Health and Care Bill - Committee (6th Day) (Continued)

– in the House of Lords at 7:24 pm on 26th January 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Amendments 174B to 176A not moved.

Clause 39 agreed.

Clause 40: Reconfiguration of services: intervention powers

Debate on whether Clause 40 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I would much prefer that the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, should open on this group. I will speak to the question of whether Clause 40 should stand part when that has happened.

Photo of Baroness Cumberlege Baroness Cumberlege Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 179 and the other amendments in my name. I thank the noble Lords who put their names to these amendments: the noble Lords, Lord Shipley, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Patel. We are told that the driving force of the Bill is to ensure that health and care services are delivered at place; and to empower local leaders—leaders who know what their local communities’ needs are and who will make decisions about how care is delivered. I am sure that is music to the ears of my noble friend Lord Mawson.

We are told that the integrated care systems—the ICSs—will be given the flexibility to plan, to commission and to provide services according to the specific needs of their population. This principle is undermined by the unchecked power that the Bill gives the Secretary of State over local configuration of services. I am pleased to tell your Lordships—particularly my noble friend Lord Howe, who is on the Front Bench for this item—that Amendments 179 to 183 have the support of a number of influential voices. These are voices from the health and local government sectors, the NHS Confederation, the King’s Fund, NHS Providers, the LGA, the BMA, National Voices and the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny. These organisations cover NHS leaders, local authorities, clinicians and patients. It is significant that they are united in their deep concern about the powers that the Secretary of State would have over local reconfigurations as the Bill currently stands.

Of course, there is an existing system for local reconfiguration and it works very well. It is overseen by the Independent—that word is very important—Reconfiguration Panel, the IRP. This has helped take politics out of the difficult decisions surrounding services. Crucially, the current process for service reconfiguration starts with local consultation and consideration of clinical advice. These elements are fundamental, and they must be maintained in a future process. In short, the Secretary of State should be able to intervene in a decision about local services only once local people have had their say on the proposed changes, and once clinical advice has been considered. It will be to the detriment of patient safety if it has not. Under the existing arrangements, when the process takes too long, it has often not been about the IRP but about the Secretary of State’s failure to reach a decision, yet the Government state that the new powers are needed to speed up the process.

Just before Christmas, for instance, the Secretary of State finally made a decision on the reconfiguration of local stroke services in Kent and Medway—a decision that had been on his desk for two years. That was not because the Secretary of State disagreed with the panel’s findings; on the contrary, he accepted the recommendations in full and has always done so.

I know that we need to speak at speed and get through our business so I will resist telling the Committee of the shattering case of Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals, where the politics got involved. A proper process was followed and took a year. Even today they are only starting to build what was decided 16 years ago. It has taken that long to get to this position. The detail is fascinating but I will not go into it because it is quite lengthy.

Amendment 179 addresses the scope of reconfiguration in the current form. Currently the Bill allows the Secretary of State to intervene in any number of local service reconfigurations. This would include decisions about an individual GP or dental surgery, for example—very local issues. We could well see a world in which the DHSC is snowed under with such decisions to intervene. These are local decisions but still are very real to local communities. In turn, this would increase the costs for the department and reduce the time that its civil servants had to spend on national policy matters. The amendment would mean that any intervention from the Secretary of State could be made only on complex and significant decisions.

Amendment 180 concerns transparency and clinical oversight. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, talked about that earlier today. We agree that decisions on local service reconfigurations should be based on clinical advice. That is the way in which services should be delivered to ensure patient safety and quality of care. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult all relevant organisations delivering the NHS services under consideration, to obtain the clinical advice of the integrated care board, and to publish those submissions. This will ensure that changes to clinical services are based primarily on clinical, not political, pressures.

Of course we should put patient safety and health first but the amendment would also require the Secretary of State to consult the health and overview scrutiny committees. They scrutinise local service reconfigurations and ensure accountability to local communities where a service spans more than one local authority area. Again, I hope noble Lords will agree that patients and citizens have the right to scrutinise and to have a say in how the services that they pay for through their taxes are delivered.

Amendment 181 is important. It seeks to ensure that decisions on local reconfigurations are not delayed over months. For example, it could be politically expedient for a Secretary of State to delay a decision because of a pending election, either local or national. Limiting the period to three months would mean that the Secretary of State had to provide certainty to local service managers for planning purposes and reduce any delays to accessing care.

Amendment 182 would ensure that changes are in the public interest. At Second Reading, the Minister said that the new powers for the Secretary of State were about ensuring accountability. Surely it follows that he must set out why he is intervening in a configuration process and why it is the public interest for him to do so. The amendment would require him to publish a statement demonstrating that any decision he has made on a reconfiguration proposal is in the public interest and that it has been taken with consideration of its positive impact on patient safety. Again, this will provide a safeguard against any decisions being made for politically expedient reasons.

Amendment 183 addresses the ability of the Secretary of State to act as a catalyst in reconfigurations. I hope noble Lords will agree that local service reconfigurations should be based on clinical considerations. In its current form, the Bill would allow the Secretary of State to be the instigator of local reconfigurations, even if there were no appetite locally. This is a significant overreach of powers. How can the Secretary of State know what is best for patient safety in any one of the 42 ICS areas? The amendment removes the Secretary of State’s power to act as the catalyst for reconfiguration.

In closing, I hope that the Minister, my noble friend Lord Howe, will view these amendments in the spirit in which they have been drafted. I have sought a compromise to ensure that clinical checks and balances on the new powers of the Secretary of State are reasonable and acceptable. After all, they are intended to protect the Secretary of State and his department as well as patients, clinicians and service managers. If I have been unconvincing, I hope that my noble friend will be persuaded by the succinct letter in today’s Times signed by Richard Murray, the chief executive of the King’s Fund, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, and Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation—all of them and their organisations have been very helpful in advising me on this issue.

I hope also that Ministers will recognise the breadth and depth of support from the health and local government sectors for these amendments. They will know that bringing together so many organisations with varying roles and priorities is very difficult. The fact that so many are singing the same song is a triumph and I am sure that my noble friends on the Front Bench will consider these views and give pause for thought. I am sure that they will not be dismissive. That is not in either of their natures, as we have witnessed on other matters. However, I want some reassurance that these amendments are not totally negative and are not to be totally dismissed. I hope that my noble friends will seek to work towards some of these amendments because they are really important. Those of us who have been through the whole process of reconfigurations in a position of authority—not as a Minister, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, was, but as junior Ministers—know how fraught reconfigurations are. I therefore hope that these amendments will find some favour with my noble friends on the Front Bench.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour

My Lords, your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution, of which I have the honour to be a member, has advised the House, as has the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, that this Bill is a skeleton or framework Bill. It provides a multitude of vaguely delineated powers and duties. It is often impossible for noble Lords to scrutinise these meaningfully because their meaning is so unclear

The Bill is also an instance of a growing tendency in the Government’s legislative practice to create “soft law”—that is, guidance, rules and directions which are not susceptible to parliamentary scrutiny but are, in, effect binding. It also creates “hard law”, which is not susceptible to parliamentary scrutiny, as in the Henry VIII power in Clause 15, but is subject only to the negative resolution procedure.

This manner of legislating is part of a pattern documented in a long series of reports by the Constitution Committee, drawing the attention of the House to Henry VIII clauses which are convenient to the Executive but subversive for parliamentary democracy, and to the creation of delegated powers enabling Ministers to bring in significant policy change subject to little or no parliamentary scrutiny. The DPRRC has reported that the Bill contains no less than 155 delegated powers.

What is egregious, however, are the autocratic powers that the Bill accords to the Secretary of State. I had sought to indicate that I wished to speak on the previous group, but there was some confusion, and the Chair did not invite me to do so. I hope therefore that noble Lords will bear with me as I take us back for a moment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others, noted Clause 39, entitled

General Power to Direct NHS England,” states:

“The Secretary of State may give NHS England directions as to the exercise of any of its functions.”

It goes on to say:

“The directions that may be given include a direction as to … when or how a function is, or is not, to be exercised” and

“matters to be taken into account in exercising a function.”

The autocratic power provided by Clause 39 is exacerbated by Clause 64, which repeals the duties previously placed on the Secretary of State to respect autonomy within the NHS.

The mischief, which the noble Baroness’s amendments in this group seek to mitigate, is further compounded by Clause 40 and Schedule 6, which confer comprehensive powers on the Secretary of State in regard to reconfiguration of NHS services. Effectively these three clauses together confer upon the Secretary of State, with only the exception stated at proposed new Section 13ZD in Clause 39, mainly in relation to clinical discretion, absolute power over the NHS.

We are told that the Secretary of State has no intention of bossing NHS England around and that he needs powers to sort out failures within the NHS system. In our earlier debate today on continuing care, and in his response to the last debate, the Minister said it is not the Government’s intention to interfere unduly in the affairs of ICBs. However, in a letter to the Times today, referred to by the noble Baroness, the chief executive officers of the King’s Fund, NHS Providers and the NHS Confederation warn of the danger that the Bill may lead to politicisation of decision-making in the NHS, of the kind which the noble Lord, Lord Warner, described in the last debate and which the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has just explained. The fact remains that Clauses 39, 40 and 64 make the Secretary of State untrammelled master of the NHS.

With such power comes temptation, not least for Department of Health officials. What might “unduly” mean in practice? The Secretary of State may often refrain from interfering, but too often he, or officials acting in his name, may not. In any case, to accord the Secretary of State such excessive power is wrong in principle. The legislation should strike an acceptable balance between the autonomy which NHS leaders and managers need if they are to do their jobs well, responding as they judge appropriate to local needs, and a due accountability of the NHS to the Secretary of State and, through him, to Parliament. Here, however, we have neither. The Bill concentrates power over the NHS in the hands of a Minister who is poorly accountable to Parliament in the exercise of much of his power.

It is commonly observed that government in England is excessively centralised. The Minister told us in the debate on ICPs earlier today that the Bill is based on the principle of subsidiarity. However, what purports in the Bill to be an exercise in decentralisation, through the creation of ICBs and the prospect of ICPs, when examined is in fact a hierarchical measure through which power is concentrated in the Secretary of State at the top and is tightly circumscribed below by his powers of patronage and direction.

The constitutional character of this legislation is part of a larger story of Executive aggrandisement by a Government who, armed with a large majority in the elected Chamber, have scant respect for other sources of authority or for the conventions of parliamentary government. That the Government’s majority in the House of Commons is decreasingly biddable does not make its Executive arrogance any less objectionable. Clause 40, like Clauses 39 and 64, should not stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Stevens of Birmingham Lord Stevens of Birmingham Crossbench 7:45 pm, 26th January 2022

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak to this group of amendments. I recognise that a public service as important as the National Health Service has to be democratically accountable to the Secretary of State and Parliament. I also recognise that the broad provisions of the Bill have wide support outside this House from organisations ranging from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to the representative organisations spoken of today, the Patients Association, and many others which, at the inception of these proposals, came forward to advocate for them.

However, unfortunately, when we turn our attention to Clause 40 and Schedule 6 there is no such support for the measures therein. These provisions manage, perhaps uniquely, to combine being unnecessary, undesirable and unworkable—a legislative trifecta that has little to commend it.

The measures are unnecessary for the reasons set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. There is already a well-established mechanism for local consultation, under which democratic local authorities can, if concern arises, bat a proposal up to the Secretary of State for a national decision with the advice of an independent expert panel. There is also established public law in this area, which can be tested through judicial review. Just about nobody, nationally, or locally, thinks that the proposals in this part of the Bill are needed. They are, in effect, a solution in search of a problem.

As well as unnecessary, these proposals are undesirable. They would confuse and obscure accountability for the quality and safety of patient care. The Court of Appeal held in Nettleship v South Tyneside and Sunderland CCGs in 2020 that there is no duty to include in a public consultation options which local commissioners deem to be unviable, unrealistic or unsustainable. Yet Schedule 6 would allow the Secretary of State to impose service changes that local clinicians, local patient groups and, indeed, local authorities deem unsafe or unviable. This clearly cuts across the statutory responsibilities of local boards for the safety and quality of care.

Where the Secretary of State has imposed such a service change on the local NHS, is it the Secretary of State who will then be in receipt of Care Quality Commission findings and scrutiny? Is it the Secretary of the State who will be on the receiving end of medical negligence claims, or potentially criminal proceedings? This set of measures completely obscures the well-established accountability for the quality and safety of local care.

I believe that these measures are unnecessary and undesirable, but they are also unworkable. As worded, the definition of a reconfiguration is vague and overly broad. It could capture just about any change in service provision. On page 197, the Bill refers to changes that have

“an impact on … the manner in which a service is delivered to individuals.”

That could cover just about anything, and if hospitals are proposing such a change, they have a duty to notify the Secretary of State.

By contrast, the long-standing Local Authority (Public Health, Health and Wellbeing Boards and Health Scrutiny) Regulations 2013, with which your Lordships will be intimately familiar, set a higher hurdle, which is that the consultation requirement applies to

“a substantial development or variation” in services. In its place, we would instead have, through the Bill, a set of processes that would lead to second-guessing, centralising and politicising, a furring-up of the NHS’s decision-making arteries, which, had these measures been in place during the pandemic, would have handicapped the response, at precisely the time when the NHS needs to be agile and adaptable, and will do nothing to advance the changes needed across front-line care delivery.

For all these reasons, I believe that if the Bill is passed in its current form, Clause 40 and Schedule 6 will become a running sore, not only for patients and local service but for Ministers. There are two possible ways forward. There is the proposal that Clause 40 do not stand part of the Bill, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, which would surgically excise the problem, or there is the group of amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, which would apply sutures, analgesics and disinfectant. Either approach could work, but one or the other is needed.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Chair, Youth Unemployment Committee, Chair, Youth Unemployment Committee

My Lords, I am very glad I delayed my speech so that I could hear the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, because I agree with everything he said.

My name is on Amendments 179 to 183 in this group. I shall try not to repeat the comprehensive explanation by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, of the problems these amendments would address, which are similar to those that we debated in the previous group. I hope that the Minister will accept that the proposals in the Bill as they stand are overcentralising, and that this issue will have to be addressed by the Government on Report.

I agree very strongly with the noble Lords, Lord Howarth of Newport and Lord Stevens of Birmingham, who made unanswerable contributions. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, these provisions are unnecessary, undesirable and unworkable, and they confuse and obscure accountability. I hope the Minister will take very seriously what is being said because the Bill’s ambition is to increase transparency and accountability. That is right, but it surely should be prioritised at a local level since that is where services are delivered. The Bill undermines that principle. It thinks accountability should lie in Whitehall, yet there has been no strong call to enable the Secretary of State to intervene earlier in the reconfiguration process and, anyway, there is already an established role for the Secretary of State in cases that are referred. Those processes should not be undermined.

Amendment 179 would change the definition of a reconfiguration of NHS services to ensure that only complex and significant changes to NHS services should be considered. Surely that is right. Amendment 180 would require the Secretary of State to consult all relevant health overview and scrutiny committees plus those organisations delivering relevant services locally along with the integrated care board. That must be right. Amendment 181 would require speedy decisions, and that must be right. Amendment 182 would require the Secretary of State to publish a statement demonstrating that any decision made by the Secretary of State on a reconfiguration proposal is in the public interest and has been taken with patient safety as a priority. That must be right. Crucially, Amendment 183 would prevent Secretary of State acting as the catalyst for a reconfiguration. That, too, must be right.

I hope the Minister will understand that there is much concern about the proposed new powers for a Secretary of State to intervene at any stage in a local service reconfiguration without any need to demonstrate the basis of the information on which their decisions might be reached. There is already a clear process for reviewing proposals for NHS reconfigurations, which are health overview and scrutiny processes charged with establishing whether proposals are in the best interests of their local communities.

What the Government are proposing is not in the spirit of the Bill, and I hope they will take note of the concerns expressed by the NHS Confederation and many others and bring back further amendments on Report to address them.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Crossbench

My Lords, I support all the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. She introduced them very comprehensively and I agree with what she said. My noble friend Lord Stevens of Birmingham added to it, so much has already been said and I need to be extremely brief.

I concur with my noble friend Lord Stevens of Birmingham that outside bodies, including professional organisations in medicine, oppose these powers and that they will lead to more chaos rather than solving problems. As a clinician, I find the unchecked powers for Secretaries of State over local service reconfigurations that the Bill proposes astounding. Local service reconfigurations should be driven by clinical advice and expert assessment of what services are needed to meet the health needs of a local community with patient safety at the heart, as well as considerations about what resources are available in terms of workforce, infrastructure and the proximity of alternative services.

The powers in the Bill would allow the Secretary of State to initiate service changes without any consultation. How can any Secretary of State feel sufficiently qualified to be making unilateral judgments about what constitutes “safe”? The existing, largely successful, processes, which have already been mentioned, take account of clinical advice and the views of local communities in the final decision have been effective. The noble Baroness gave the example of Kent and Medway stroke services, which were held up by the Secretary of State, not by the consultation. I strongly support these amendments and I hope that the Minister will think about removing the provisions from the Bill.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

My Lords, I shall be brief. I put my name to Clause 40 stand part, and I think that is the best way to go. I shall add one or two things. First, as Secretary of State, I asked the now noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, to lead the independent reconfiguration panel, and I never had cause to regret doing so. Secondly, I can say something which other noble Lords cannot, because I am on this side, and I am hoping that we continue to have Conservative Secretaries of State for many years hence. They will be much better off if they do not do this. If the Government take Clause 40 out, they will equally not regret doing so.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I described at Second Reading, or at some point in a meeting with the Minister, an attempt to save Ministers from themselves. I do not understand why on earth the Government want to put this burden on them. The Government have set out an ambitious programme for reform of the NHS. Why put in a clause that guarantees that that reform will be stalled? We know that reconfigurations—most of us have experienced the issue locally, if not nationally—are very difficult. There is always local opposition, often from some leading consultants, and to get it through you have to be very determined. The noble Lord, Lord Warner is right; once Ministers can intervene at any point—for example, if an MP’s local services are threatened with an unpopular change—even in the Lords, the pressure on them to intervene can be huge.

When I was a Minister, we were always mindful of the experience of my good friend David Lock, the MP for Kidderminster, who lost his seat in 2001 because as a government Minister—and a good egg—he loyally defended the decision to reduce the status of Kidderminster General Hospital and merge with Worcester. That was written on the heart of every MP, so when a proposal threatened them and their constituency, and frankly their seat, the first port of call was the Minister. We now have a system which has offshored this to a large extent, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, that it has been pretty successful.

When the Bill receives Royal Assent and becomes an Act, it will be open season on the Minister and his colleagues. On any reconfiguration where the local MP is troubled, inevitably Ministers intervene, or they use the review device. Consider the issue of children’s heart transplants and the attempt over 20 years to rationalise it, and the utter failure of that approach; that is but one example of the kind of energy that you can get the moment Ministers have powers of intervention.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative 8:00 pm, 26th January 2022

If anyone cares to look at it, it was also a very good illustration of the benefits of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel. Not only did it do something that Ministers could not do; it also did something that NHS management did not do. It is not that we are giving it back to the NHS to do what it likes—it genuinely does something independent.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

Indeed, we have a rigorous process involving the overview and scrutiny committee, as has been said, plus an Independent Reconfiguration Panel. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said, it is rather like the last debate: before us we have a set of amendments which seek to constrain the power of Ministers, and then an amendment which seeks to remove this power. I am clear that we should try to remove this power, and that this is the best course. It will be very interesting to hear from the Minister exactly why Ministers want to put this burden on them, and what benefit they can possibly see in it.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Crossbench

My Lords, I want to briefly make clear my support for this group of amendments and try to be consistent with what I said on the previous group. The only amendment which causes me to have pause for thought is Amendment 183. The NHS, perfect in every form of course, has been known to have its arteries fur up occasionally. Sometimes there is a need for scale in some services. I want to mention three or four services where scale, after clinical consideration, is important. Pathology is a good example, where we need to have more scale than many of the local pathology departments. Another one, which the Royal College of Surgeons has advocated, is elective surgery hubs, which may mean taking stuff away from a particular local hospital. Another good example is the issue of stroke specialisation, which is beneficial for patients. I have given you three examples where we do not want to totally neutralise the Secretary of State. Sometimes Ministers have a use; it may be few and far between, but occasionally they have some use. We do not want to say that you cannot ever be a catalyst for change. That seems a bit drastic in Amendment 183, and I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, to think about that, because sometimes scale is important, with clinical advice for the benefit of patients.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers

My Lords, I am in favour of surgical excision. I oppose the powers of the Secretary of State in Clause 40 and Schedule 6 to intervene in decisions on reconfiguration of health services. Far be it from me to want to protect Conservative Secretaries of State for Health from themselves, but I warn that if they use these powers they will eventually get the blame.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, gave a number of very good reasons why this clause should be deleted from the Bill. My reason is somewhat different. I think these powers are very dangerous. We have recently seen how the Government’s powers to provide or withdraw funding from a proposal, let us say, to build a new school or improve infrastructure in a particular constituency have got them into trouble. We have heard allegations made against Government Whips by Members of Parliament of actions which could be criminal offences of bribery. It is alleged that, in seeking to ensure support for their leader, they are threatening Members of Parliament that funding for their projects, which have already been declared to be in the public interest of their constituents, will be withdrawn unless they behave in a certain way, so political considerations would trump public interests.

Like the former Member of Parliament to whom the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred, all politicians know that the provision of a new hospital or clinic or, on the contrary, the closing of a healthcare setting are very sensitive considerations in elections. All parties ensure that the voters know their views on these matters at election time and in between elections. The Prime Minister knows this. Why else would he put such emphasis on his promise of 40 so-called new hospitals by 2030 if this were not the case? It makes a good headline, even if we know that some of them are not new and some of them are not hospitals.

The powers of reconfiguration sought by the Secretary of State in Clause 40 would give the Government the ability to change the decisions of those put in place locally and well qualified to make them in a non-partisan and needs-based way, thus allowing the Government to wield unwarranted political power. It is probable that this Government would not be able to resist doing so, for the wrong reasons, and it is incumbent on all parties to stop them by deleting Clause 40 from the Bill. Indeed, I do not think that I would be in favour of giving these powers to any Government of any political party; they are just too liable to be misused.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I think the Minister is probably getting the message by now. I shall speak to my Clause 40 stand part debate and the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Merron. Somebody said earlier that we can be sure that the proposals to allow greater powers for the Secretary of State to intervene in reconfigurations is not something that the NHS asked for. That is almost certainly true.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, on her great coalition- building; she is very good at building coalitions in support of the things that she cares about, and she has definitely managed to do that with this group of amendments.

Noble Lords have pointed out that, at the moment, we have a system which works. It may be slow, and it is absolutely true that it has processes which take too long, but there are elements of public and patient involvement through consultations. The changes made in 2012 under the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, brought in four tests and some rigour of external independent evaluation. The core of that process still exists. As a non-executive member of the board of the Whittington, I can say that this is exactly the kind of thing that we have been involved in in our own hospital.

The consultations might be improved, but they will not be improved at all by this proposal. In fact, I think that this clause is very odd indeed. It is a bad idea, and it adds nothing to the core of this Bill and its central aim, which is to grow place-based independent and innovative healthcare, and it probably needs to go.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses for their contributions. I would be pretty blind or deaf not to understand the level of concern across the Committee. However, if noble Lords will bear with me, I shall try to set out some justifications. I preface my remarks once again by saying that I strongly hear the views of the Committee, and I welcome the fact that previous Ministers and Secretaries of State are warning us not to fall victim to this, as it were.

I start by explaining some of the justifications. It may be helpful to start with some of the observations. The public expect Ministers to be accountable for the health service, which includes service change. We see the new intervention powers enabling the Secretary of State to act as a scrutineer and decision-maker for reconfigurations, to intervene when, for example, they can see a critical benefit or cost to taking one or other course of action, or to take action where there is a significant cause for public concern. Having said that, we accept that public concern could well be a political one, so we understand the concerns expressed by noble Lords.

We expect this power to be used infrequently and, when it is used, it will be done proportionately and transparently. All decisions made using the new reconfiguration call-in power in the Bill must be published, which will ensure transparency and proper scrutiny. The new call-in power for reconfigurations will allow the Secretary of State better to support effective change and respond to stakeholder concerns, including from the public health oversight and scrutiny committees and parliamentarians in a more timely way.

I turn to Amendment 183. Given the role of the Secretary of State, it is proportionate to ask him or her to ask local commissioners to consider service change where there is concern. Once again, we do not expect this power to be used frequently, and all service changes, regardless of whether a Secretary of State has been a catalyst, will still be required to go through due process and where appropriate local consultation. Before any proposal was agreed, the planning and assurance for a proposal would still have to include strong public and patient engagement, consistency with a current and prospective need for patient choice, a clear clinical evidence base and support from commissioners.

I turn to a couple of points from my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, who said that the powers were unnecessary, undesirable and unworkable. To look at the necessity of the power, the current system can lead to referrals coming very late to the Secretary of State, and the power will allow the Secretary of State to intervene earlier to avoid that. For example, my noble friend Lady Cumberlege referred to the Kent and Medway stroke services reconfiguration proposal. One reason why it was lengthy was the need to review the right options for the system. We are hoping that it goes something like this—that you could either knock heads together or, as someone put it more starkly, have a sword of Damocles over them to come to a decision more quickly. But once again we understand the concerns.

I turn to Amendment 180. It is vital that all local views, including that of the health overview and scrutiny committees, are represented in the reconfiguration. The new power in the Bill will not replace the important local scrutiny and engagement that plays such an important role in service change decisions, and a duty for those locally responsible for service change proposals to consult local authorities will remain. It is right that for commissioners and providers who are responsible for planning, assuring and delivering reconfigurations the duty to consult HOSCs and other local stakeholders continues. We are also introducing a duty for NHS England, integrated care boards, NHS trusts and foundation trusts to provide information and other assistance required for the Secretary of State to carry out functions. That will allow the Secretary of State to take into account local views. We expect the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to consider the views and carry on the way it works.

On Amendment 181, we recognise the importance of timely decision-making—

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Is the Minister saying that the Government and his department do not trust NHS England to fulfil this function any longer?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

No, we are saying that, where there is an issue and it is taking a long time, this measure allows the Secretary of State to come in in a more timely manner rather than waiting for a late referral.

Photo of Baroness Cumberlege Baroness Cumberlege Conservative 8:15 pm, 26th January 2022

My Lords, before the Minister goes on—just so I do not lose the thread here— could he tell us why the Independent Reconfiguration Panel has to go? What are the problems with it? Why do we have to move it off in order to bring in a politicised system with the Secretary of State making the decisions?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I must clarify here. I have said that we expect the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to continue to consider views. We are not getting rid of it.

Photo of Baroness Cumberlege Baroness Cumberlege Conservative

So that presents a problem. What does the Secretary of State do, and what does the independent panel do? Is it a question of the scale of the change that is being proposed? Where are the boundaries?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The Secretary of State will be advised by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, especially where there is a difficult decision that takes time, just as in the case of the Medway.

On Amendment 182, the Secretary of State’s decision-making process must already take into account the public law decision-making principles, all relevant information and his legal duties, including the public sector equality duty. The Secretary of State is also under several duties in the National Health Service Act 2006, including to promote a comprehensive health service and to support continuous improvement in services.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

There are a lot of marginal seats, and there is going to be a general election in two and a half years—maximum. A lot of the reconfiguration proposals usually relate to smaller places with smaller hospital or DGHs because their viability is often in doubt. So it is quite clear to me that any MP, particularly government MPs, will immediately take any threat of that sort to their local services to the Secretary of State. That will not speed up the process; it will guarantee the opposite. The signal that I would get from the health service as a result of this is: “Forget reconfiguration proposals until after the next election because you ain’t going to get any through.” That is why we think this is a disastrous move.

When the Minister says there will not be many interventions, that is just nonsense. The moment that MPs know the Secretary of State has the power to intervene at any stage, they will be knocking at the door of the Government, who will wilt under that pressure, because that is what happens. Then they will go back and say, “We need to have an independent review of that before you start the process.” There are so many dodges available to a Minister, if you want to dodge making a hard decision in this area, that it will completely paralyse the health service. That is why this debate is so important because it is related to the last one; the result of Ministers gaining direct control will be to delay and reverse, and I am afraid that the hopes that Ministers have for a dynamic, forward-looking health service will come to nothing.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Crossbench

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I ask the Minister to consider the point that I was trying to make about Amendment 183. The Minister and the Government have got this the wrong way round: if he is actually concerned about levels of efficiency, the supply of services and the issue of scale—and the issue of scale is a very real one—then he needs to be at the front of the process, not the end of it. It is a bit late in the day to be having these ideas about scale in a particular set of services when you have gone through the agony of the local consideration of reconfigurations. As a Minister, it would be better, if I may say so, to set out your views at the beginning with the clinical arguments for why this makes sense. Doing it at the end is bound to lead to suspicions. That is why I was asking the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, to look at the wording of Amendment 183. I say to the Minister that he is putting his involvement at the wrong part of the process.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We agree with the noble Lord. We do not want to waste time by being able to come in only late in the process. To avoid egregious uses of power, all uses are subject to public law principles and challengeable by judicial review.

We agree with the intention behind Amendment 216 but we do not feel it is necessary. Commissioners, NHS England, NHS trusts, NHS foundation trusts and a range of other bodies are required to have regard to the NHS constitution in performing their functions, as set out in Section 2 of the Health Act 2009, which goes wider than this proposed duty that would apply to the Secretary of State.

In addition, the NHS pledges that all staff will be empowered to put forward ways to deliver better and safer services for patients and their families. If a service change is material, the commissioner has a duty to consult with all impacted parties to understand their views and these existing engagement duties can encompass NHS staff. Anyone can respond to a public consultation and there is well-established process and precedent for taking these views into account. Beyond the pledge itself, it is the responsibility of an employer to ensure that staff are appropriately engaged and involved in service change decisions. The need to engage and consult is contained within organisational policies and relevant employment legislation.

I have heard what a number of noble Lords have said, especially former Ministers, Secretaries of State and others involved in the system, and it is quite clear that I need to go back and consult further. In that spirit, I ask that noble Lords do not move their amendments, and hope that I have explained the reasons why.

Clause 40 agreed.

Amendments 177 and 178 not moved.

Schedule 6: Intervention powers over the reconfiguration of NHS services

Amendments 179 to 183 not moved.

Schedule 6 agreed.

Clauses 41 to 43 agreed.

Schedule 7 agreed.

Clause 44 agreed.

Clause 45: NHS trusts: wider effect of decisions

Amendments 184 to 186 not moved.

Clause 45 agreed.

Clauses 46 to 50 agreed.

Clause 51: Appointment of chair of NHS trusts

Amendment 187 not moved.

Clause 51 agreed.

Clauses 52 and 53 agreed.

Clause 54: Capital spending limits for NHS foundation trusts