Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 7th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 3:21 pm, 7th February 2020

Given that this discussion would be with the lead Minister for Social Care and the lawyers, I am very happy to make that commitment on their behalf. I am sure that we could drill down into the legal detail of exactly where the conflict occurs to understand that issue. Perhaps I might go on to explain some of the reasons why we think that some of the provisions have been overtaken in trying to improve palliative care, subsequent to the previous presentation of the Bill. That may be reassuring as well and might help in the debate. Would that be helpful? I will also explain the concerns on the requirement around prescriptions; that was my intent in progressing.

The issue around this representing an expansion of CCGs’ liability for the cost of medicines is that it would encompass the medicines needs of all privately funded hospice residents as well. As it is written, there is a concern. It arguably gives special treatment to one group of privately funded health service users over everybody else with some form of privately funded healthcare. This would require CCGs to fund the cost of drugs, which also risks CCGs choosing to stop funding beds through contracts. If that were to be an unintended consequence, it needs to be considered carefully. I am sure that there will be further debate on this.

This Government are committed to ensuring that we improve end-of-life care and recognise many of the issues that have been raised. They published an end of life care choice commitment in 2016, which I know has been debated previously, in response to an independent review of choice, and it sets out what everyone should expect from their care and the actions taken to reduce variation, which has also been raised here. It also sought to make more personalised care a reality. Since its publication, NHS England, health system partners and stakeholders have worked through the national End of Life Care Programme Board to provide more data, more tools and more evidence, support and guidance to local areas to highlight unwarranted variation, to improve policy development and to provide better commissioning. The end-of-life care atlas of variation, published by Public Health England, highlights variation across a broad range of measures and indicators such as place of death, admissions, the proportion of patients and identification recorded on a GP register. This allows CCGs to be benchmarked across services against one another and to draw on advice, best practice and guidance to improve service quality. This is a significant improvement and promises to be helpful.

This has led to new investment to support the NHS long-term plan, with new actions to help drive further improvement in end-of-life care and support choice. They include accelerating the rollout of personal health budgets, with up to 200,000 people, including those with palliative care needs, benefiting by 2023-24 and rolling out of training to help staff identify, and provide care for, those in their last year of life. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, wanted some numbers on that. The latest available show that more than 600 doctors are qualified in palliative medicine—this is almost 200 more since 2010; there are 1,300 nurses and health visitors working in palliative medicine, which is over 300 more since 2010, and the people plan will have a holistic approach to how we can attract clinicians of all the different levels into the harder-to-recruit areas. We have discussed that a number of times over the Dispatch Box, so I shall not go into more detail now.

A number of Peers asked about funding. We are making £4.5 billion of new investment to fund expanded community multidisciplinary teams, providing targeted support to those identified as having the greatest risks and needs. That is important because the majority of palliative care is provided in the community, as the noble Baroness will know, and it is important that we make sure that GP and community care is properly funded. On the £25 million announced by the Prime Minister in August, this was provided to CCGs in October 2019. It has already been allocated to hospices. The 2019 manifesto set out a commitment to build and provide further support for this, which I hope reassures your Lordships. The reason that the money was provided for hospices and palliative care services was that, as was rightly said, hospices do not exist in all areas, so the intention is to make sure that we can drive down variation and improve services across the system.

In addition, we are upgrading NHS support to all care home residents with the enhanced health in care homes model rolled out across the whole country over the coming decade. We are also making end-of-life care one of the new quality improvement areas for the revised GP quality and outcomes framework to support early identification and personalised care planning. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, asked me specifically about those who wish to die at home. We know that most patients express a preference to die at home. Currently, around 47% of patients die in hospital. This has improved since 2007, when the figure was 56%, but it is important to note that there are occasions when admission to hospital may not be preventable because, as a situation progresses, some patients may want to be in hospital as death approaches because they feel safer at that point. In other cases, the family or care giver may not be able to cope at that point, but we are working hard to improve choice.

I turn to Clause 2, relating to the treatment of children, and the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, my noble friend Lord Ribeiro, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, my noble friend Lady Stroud and a number of others. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has set out proposals calling for mediation in the tragic cases where there is a disagreement in the giving or withdrawing of any form of medical treatment for a child with a life-limiting illness. Decisions around withdrawal of treatment are never easy and it is difficult for any of us to imagine the pain and suffering that families in such situations go through. At the heart of each of these difficult cases, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, is the well-being of the child. That must remain everybody’s focus. It is important that we do all we can to ensure that families and medical experts communicate and, where possible, reach agreement on the best interests of the child. My deepest sympathies are of course with any family facing such a difficult decision and trying to navigate the challenges of our healthcare system in such a distressing moment.

Mediation can and does play a vital role in facilitating better communications and creating a space where voices on both sides of a dispute can be heard in a non-adversarial way, which is of course what we all want to achieve. It is certainly important that the legal framework is considered as part of this. The evidence shows that, unfortunately, it does not provide a solution in every dispute, particularly those most serious cases where there is a breakdown in communication or trust between the clinicians in the hospital and the parents, which may lead to animosity and lengthy court battles. It is incumbent on us all to do what we can to prevent these difficult and sad cases reaching court in the first place, which is extremely distressing for all parties—we have seen those cases.

The Government are very supportive of the many excellent mediation schemes available, including those run by charities and the private sector, and we pay tribute to those who run them. We are not sure that legislation is the answer to making sure that they exist everywhere. They are thankfully rare cases, but none the less extremely tragic. We believe that the lack of statutory prescription so far means that mediation can be tailored specifically to meet the individual needs of families and their children, clinicians and hospitals, reflecting the unique circumstances of each case. We are working with NHS England and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics to look at the effectiveness of mediation and of clinical ethics committees in managing disagreements and at how this could be improved. At this time, there does not appear to be a strong call from experts in the field to make mediation or clinical ethics committees a mandatory requirement. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Care has agreed to attend the Nuffield Council on Bioethics round-table discussion on disagreements in the care of critically ill children. This will bring together high-level health policymakers aiming to agree a set of actions reflecting what NHS leaders should do and further support the creation of healthcare environments that foster good collaborative relationships between parents and healthcare staff.

We absolutely believe that healthcare professionals have a duty to act in the best interests of their patients. When doctors and families do not agree about the best interests of a child, as in the tragic cases we have seen in recent years, the courts can be asked to make an independent judgment on the best interests of the child. We are concerned about the issues raised and that legislating in the way set out in the Bill would create a presumption that, unless it is clearly established not to be the case, the views of the parents represent the child’s best interests. There may be instances where this is not necessarily the case. This would be a significant departure from the current situation, which requires the court to make no assumptions and to consider the child’s best interests with an open mind. Establishing a default presumption would override the court’s sole focus on the interests of the child.

In almost every case of dispute, families and clinicians are able to reach agreement. The rare occasions when cases end up in court are picked up and amplified by the media. They are heartbreaking, which is perhaps why they appear more common than they are. Legislating for those rare but difficult cases would not be appropriate at this time. Our efforts are best directed at ways to avoid them in the first instance. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Care would like to offer to meet the Gard family, or representatives of the Charlie Gard Foundation, to discuss how we can focus our efforts on this important area, if that would be welcomed.

To conclude, I would like to thank the noble Baroness for raising the important issues in the Bill and every noble Lord who has contributed to this significant debate. However, I must advise that the Government have expressed their reservations and will move to oppose.