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Health Service Safety Investigations Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:19 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord O'Shaughnessy Lord O'Shaughnessy Conservative 4:19 pm, 29th October 2019

My Lords, first, I declare my interests as set out in the register and I thank my noble friend for introducing this important Bill. I sympathise with the predicament my noble friend finds herself in. Having been in her shoes, I know the amount of work that goes into preparing for a Bill, so it must be somewhat frustrating to think that we might not get to Committee before Parliament dissolves. However, as my noble friend pointed out, the matters under consideration in the Bill could not be more important and so it is vital that we relish this opportunity to talk about how we can make the NHS the safest it can be.

I also congratulate my noble friend on getting the Bill to Parliament with such strong cross-sectoral support. According to the briefings that I have seen, the GMC, NHS Providers, the NHS Confederation, the Royal College of Surgeons, the BMA, the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman have all given their support, although of course with caveats. But I think that in these fractious political times, that is a cause for hope and, whoever is in charge after the election, I hope that they will bring the Bill back soon and that that consensus continues. I thank those organisations for their excellent briefings, along with the Library and the officials for their work, and of course Keith Conradi and his team at HSIB for the work they are already doing to keep us safer.

We are all reliant on the NHS to help us when we or our loved ones are sick, and much more often than not, we receive outstanding care, but accidents do happen. According to the figures in the Library note sourced from NHS Improvement, in 2017-18, there were 52,716 reported incidents of moderate harm and 5,526 incidents of severe harm, and 4,717 deaths were reported from safety-related incidents. I think we all accept that medicine, which is so intimately tied to trying to keep sick people alive, is a risky business and that accidents and harm will happen, whatever the intentions of clinical staff, but surely we would also agree that these figures are unacceptable. By comparison, in 2018, 500 people died in aeroplane accidents across the entire world.

The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch was set up consciously to mirror the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and to achieve the kinds of gains in safety that the airline industry has seen. Given that, we must be humble enough to admit that we have much to learn from others. At this point, I pay tribute to my right honourable friend Jeremy Hunt, the former Secretary of State, who made patient safety his guiding star and who had the humility and the courage to say, “This is not good enough”. It is because of his leadership that we are here today and because of the astonishing bravery of those patients and their families who have campaigned tirelessly for a safer NHS.

I strongly support the Bill both because I think that the HSIB is the right institution to help improve patient safety and because this is a topic which cannot get enough attention. It will seem incredible to people living in the future that as a country we were happy to let nearly 5,000 people a year die from accidents in the NHS. It is akin to smoking; we used to accept it as a normal activity—a part of life and an inevitable cause of death—until collectively we made a decision to say no, that it was not acceptable and that together we must act. The Bill should be a rallying cry for a similar level of concerted action. One patient safety incident causing harm, let alone death, is one too many. It is time to change our culture and change our expectations: enough is enough.

Those are easy words to say, but they are hard to implement. We have had and continue to have scandals too numerous to mention and learned reports on those scandals. Things change a little for a while, but the fundamental cultural change, the shift from blame and denial to learning and responsibility, has not yet happened. That is why the HSSIB and the Bill are so vital. They can bring about a different safety culture, one that has proved so successful in other industries, to the NHS.

That is not to say that the Bill is perfect. There are a number of areas of concern where I would like greater clarity, although I accept that given the likelihood of a general election, those discussions may be for another day. The first area concerns Clauses 13 to 21, which govern the circumstances under which the “safe space” can be violated, as already highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Clearly, there is disagreement among stakeholders as to what is the right balance. The PHSO wants more disclosure, while the BMA wants less. I understand the need for overrides in certain circumstances and I am sure that when we reach Committee stage, we will examine the merits of each potential case, but my concern is about the overall effect on patients and clinicians. We need them to trust the system. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, has said, without that trust, the system does not work. People need to be comfortable with being honest and transparent when engaging with it. However well justified such invasions of safe space may be, there is a risk that they may undermine trust.

Has my noble friend’s department considered the collective behavioural impacts of these exemptions, and whether they might, not individually but together, undermine the core concept at the heart of the Bill? How do these exemptions compare with those in the regimes in air, maritime and so forth that have proved so effective? A table of comparisons would be helpful for us to consider whether the right balance has been struck.

Regarding the powers of HSSIB as set out in Clauses 5 to 12, again, given how important the experience of other safety investigation boards has been in the design of this one for health, it would be useful to see a comparison with those other boards to understand whether HSSIB has the tools it needs to do the job that we expect of it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has already pointed out, one obvious area where HSSIB does not have the full extent of its potential powers is in regard to the independent sector, as set out in Clause 2. My noble friend has already explained why that is the case—the pending Paterson inquiry—but I simply cannot understand why independent health services are not in scope. The trade body representing independent providers has asked for them to be covered by HSSIB, as have the RCS and the BMA. There is a big crossover of staff between the two sectors, many of whom work in both on a regular basis, and some of the most egregious medical scandals—breast implants, vaginal mesh—have been at their worst in the independent sector. Added to that, data collected in the independent sector may be crucial to an investigation into NHS services. If or when we ever get to Committee, I am sure that this will be a major area of focus for all of us to try to make sure that the Bill reaches its potential.

I would be grateful if my noble friend could give some clarity about the scope of HSSIB’s investigations. Will, for example, the systematic misuse of medicines and medical devices be included? I am thinking, in particular, of the topics under consideration by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege’s review.

Despite us knowing all about the dreadful dangers of exposure to sodium valproate in pregnancy, around 300 babies are born disabled each year because of inadequate care that contravenes all existing clinical guidelines. It seems unconscionable to me that such practice should not fall within scope for HSSIB, and I hope that my noble friend can reassure me that it does.

As my noble friend pointed out, there has been a change in the position in the Bill in regard to the 1,000 maternity investigations that are currently carried out each year. Initially, the Government resisted the Joint Committee’s proposal to remove them from HSSIB; but they have now done so, although, as my noble friend set out, at a systemic level they can fall within the scope of HSSIB if it wants to look at them.

My noble friend Lady Cumberlege is sorry that she cannot be here today, but noble Lords will know how much of her life has been devoted to improving maternity outcomes and reducing harms. Each year, more than 1,000 babies die or are left with severe brain injury because something goes wrong during labour. These devastating incidents represent the single largest litigation cost to the NHS. We need to improve and we need to learn in order to do so. We need a system for investigating such incidents rapidly, both for the sake of the families involved and so that we can identify lessons. The question should not be, “Who is to blame?”, but rather, “Was this avoidable?”. In Committee, we can consider where the right place for such investigations should be, but can my noble friend reassure the House that, wherever they take place, the right questions and principles will underpin the way that investigations are conducted?

With regard to the powers, like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I am worried about the real-world impact that HSSIB will have. I have no doubt that it will carry out, as it already does, superb investigations that deliver real insights and suggestions for how to change practice for the better. But what obligations is the rest of the system under to adopt the recommendations? Clause 28 talks about a duty on HSSIB to provide assistance. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has already set out some of the responsibilities on health providers to consider HSSIB’s recommendations. That is welcome, but it is only one side of the exchange. Surely, the rest of the NHS should have a duty to implement the recommendations, or how can we be sure that there will be any change at all?

I will end with a brief word on medical examiners. I had responsibility for this policy as a Minister and was proud to have brought about their implementation after such a long period post the Shipman scandal. I want to register my delight in seeing medical examiners put on a statutory basis and the NHS under an obligation to fully fund them. That is wonderful progress, on which I congratulate my noble friend. I hope that it is an augur of good things to come.