Clause 34 - Arrangements for exercise of public health functions

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 21st September 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause 35 stand part.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

As I said this morning to Mrs Murray, and I will repeat this afternoon for your benefit, Mr McCabe, it is a pleasure, particularly following the reshuffle, to still be serving under your chairmanship.

Clauses 34 and 35 would allow the Secretary of State to confer the exercise of his public health functions on NHS England or integrated care boards, and would allow those functions to be further delegated or subject to other collaborative arrangements, as defined elsewhere in the Bill.

Clause 34 substitutes proposed new section 7A for the existing section 7A in the National Health Service Act 2006, originally created as part of the 2012 health and care reforms, and amending the 2006 Act. To date, section 7A has been used to support the commissioning of key national NHS public health programmes, including our world-leading screening and immunisation programmes. The Government’s intention is that it should continue to do so. These public health services are embedded within, or have a clear affinity with, local NHS delivery mechanisms—a clear example being the delivery of childhood vaccinations by general practitioners.

Proposed new section 7A fulfils the same purpose as the original, in that it enables the Secretary of State to delegate the practical exercise of his public health functions to other bodies, but it is updated to keep pace with the thrust of the Bill and enable a wider range of delegation and collaboration arrangements. Not to do so would risk leaving public health programmes behind, with unnecessary restrictions on, for example, the range of bodies that could enter collaborative arrangements. The clause also consolidates amendments to section 7A made previously by the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 in respect of inclusion of combined authorities as bodies to which the exercise of public health functions may be delegated.

In addition, to ensure that the delegation or joint exercise of functions does not lead to reduced accountability for delivering services, we have proposed appropriate safeguards that make further provision on joint working and delegation arrangements. For example, the Secretary of State will be able to set out in regulations which functions can and cannot be delegated, impose conditions in relation to the delegation or joint exercise of functions, and specify the extent of such arrangements. Furthermore, the parties will be able to agree terms regarding the scope of the delegation arrangement. NHS England will also have the ability to issue statutory guidance in relation to functions that are being delegated or jointly exercised under those provisions. Subject to those safeguards, the clause supports the aims of greater health and care integration and a focus on improving population health outcomes.

Clause 35 introduces a new power for the Secretary of State, by direction, to confer the exercise of any of his public health functions on NHS England or ICBs. The clause, again, goes with the grain of the Bill more generally in resetting the relationship between the Secretary of State, as rightly accountable to Parliament, and an enlarged NHS England with an expanded set of responsibilities, which include direct commissioning and oversight of some health services.

The Bill is moving away from a focus purely on competition, and is instead re-emphasising the value alongside it of integration and collaboration. That includes being very clear on the role that the Government have to play. To that end, there is a suite of proposals in the Bill that assert the Secretary of State’s ability to intervene, set direction and make decisions, not as a substitute for clinical expertise, but in setting that clear direction and being accountable. I suspect that, if not on these clauses, then on those we will debate in a moment, that will come to the fore in our discussions.

Clause 35 is, to an extent, illustrative of that and relates closely to, for example, clause 37’s power to direct NHS England. As the law stands, and indeed as it would stand with the changes proposed by clause 34 alone, the Secretary of State’s ability to delegate the exercise of his public health functions effectively depends on securing agreement with the body being delegated to. That arrangement has generally worked well since its inception as part of the 2012 reforms, and as far as possible the Government intend to continue to operate in that way. However, the power gives Minsters a backstop if agreement is not reached in a timely way or is unreasonably withheld. It also enables them to give clear instructions where needed or where it would be more efficient to provide a direction rather than set up a whole arrangement.

Delay and confusion can and do affect the health of those relying on public health services, so the backstop power reflects the proper relationship, as we see it, between the Secretary of State and the public health system. It also sits alongside other mechanisms, notably regulation-making powers, in relation to local government’s exercise of public health functions. However, it is important to emphasise that directions must be published as soon as practicable, and the power would, of course, have to be exercised within the normal bounds of ministerial decision making, accountability and transparency.

Furthermore, any decision to exercise the power will be premised and guided by general public law principles and in line with the Secretary of State’s general statutory duties. Those duties will of course form part of any Secretary of State’s reasoning on whether it would be appropriate to exercise the power. In particular, they would need to consider section 2A(1) of the NHS Act 2006. As such, the Government believe that clauses 34 and 35 embody a proportionate addition to the Secretary of State’s powers.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

As the Minister says, the clauses relate to public health. We might previously have anticipated that Jo Churchill would have fielded them, but obviously she has moved Departments. I want to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to her for her service as Public Health Minister. We worked well together, particularly in the proceedings on the Medicines and Medical Devices Act 2021. We have disagreed over the course of our work, and that is good—disagreement is good in a democracy—but we always disagreed well. I wish her well in her new role, although I might highlight the irony that, after all the work she did in public health to reduce fizzy drinks consumption, the top of the order of business at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the moment is presumably trying to restore carbon dioxide supplies to get those fizzy drinks going again—I am sure she will seek for them to be sugar-free, if nothing else.

Today is also my first opportunity to formally congratulate and welcome Maggie Throup to her new role as Public Health Minister. I have long thought that it is pretty much the best job in Government, and gives the Minister the chance to shape and improve the lives of millions, if done well. From my work with her as a near neighbour, I know that she will give the job her all. I look forward to working with her and scrutinising the work that she does.

Of course, the job of Public Health Minister has been made an awful lot harder by the preceding decade. The other day I spoke about the bill for a decade of austerity falling due, and that is manifest nowhere more than in the provision of public health services and the impact of cuts on those services. In his introduction to these clauses, the Minister characterised the legislation as protecting the status quo, but the status quo relative to where we were in 2012 is very different: public health funding for 2019-20 was down 15% on where it was prior to the changes in the 2012 Act. If we set that against a growing and ageing population and all the attendant extra spending challenges that go with that, the real-terms impact is much greater. That has meant significant cuts: a cut of nearly half for support for health at work, the place where many of us will fall sick; a cut of a quarter for NHS health checks, a core preventative tool; and a cut of a quarter for smoking cessation programmes, despite how effective they are. Of course, the areas with the greatest needs have suffered the most and experienced the greatest cuts. Those cuts do not even fall equally.

For all the talk that we hear from the Government about prevention—we see it in these proceedings, the White Paper and the Bill—the reality is that Government policy over the last decade has made things much harder for our health system by creating extra demand. That is devastating not only for those individuals who have missed out, but for the system too. There is much greater demand on our health system as a result of the decisions that we have taken, and that is sad.

We have talked a lot about the 2012 Act, and much of what we are doing in Committee is removing its provisions, because they were not very good. However, one area where there seems to be no disagreement—no suggestion from the Government or the Opposition that we might change the position—is the idea that public health should go back home to local government. That is still an area of consensus that we can build on—of course it is. It means that our excellent public health staff, spearheaded by our world-class directors, can influence not only traditional public health-type services, but the whole range of services that shape the public’s health: licensing, planning, leisure, social care and much more—all those important things our local authorities do. It is just a shame and a wasted opportunity that this period has been characterised by cuts, particularly to those with the greatest need, rather than by investment in our communities.

I shudder to think of two things. The first is the amount of time that those skilled staff have spent on what is euphemistically called “service redesign” but is actually cuts. What could that amount of wasted time have been better spent on? The second is the professionals in that field who have chosen to leave because they do not want to be part of that. That is a real shame, and has really hindered our approach to tackling public health.

The Opposition do not intend to divide the Committee on clauses 34 and 35; at the end of the day, we would much rather that public health funding was spent at a local level than at a national one. We think it will have greater impact, and frankly we can get better value from it by combining it with local services. However, I want to test the clauses a little, starting with clause 34.

What we have seen in proceedings so far—I think this is sitting 10—is that, in reality, this is not an integration Bill; it is an NHS reorganisation Bill under an integration banner. I heard the Prime Minister himself promising a further White Paper, and presumably a further Bill, on integration in the future. The Minister has said that this Bill paves the way, but this was never a paving Bill. I challenge anybody to find in the White Paper or any publication from the Government relating to this piece of legislation the word “paving”—that is, until the Minister introduced it after the Prime Minister’s rather unhelpful intervention.

We heard from the Minister himself, when explaining to the Committee why a councillor cannot chair an integrated care board, that NHS bodies do not permit councillors to do so. He is telling us that this is about NHS bodies, not about partnership bodies. These are NHS bodies; they are accountable to NHS England and they can be altered by NHS England.

It has been a settled point of public policy for the past decade that public health is delegated to local authorities, for all the good reasons I mentioned. This may well be just my understanding, but I do not want to let this clause go without testing it: proposed new subsection 7A(2) provides for the range of eligible bodies that the Secretary of State can delegate the powers to. The first is NHS England, which would make sense in the case of big, national programmes such as the ones the Minister talked about in terms of vaccination. Another is a local authority, which makes sense for all the reasons I have given.

Yet another is a combined authority, which I suspect was not a feature of the 2012 Act—I do not think, although I might be wrong, that combined authorities were yet a twinkle in a local government leader’s eye at that point. However, with a combined authority, any arrangement would surely be by the consent of its members, rather than by delegation to the combined authority itself. Combined authorities are generally skeleton structures that act as an agglomeration of interested parties, rather than significant entities in themselves, so surely a local authority would receive those powers first and then, by agreement, transfer them to combined authority level with its partners.

Finally, there is an integrated care board. What is the reason for that? If these things get delegated to local government, why would they be delegated to an NHS body? Is that not an attempt, rather than repealing the provisions in the 2012 Act that moved public health back to local authorities, to do it on a de facto basis without addressing the point? That might be an unintended consequence, so I hope the Minister will address that and say that that is not the case.

Last Thursday, we dealt with the counterpart conversation to this one. We have debated multiple times the provision for health functions of the Secretary of State or NHS England to be delegated to the integrated care boards. That is in the spirit of what this legislation is about— local decision making—but at no point was there ever a proposal for any of those functions to be delegated to a local authority or combined authority. That, again, gets to the root of the problem with this Bill, and the core reason why the Government’s frequent integration efforts stall, spin their wheels and do not go anywhere. Local authorities are not treated equally, whether that manifests in social care—a very visible inequality in our health system—or in public health, as in this case. They ought to be equal partners, but they are anything but. Again, I hope the Minister can address that issue.

I have one final point to make about clause 34, which is not something that I think could be put on the face of the Bill, but is something I would like the Minister to affirm as a principle: that if a function is delegated to a local community, all of the funding needs to be delegated to it too. Too often, national Government devolve a specific responsibility but top-slice the funding, setting local communities up to fail. As I say, I do not think that point would be on the face of the Bill, but I would be interested in the Minister’s reflections on it.

I will finish with clause 35. I listened carefully to what the Minister said, and I certainly do not want to fire the starting gun on clauses 37 or 38. We have plenty of time, so I will save those clauses for later—something Committee members will anticipate with great eagerness. However, at all points in the Bill—a Bill that is supposed to be about the devolution to local areas of powers and responsibilities to shape their communities—there is always a corresponding clause, the next one, which says, “But only if the centre likes what they do. If devolution strays too far from the core principles, we will put a stop to that.” To me, that is not what devolution is, so I am keen to hear from the Minister that that is considered an exceptional power. Frankly, I do not know why a Minister or a Secretary of State would want so broad a power, because they would do nothing else with their day; if they had to scrutinise the public health plans of 42 different communities in England, it would be a very long day. Again, I am in danger of firing the starting gun on clauses 37 and 38, so I will stop at that point.

As I say, in the case of public health, more local is better, but some elements of the Bill are not quite what they say on the tin. I would be interested in some clarification from the Minister.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 2:15 pm, 21st September 2021

The shadow Minister has made a number of serious points—I am not sure how one spins the wheels when the car is stalled, but none the less I took his point. First, at the heart of this Bill is the fact that we seek to strike the appropriate balance between what is clearly a national health service, accountable to the Secretary of State and Parliament, and local flexibilities and local integration. The debate we will have for the next two hours or so will probably be about whether we have struck that balance appropriately, but that is the core of what we are seeking to do here.

The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about the importance of local authorities in this space. He and I share a common view on that, and he is right: one of the few things in the 2012 Act that I suspect he would have agreed with was the recognition of the public health function of local authorities. We are not seeking to do anything in the Bill to undermine that function in any way. It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I believe that the Bill provides for multiple layers of integration. Within a local NHS system, at an ICB level and then at an integrated care partnership level, there will be increased integration with local authorities and others, laying the foundations for the ambitious programme that the Prime Minister set out when he spoke earlier in this Session about the health and care levy.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about combined authorities. My recollection—I may be wrong—is that they date to about 2016, rather than 2012, and my understanding of the power is that it does not go against what he was saying, but provides for the continued evolution of the system and enables that delegation to take place. In practical terms, I would envisage that, where local authorities combine and work together, they would have their own arrangements, and we are not seeking to cut across those local working arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the ICBs, saying that they are NHS bodies and asking whether this is a threat to local authority delegation of public health functions. My reading of that is that, as I mentioned in my opening remarks on these clauses, there are some public health functions that are NHS and delegated through CCGs, such as GPs participating in child immunisation programmes—hence the reference to ICBs, because they will be replacing CCGs in the new world.

Understandably, the hon. Gentleman talked about funding for public health. On his comments about the bigger picture on funding and spending levels more broadly, I simply remind him of the note left by a previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury:

“I’m afraid there is no money.”

We cannot get away from that context in this space, but more broadly he is right to highlight the importance of public health. The past 18 months have shone a light on public health; under Governments of all political complexions, public health has not always enjoyed that prominence in public debate, external media and other commentary. One thing that I hope will follow on from the terrible events we have endured over the past 18 months is a greater understanding and appreciation of public health and its measures, and for public health to enjoy the support it needs to do its job. I think all Members would agree that one of the few positives has been the recognition of the value of public health and prevention.

I think that those were the main points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I see these clauses as permitting a further evolution of the system and a recognition of the need, ideally, where we can, to further delegate powers from the Secretary of State to lower down within the system. On that basis, I hope the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will feel able to support the clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.