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Health Service Safety Investigations Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 3:37 pm, 29th October 2019

My Lords, it is a great honour to speak on the Health Service Safety Investigations Bill, which represents a landmark moment for safety and transparency in the NHS and is a major victory for those campaigners who have called for change. Every day, the vast majority of patients treated in the NHS receive safe, effective, world-class care. However, healthcare is complex and sadly sometimes errors occur that lead to harm. It has been estimated that more than 20,000 serious incidents and 8,000 deaths are due to problems in NHS services every year. These incidents have a devastating impact on patients, their families and staff, and cost the taxpayer up to £2.5 billion a year.

The Mid Staffordshire public inquiry and the report of the Morecambe Bay investigation highlighted the variable quality of NHS investigations into patient safety incidents. They also emphasised the many pressures that deter healthcare professionals being frank about failings in patient care and the factors that might contribute to them. In response to these findings, the Government have committed to make the NHS lead the world in providing safe, high-quality care.

In 2015, the Government accepted the central recommendation of the Public Administration Select Committee to establish an independent national body called the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. Such a body would conduct a small number of automatic safety investigations and identify areas of learning from healthcare incidents. Lessons have been drawn from the Air Accidents Investigations Branch—an investigative body that has been fundamental to the improvement of safety in the aviation industry.

Our Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch was established in 2016 and started operating in 2017. It currently conducts up to 30 thematic national investigations and up to 1,000 local maternity safety investigations a year. The purpose of the national investigations is not to apportion blame or liability but to share recommendations to prevent similar incidents happening again. The current investigations branch has firmly established itself within our globally renowned healthcare landscape, and is a vital component of a comprehensive plan for safety improvement in healthcare.

Let me give an example of a case that this investigation branch has taken to illustrate the recommendations and the improvement that it can give. The investigation looked into the undetected ingestion of a button or coin-cell battery in children, following an event in which, tragically, a child died after the ingestion of a coin-cell battery. Following this incident, NHS Pathways took action to ensure that NHS 111 staff were prompted to mention coin-cell batteries when asking about the ingestion of anything harmful or poisonous. In addition, the investigation branch also made a series of actionable recommendations to PHE, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. The recommendations addressed issues around the design of button batteries and public awareness about the health and safety of this product. They also focused on the recognition of the ingestion of button batteries in emergency medicine, and the role of ambulance staff concerning the urgent care of young children.

Other examples of investigations at the investigations branch have followed reference events to establish the safety risks associated with patients with special needs and to reduce the risk of prisoners with long-term, chronic conditions being moved without crucial medication. All these investigations have found system-wide solutions to system-wide problems, making this unique in the patient safety investigation system. An investigation into these cases by a local NHS trust would have been unlikely to have had the investigative ability or reach to determine what happened outside of the trust. Therefore, it is easy to see how similar incidents could happen again to other patients elsewhere in England if only local investigations had been carried out.

However, the current investigation branch is an organisational arm of the NHS Trust Development Authority, which is part of NHS Improvement. It was an important first step, but the story must not end there. It lacks independence and the necessary powers to make its investigations fully effective. The Health Service Safety Investigations Bill addresses these issues in four ways.

First, it establishes a new independent arms-length body, otherwise known as the health service safety investigations body—a snappy name. This body will continue the national thematic investigations work of the current investigations branch, focusing on a small number of significant patient safety issues where there is the greatest opportunity for learning across the NHS. This will be the first independent healthcare body of its kind in the world, leading the way in investigating for the purpose of learning, not blaming. The independence of the new body’s investigations from the NHS and Government will give the public full confidence in its investigation processes and its ability to deliver impartial conclusions and recommendations.

Secondly, the Bill will establish safe space protections, prohibiting the disclosure of information held in connection with an investigation, apart from in tightly limited circumstances, as set out in the legislation. The safe space information includes documents, equipment or other items, and is referred to as “protected material” in the Bill. The safe space provisions encourage all participants, such as NHS staff, to be completely candid in the information that they share. This will enable more thorough investigations and the development of meaningful recommendations.

Thirdly, the Bill provides for appropriate powers, so that the new body can discharge its investigative function. These include powers of entry and inspection, powers to inspect, copy or seize documents and equipment, and powers to require information from individuals or organisations, including national public bodies.

Finally, the Bill makes an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, to provide a statutory footing for the medical examiners system in the NHS in England. This will underpin the system that is already being rolled out successfully across the country. Medical examiners will ensure that every death in England and Wales is scrutinised, either by a coroner or a medical examiner, to strengthen safeguards for the public. It will provide support to doctors by being able to provide expert advice, in turn improving the quality of the death certification process. It will also be able to provide a service for anyone who has just lost a loved one, by increasing transparency, by offering an opportunity to raise concerns, and ultimately, by avoiding unnecessary distress for the bereaved.

Overall, the medical examiner system is a key element of the NHS safety system and will ensure that any clinical issues and learning are quickly identified to improve patient safety. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his continued support over the years in implementing the medical examiner system, and of course the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his ongoing work on patient safety and leadership in this area.

In preparation for this Bill, a Joint Committee of both Houses was appointed to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s draft Bill. I am grateful to the Members of this House who participated in that committee and gave the Bill such careful and thoughtful consideration. They were the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, my noble friends Lady Chisholm and Lady Eaton, the noble Lords, Lord Elder and Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. Their expertise was greatly valued by the Government. The committee made a number of recommendations and I am pleased that they were able to accept the majority. It was clear that the new body should not be able to accredit safe space investigations at a local trust level, as it was felt that this would confuse the new body’s role and make it part of a system that it is investigating. The Government have listened to this concern and removed this provision from the Bill. We consider that there are other ways to improve local investigating capability, including the provisions in the Bill for the new body to provide training and guidance.

The Government have also listened to the committee’s recommendation that the maternity investigation programme for local investigations, undertaken by the investigation branch, should not be part of the new body’s remit. We want to ensure that HSSIB focuses only on a small number of thorough, national and thematic investigations, conducted using a safe space approach to ensure the greatest opportunity for learning in the NHS. It is important to note that it will be possible under the Bill for the new body still to carry out national and thematic investigations into maternity; in fact, the current branch has conducted two national investigations relating to maternity care, which are separate from the local maternity investigations programme. I reassure the House that we will also allow the current investigations branch to continue to run the local maternity investigations programme for a period, so that it gets the maximum learning for the NHS.

A lot of recommendations were taken on board to strengthen safe space and we have defined more carefully when exemptions would apply. One recommendation which was not implemented was that the Government should make it clear that the prohibition on disclosure of safe space material applies to coroners and to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. In response to this, the Government had extensive discussions with the Ministry of Justice, while also speaking with the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Coroner. After careful consideration, we concluded that the safe space should not interfere with the coroners’ ability to carry out their statutory functions. The Bill now provides that a coroner may request disclosure of safe space material from HSSIB, but only if it relates to a matter that is relevant to an inquest or an investigation. However, crucially, the Bill also provides that a coroner may not disclose such information in an inquest or otherwise to another person unless the coroner has obtained an order of the High Court. This ensures that participants in an HSSIB investigation still see it as a safe space. We consider that this is the most appropriate way for safe space provisions under the Bill to work alongside the powers of coroners, as set out in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

The Government have also decided not to accept the committee’s recommendation to extend HSSIB investigations to independently funded healthcare. We are sympathetic to this recommendation but do not want to pre-empt the findings of the Paterson inquiry, which is expected to report shortly. The Government have committed to review this recommendation once the report is published. I am sure that we will have some debate as this goes through the House.

Finally, the Joint Committee considered whether the new body’s remit should be extended to the devolved territories in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and how it would be devolved across cross-border healthcare pathways. After extensive discussion with the devolved Administrations, the Government concluded that the remit of the new body will not be extended to cover the devolved nations. We want to enable co-operation between the new body and the devolved Administrations where investigations involve cross-border care pathways. We believe that the best way to achieve this is through memoranda of understanding rather than through legislation. I am sure that that point will also be ably tested as the Bill goes through the House.

Overall, the Joint Committee, the CQC, the BMA, NHS Providers and patient representatives have all welcomed the draft Bill. They have looked forward to the introduction of this legislation as soon as possible, stating that they believe HSSIB in its new form will play a vital role in improving patient safety and learning across the NHS.

Having set out the general purpose of this Bill and its broad terms, my priority today is to hear the expertise of the House, so that we can begin the robust process, as ever, of scrutinising and strengthening the Bill. I want to listen as carefully as possible and will seek to engage as fully as possible with all groups across the House, whether by party or by individual, to ensure that we deliver the HSSIB on the best possible statutory footing, so that it can deliver for patients and the NHS in a world-leading way. On that basis, I beg to move.