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Access to Palliative Care and Treatment of Children Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 7th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 1:30 pm, 7th February 2020

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, and to lend my support to the Bill. I declare an interest as a supporter of St Mary’s Hospice in Birmingham. I will focus on palliative care, but I also support the second part of the Bill in response to the heartrending cases that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned, where disagreement arises between doctors and patients over the treatment of life-threatening illnesses suffered by children. She makes a powerful case for parents and doctors to have early access to mediation. Perhaps the Minister might agree to the possibility of funding a pilot programme to examine whether this might be a sensible way forward.

Like other noble Lords, I have received a briefing from the organisation, Together for Short Lives, which has some reservations about the wording of Clause 2(4). Its initial analysis is that this provision might qualify what we understand as the child’s best interests. I think that the organisation has been in subsequent discussions with the noble Baroness and that it now understands the motivation behind what she is offering, but it would be helpful if she could say that she will be in further discussions with it between now and when we reach Committee.

On palliative care funding, I support the main thrust of what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, have said. We have a problem with palliative care in this country which is not confined to the funding of hospices; it is about the way the NHS organises palliative care and what happens in care homes. Overall, we do not have a comprehensive palliative care service, and the way I see it, the Bill aims to do just that.

The noble Baroness made some important points about access by palliative care providers to pharmaceutical services. Again, the BMA supports that, and I support its comment that clinicians providing general palliative care advice should have access to specialist care at all times. The other evidence I have looked at is from the Association for Palliative Medicine, which certainly knows what it is talking about. It has warned that access to palliative care services are poor for those of black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and for older people. This is a well-remarked concern about palliative care which, again, argues for a much more consistent approach, and the noble Baroness’s Bill points us in the direction of how we might achieve that.

I will refer to St Mary’s Hospice in Birmingham because the challenges it is facing are very relevant to those being faced in all parts of the country. Over the past 12 months this extraordinary place has supported 1,756 individuals living with a terminal illness. That case load has risen by 30% over the past five years. The hospice has looked at future projections and it expects demand to rise again over the next decade or even longer. The problem is that NHS funding has not risen to the same extent. Birmingham has had to reduce its service and the number of in-patient beds from 20 to 15 as a result. It costs £8.5 million per year to run the hospice; NHS funding amounts to 36% of this. Rising costs, particularly of drugs and pharmacy services, are not fully covered by the grant that comes from the NHS.

I said that St Mary’s Hospice is a wonderful place. I should have said it is a wonderful concept, because most of the work it does is in the community. It has developed the concept of satellite sessions, particularly in the inner city of Birmingham. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, came and spoke about this exciting new development to a reception we held in your Lordships’ House a year or two ago. It has a case load of 500 patients living in the community at any one time. When you compare the wonderful service it gives with the fact that too many people—the estimate we have at the moment is 54% of people—are dying in hospital, when most people express a wish to die at home, we clearly have some major problems.

I pay tribute to the NHS, because there is a pan-Birmingham approach. St Mary’s Hospice has been given a leadership role across Birmingham and Solihull Clinical Commissioning Group to work with partners to plan and transform the delivery of palliative care and address some of the challenges I have talked about. They have a shared vision which aims to identify everybody who might benefit from palliative care, to enable more people to live independently and to reduce overreliance on specialist and acute resources. That is just in the right framework. I think the Minister will agree that it fits into the philosophy of the NHS long-term plan and is something to be supported. I hope that Birmingham and Solihull CCG and STP will be able to look at this carefully and provide the wherewithal to enable it to happen. Clearly, at the moment patients in acute hospitals or the care sector are really missing out on the kind of service we know could be delivered if we could only shift the resources around in a more effective way.

The Prime Minister’s announcement in August of an additional £25 million investment was, of course, very welcome indeed, but I echo the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro: it would be very helpful if this could become an annual payment rather than a one-off. The Government are reluctant to intervene in the NHS but in this area they need to tell the NHS to get real about funding, to stop having annual contracts and to have long-term, running contracts so that hospices know three years ahead the amount of money they have. When we come to the Second Reading of the NHS Funding Bill, the Minister will talk about the certainty she has given the NHS over five years. I think the Government should give certainty to hospices as well. I very much support the Bill.