Third Reading

Part of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 21st July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 5:45 pm, 21st July 2015

My Lords, before speaking to this amendment tabled in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, let me declare my interest as an adviser on health and care to Capsticks Solicitors.

This is the last time that the Minister will have to listen to me banging on about the NHS, which is no doubt a cause for celebration in DCLG. The amendment brings us back to the issue of safeguards for the devolution of NHS functions. Our earlier discussions on this issue have tended to generate more heat than light, and I think the problem lies in the fact that the Bill was never designed for the devolution of NHS functions. It is a Bill for devolving essentially local government functions away from central government. It is not designed for devolving functions from a 67 year-old iconic National Health Service, with a large number of statutory duties placed on a Minister, supported by a bevy of national bodies and requirements, and strong public expectations of adherence to national standards and rules. So far, the Government have struggled to come up with a formula that reconciles the centralised characteristics of the NHS, which is held in great public affection, with a move towards the greater devolution of the delivery of health services and health service functions that many of us would like to see.

Let me reiterate that I am not opposed to using the Bill for devolving NHS functions to properly accountable combined authorities or new public bodies. I just want the Bill to contain clear safeguards which recognise that some essential national characteristics of the NHS should continue to function. I do not think it sufficient, as many of us have tried to explain to the Minister, to use individual transfer of function orders to reserve certain functions to the Secretary of State. That pays insufficient attention to the statutory NHS duties placed on the Secretary of State for Health that he simply cannot offload on to other bodies. At the same time, as we have said before, it is an approach that is likely to fragment the national, cohesive nature of the NHS, leading to a ragbag of local devolution arrangements.

I have tried to distil from our earlier discussions a short clause setting out the three health service issues that have to retain national characteristics. First, the Health Secretary,

“must remain able to fulfil all the statutory duties placed on him under health service legislation”.

That has simply not been clear from the Government’s explanations. In framing this provision, I have been much helped by the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in our previous discussions.

The second issue is to stop the transfer of,

“regulatory or supervisory functions vested in national bodies”.

This goes wider than the prohibition of transferring regulatory functions in Amendments 3 and 4 that the Government have now introduced. The natural character of the NHS means that there are bodies that can be both regulatory and supervisory. For example, Monitor is not just a regulator but a supervisor of failing trusts. CQC is both a regulator and, I would suggest, a service improvement agency. There are other national bodies that make NHS services safer for patients without being full-blown regulators within the terms of Amendments 3 and 4. If anyone thinks the NHS does not need national supervisory bodies, they should read yesterday’s Healthwatch report on hospital discharges.

The third prong of my amendment requires the Health Secretary to,

“ensure that … bodies to whom health service functions are transferred adhere to the national service standards and the national information and accountability obligations placed on all health service bodies”.

That is particularly important for patient access to information and exercising their freedom of choice over service access outside the area of a combined authority.

I am grateful to the clerks in the Public Bill Office for their technical help in framing this amendment, and to colleagues for their assistance in drafting it. I have also been assisted in pursuing this matter by briefings from the BMA—I often do not take credit for advice from the BMA—NHS providers and the specialist services commissioning group.

The Bill needs an override provision such as this if the essentially national character of the NHS is not to be lost. I hope the Minister agrees that it needs to be in the Bill as part of this House’s scrutiny of the Bill. I beg to move.