Clause 37 - General power to direct NHS England

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 21st September 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

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 debate clause 62 stand part.

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

I suspect that, with this, we get to the main event of this afternoon’s proceedings.

I begin with clause 37, which introduces powers for the Secretary of State to give directions to the newly merged NHS England. This merger, which is widely welcomed, of three different bodies with different accountability arrangements into one has inevitably required us to look at the appropriate accountability arrangements for the future, and the extent to which the accountability arrangements have evolved and kept up with the evolution of the organisation. The powers in the clause will ensure the appropriate balance between democratic accountability to the Secretary of State and the NHS’s clinical and day-to-day operational independence.

Clause 37 will give the Secretary of State new powers over a newly merged and larger NHS England. It does not give the Secretary of State any new powers over other NHS bodies. It gives the Secretary of State precisely no new powers over clinical decisions. The clause is about ensuring appropriate accountability mechanisms between the democratically elected Government and one of the biggest arm’s length bodies, if not the biggest. That is a principle of democratic accountability in a publicly funded national healthcare service, and I am sure it is accepted not just by the leadership of NHS England, but by Opposition Members, even if they may not feel that the clause reflects their interpretation of it.

In practice, NHS England will continue, as now, to make the vast majority of its decisions without direction, consulting the Government and others as it needs to. The Government’s primary means of shaping the NHS agenda continues to be the mandate to NHS England, which has been an established means of providing direction to NHS England since 2013.

As we have learned in recent times, events can move fast, and the mandate may not be adaptable to all circumstances—and nor was it designed to be when it was conceived. The powers in the clause are designed to supplement the existing mechanisms, such as the mandate, to give the Secretary of State the ability, where he or she deems it appropriate and in the public interest, to provide direction and to intervene in relation to NHS England’s functions. Of course, the Department’s title is “Health and Social Care”, and while NHS England will rightly continue to be focused on the NHS, the Government must take a wider view—and this wider view may lead us, on occasion, to a different conclusion about the appropriate course of action from that held by NHS England colleagues.

There is already a strong and close working relationship between Ministers and NHS England. The clause helps to formalise that in a way that is more transparent for everyone to see, building in the normal expectations of ministerial decision making and accountability by requiring Ministers to issue directions in writing, and to ensure they are published and made in the public interest. Any decision to exercise this power will be premised and guided by general public law principles and broader statutory duties.

To ensure the NHS’s continued clinical and day-to-day operational independence, proposed new section 13ZD also sets out specific areas where the power of direction in section 13ZC cannot be used. The Secretary of State is unable to use this power to intervene in the appointment of individuals by NHS England, in individual clinical decisions or in relation to drugs or treatments that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has not recommended or issued guidance on.

We believe that clause 37 is crucial for ensuring that we have the right framework for national oversight and accountability of our health system, and of one of the largest arm’s length bodies, responsible for over £130 billion of public money. The clause ensures, in proposed new section 13ZE, that appropriate levers are in place—as there are for other arm’s length bodies—for Ministers to respond and take swift action if NHS England fails to carry out any of its functions. It also ensures, in proposed new section 13ZF, that Ministers have the levers they need to direct NHS England to provide information. Without it, we would be expanding the functions, responsibilities and powers of NHS England without ensuring that there are appropriate accountability arrangements in place for this large integrated body.

The changes that clause 37 introduced are proportionate, in our view. They reflect the evolution of NHS England in recent years, changes to the wider system and the appropriate expectations on Government to support, challenge and steer the system, while also leaving it free to determine operational matters.

Clause 62 amends the National Health Service Act 2006 by repealing the duty on the Secretary of State and NHS England to promote autonomy. The rationale for doing so comes is two parts. First, the response to the pandemic has further highlighted the importance of different parts of the health and care system working together in the best interests of public and patients. By repealing the duty to promote autonomy, the clause further enshrines integration and collaboration at the heart of the legislative framework underpinning the system.

The second reason for repealing that duty is to ensure compatibility with the duties elsewhere in the Bill on NHS organisations, including NHS England, to consider the effects of their decisions on the better health and wellbeing of everyone, equality of care for patients and the sustainable use of NHS resources. To avoid any conflict in duties, it is important to remove NHS England’s duty of autonomy, as these new duties require NHS England to co-operate and work closely with other partners, rather than autonomously. Repealing the duty of autonomy will also make it easier for NHS England to facilitate co-operation within the system—when commissioning services or issuing guidance, for example.

Neither the provisions in clause 37 nor those in clause 62, or indeed anywhere else in the Bill, do anything to change the nature of NHS England as an arm’s length body. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member—I fear that I may not—that the removal of these duties does not mean that Ministers are about to start interfering in the NHS or in any other body exercising functions relating to the health service.

Integration is at the heart of the Bill. By creating integrated care boards and removing unnecessary bureaucracy that can get in the way of local organisations wanting to work together, we are putting more power and autonomy in the hands of local systems, and that is our intention here. We are seeking to strengthen local leadership and empower local organisations to make decisions about their populations. We believe that both clauses not only support that intention, but strengthen it, and I commend them to the Committee.

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

The Minister rightly pointed out my mixed metaphor, so I will undertake to avoid metaphors in this contribution. It is hard not to feel like an undercard to the main event here—that is a simile, of course, rather than a metaphor, and I gave no such undertaking on similes.

I might surprise the Minister by agreeing with bits of what he said: we do not intend to divide the Committee on clause 37 and we do think that there is an important distinction between the powers in clauses 37 and 38, which I think will come out in the debate. However, if we went out to Parliament Square now and straw-polled people walking by, asking them who they thought was responsible for the NHS in England at a national level, I think we would wait a very long time before anyone gave any answer other than the Government and, by extension, the Secretary of State.

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

And of course the Minister, through appropriate delegation, and we are all the better for it. The Minister can quote me on that—but not on a political leaflet, as that would be very challenging for me.

Covid has shown that the public think that the politicians they elect are accountable for the decisions taken in the interests of their health, however they might manifest in ordinary life, so I think the repeal of the duty to promote autonomy, set out in clause 62, probably follows inevitably from that. We want an expert-run health service that works together and follows the best available evidence and science, not one that is unaccountable and diverges from the interests and expectations of the public at large.

That leads me nicely to clause 37. It is possibly a tautology to say that if someone is held responsible for something, they ought to have responsibility for it, as the clause set outs. To put that bluntly, with more than £100 billion of spending—40% of the Government’s revenue budget—going into that area, people will expect political accountability. If NHS England is not seen to be acting in the public interest at the highest possible levels, there ought to be a mechanism, by exception, to correct that. It is the exceptional part that is really important.

That is defined negatively in the clause by what the Secretary of State may not do—for example, hiring or firing an individual, which I think is right, or directing the healthcare of a specific person. I do not think the Secretary of State would want to be in that position with important cases of individuals who are in the public sphere, or have the ability to act outside NICE guidelines on drugs or treatment, as happens in such cases. I do not think that is a good system, hard though it may be when prominent cases come to our attention.

That gives us a common-sense reading of what these clauses provide for the Secretary of State. Yes, the buck stops with the Secretary of State and his political colleagues as a collective if there are major failings in the health service or major failings of Government and of leadership, but the clause does not give Ministers carte blanche to pick and choose—undoubtedly with political pressures in mind—whether to involve themselves in the detailed running of the service. I think that will be covered in clause 38.

A concern raised by the Nuffield Trust in evidence was that there should be a stronger mechanism by which such decisions can be scrutinised. Will the Minister address that? I heard what he said about publication of information about the Secretary of State’s decisions, but why not provide for a parliamentary mechanism by which decisions could be scrutinised? That would ensure public confidence that there is no Executive overreach or direction at a low level of how our healthcare service operates, which I do not think would be at all desirable. I hope that the Minister will address that in his remarks.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

I would like the Committee to take a moment to mourn the loss of the principle of autonomy as a guiding driver of the health service over some 20-plus years. That principle is part not just of the Lansley reforms, but of previous Labour reforms, and indeed of reforms by the Government before that. The idea was that the system would become more efficient and responsive with more autonomous units, rather than a great mass of health authorities, hospitals and systems that are rarely understood by local people, and that the competition of autonomous units would drive financial and service efficiency, for example. This is quite a moment, and I do not think we should just let it pass.

When I was a member of a primary care trust, which I may have shared earlier, our local region had “earned autonomy.” That meant that if we did certain things particularly well—bringing waiting times and waiting lists down, or fulfilling financial balance requirements, for example—the local team, board and chief executive would earn more autonomy to do more. In modern parlance, things became more permissive, and they were trusted to do something.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I am a little confused, because my hon. Friend is talking about the end of autonomy, but everything we have heard from the Government is about how permissive the Bill is and how it will leave people free to make their own decisions. I must be missing the point somewhere, mustn’t I?

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, which we will come on to when we discuss the following clauses. If there is no autonomy, but we are trying to be permissive, we come back to the vexed issue that the Minister alluded to earlier: where the balance lies between national and local accountability. We will come to that in further clauses.

I will not long mourn the loss of autonomy—I am not sure it really worked—but it is a principle for people to locally manage the units. As I said in relation to financial management in a previous session, if it is very clear that a chief executive or a finance director has responsibility for their bottom line, that drives a certain amount of focus and responsibility. I find it a little extraordinary for the Conservative party to be promoting the lack of autonomy. I hope hon. Members will take a moment to reflect on the seismic change we now have in the direction of our public services and the next era of the NHS.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 2:45 pm, 21st September 2021

There are a few points that I will seek to address. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Nottingham North for highlighting the accountability of the Secretary of State—he also highlighted me. I remind colleagues that in my ministerial capacity, as a junior Minister, I am in legal terms but an extension of my Secretary of State; all the powers are vested in him and I am but a legal extension of him. Colleagues may dwell on that as they wish, but possibly not too much.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North set it out well. If we went out into Parliament Square and asked three dozen people who they believe is accountable for the NHS and the delivery of health services in this country, they would say it was the Government, or possibly the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister. I think that is right, and that is why we must ensure that the accountability is reflected in the responsibility and the ability to exercise that responsibility and accountability over how the NHS operates.

On the promotion of autonomy, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North alluded to and as I set out, if we are seeking to promote integration and co-operation, as the Bill does, that therefore sits slightly ill with a duty to promote autonomy, and this is about how we reconcile those two matters in legislative language. He talked about a parliamentary mechanism in this context. I emphasise the need for the directions to be published in writing and to be in the public interest.

As we know, such documents are always able to be debated in the House. Were something to be done that he thought inappropriate, I can bet my bottom dollar that I would be standing at the Dispatch Box answering an urgent question from him 24 or 48 hours later. There are mechanisms in this House by which Ministers can be held to account for decisions they make. That is why I believe that this move aids transparency. Rather than informal conversations and discussions, as happen in any organisation, the clause will require that, where a disagreement occurs, there is a clear direction for it to be published transparently, for shadow Ministers and others in this House to question and challenge it, or to raise, within or outwith the House, their concerns in front of the public.

The hon. Member for Bristol South quite rightly alluded to how PCTs operated. Like her, I sat as a non-executive member of a PCT board. I remember those days. If I remember correctly, not only did she sit on a board; she also has extensive experience in running healthcare services as a senior leadership figure within the local NHS, so she knows of what she speaks.

I do not think that what we are seeing here is quite as the hon. Lady characterises—a huge change in the direction of our party’s policy or the direction of travel. We are putting in place a pragmatic and sensible measure, to reflect the focus now on a duty to co-operate, which a duty of autonomy sits slightly ill with, as I say, and to make sure that we have clear accountabilities. We recognise in theory and in legislation what is already deemed by the public to be there in reality, which is the accountability of the Secretary of State and the Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 37 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.