Third Reading

Part of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 21st July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:00 pm, 21st July 2015

My Lords, Amendment 11 makes specific provisions in relation to a transfer of health functions from a public authority to a combined authority or other public body. It requires that the Secretary of State responsible for such services must continue to be able to fulfil his statutory duties conferred by existing legislation. It also requires that the combined authority or other public body to which the functions are transferred should adhere to national standards and accountabilities which are attached to those functions under existing legislation.

As I have said in previous debates, and as is set out in the Greater Manchester memorandum of understanding for devolution of health and social care, there is absolutely no intention through this Bill to remove or undermine the core duties on the Secretary of State, or to dismantle accountabilities for health services as enshrined in existing legislation. Whatever bespoke devolution arrangements are agreed with a particular local area, that principle will remain.

I state this as a clear commitment to this House. Thus, nothing in the Bill changes the position of the Secretary of State under Section 1 of the NHS Act 2006, which provides that,

The Secretary of State must continue the promotion in England of a comprehensive health service”.

The Secretary of State retains in all circumstances ministerial responsibility to Parliament for the provision of that health service.

Likewise, the Secretary of State must always adhere to the core NHS duties. These duties include, when exercising functions in relation to the health service: a duty to secure continuous improvement in quality of services; a duty to have regard to the NHS constitution; a duty to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities; and a duty to promote autonomy. These duties are set out in Sections 1A to 1F of the National Health Service Act 2006.

As I have made clear, there is no intention or possibility of the Bill changing these duties of the Secretary of State. Further, as I have said in previous debates, any decision the Secretary of State takes about using the order-making powers in this Bill to confer health functions must be taken in conformity with these duties. Without in any way affecting these duties of the Secretary of State, if a combined authority were, for example, to have conferred upon it a function to commission certain health services, the provision in Clause 8—which the House agreed on Report about conditions and limitations when conferring functions—would allow us to require that the combined authority, when exercising its commissioning functions, must likewise be subject to these core NHS duties, such as to promote the NHS constitution.

On Report, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, commented that the issue we are discussing is more about symbolism, but he also recognised that one should avoid unnecessary legislation. I agree that this issue is one of symbolism. I am also very clear that symbolism is important and tempting. However, legislation is not the place for symbolism. The place for symbolism is in the discussions we are having and the commitments given to this House. For this reason, while I understand and strongly support the intention behind this amendment—that is, to make clear to all that the vital principles for the NHS will be upheld—I do not believe that it is necessary, nor do I consider that it is appropriate. As I have said a number of times, this Bill is an enabling Bill which includes general rather than service-specific powers. If this amendment were to be accepted, health functions would be specified on the face of the Bill, which would change the whole approach we have taken.

Noble Lords asked some specific questions—for example, on how to retain national standards where health powers are devolved. It is important to note that, when transferring functions to a combined authority or conferring functions on it, the Bill allows us to additionally place on a combined authority duties such as those held by the Secretary of State under new Sections 1A to 1F of the relevant legislation, as I have mentioned previously, or other duties held by NHS England or CCGs.

The noble Lord, Lord Warner, talked about the purpose and design of the Bill. We see it as a broadly enabling Bill, as I have just said. We have always said that we will devolve powers only where there is a clear accountable body. This applies equally to any health powers as to other powers that are devolved.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, asked specifically about Amendments 3 and 4 as applying to regulatory functions such as those of the Care Quality Commission. Amendments 3 and 4, which we have just approved, mean that the regulatory functions of a national regulator such as the CQC cannot be devolved to, say, a combined authority exercising functions that the Care Quality Commission would have regulated.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned the importance of health in devolution. Health is absolutely an important element of devolution. As the Chancellor has said:

“We will hand power from the centre to cities to give you greater control over your local transport, housing, skills and healthcare”.

That is our aim and we will do that within a strong NHS. A strong NHS relies on a strong local economy and devolution will enable strong local economies with strong local governance. In areas with such accountabilities in place, such as Manchester, health devolution is something we support.

Given that I have placed those comments on the record, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.