience of public health, local government, the voluntary sector and business. The challenge they provide will be real and impossible to ignore. Public Health England will also have scientific committees set up to provide rigorous and impartial advice. Executive agencies are normally established administratively, without legislation, and that remains our intention in this case. I realise that my noble friend Lady Cumberlege may want to fix Public Health England's status in legislation to protect it from undue interference. Of course this is a valid objective, but I hope she will accept that the openness with which Public Health England will operate, and the nature of the Secretary of State's duty to protect health, would deter him from clipping Public Health England's wings. He would simply be limiting his own ability to fulfil his statutory duties. I also hope that my noble friend will consider whether the model that her amendment suggests is really in the best interests of public health. A significant advantage of the agency option is its flexibility, allowing Public Health England to adapt and stay fit for purpose without amending primary legislation.

The second part of the amendment focuses on research, to which a number of noble Lords have referred. We recognise the value of the research that the Health Protection Agency undertakes now, and the importance of it continuing. The Bill as drafted provides for the Secretary of State to conduct and commission research and Public Health England will exercise those powers. Noble Lords have expressed concern over Public Health England's ability to secure health protection research funding. We are satisfied that there is no point of principle preventing Public Health England applying for health protection research funding from external national and international partners, including charities and income generation from commercial contracts. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Patel, that Public Health England can also bid for EU funding, subject to Treasury rules. I hope also that I can reassure other noble Lords that there is no reason why these changes should jeopardise the outstanding reputation that the HPA has had in research.

More specifically, I am happy to be able to confirm that funding from the National Institute for Health Research for research into health protection will continue at its current level and that this autumn we will launch a NIHR research call to be awarded to Public Health England and academic institutions in partnership. Publishing public health research will not only be possible under the Bill as drafted, but also critical, as noble Lords have indicated, in ensuring that the public health community as a whole learns and progresses. It is also worth mentioning that we expect Public Health England's published data to be subject to the relevant code of practice on official statistics, which imposes strict limits on Ministers' access to certain information before it is released.

I am afraid that the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, while seeking to enhance Public Health England's independence, would blur the lines of accountability still further. Executive agency status, we believe, provides by far the most appropriate blend of operational independence and clear accountability. When we debated the special health authority model during the Committee stage, I did indeed, as the noble Lord said, refer to its impracticality. Special health authorities are established to exercise functions in relation to the health service in England, whereas Public Health England needs to exercise functions, such as radiological protection functions, in respect of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I should also point out that the NHS Commissioning Board will not, in the future, be a special health authority.

Perhaps I may comment further on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. Special health authorities can sometimes perform functions outside England and Wales but the powers in the 2006 Act are such that the body can do work in Scotland and Northern Ireland only on the basis of income generation. Some of the functions of Public Health England will relate to reserve matters and we cannot look to the devolved Administrations to pay any money for such activity. Nor would income generation be the solution with the Secretary of State's non-health service-related functions in England. Public Health England may exercise functions that are wider than just the health service in England and Wales.

I give noble Lords every assurance that our proposals are designed to produce an agency that we can all be proud of. I hope that noble Lords at least understand the philosophy behind organising it in this way and trying to move public health centre stage and in the line of sight of the Secretary of State. We are firmly committed to making it a success. To that end, I, my noble friend Lord Howe and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State would be very happy to meet my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and other noble Lords to talk through these important issues in greater depth. I hope that noble Lords will accept that and not press their amendments.