Clause 38 - Reconfiguration of services: intervention powers

Part of Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 21st September 2021.

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

If I may, I will turn to the amendments first and then the substantive clause. I am grateful to hon. Members for tabling the amendments. I said that the previous clause was coming to the main business of the afternoon, but I now suspect that was but an hors d’oeuvre to the discussion we may have on this clause and this set of amendments.

Amendments 102 and 103 would require the Secretary of State to consult all relevant health overview and scrutiny committees before making a decision on a reconfiguration. Amendment 103 would also require the Secretary of State to have regard to, and publish, clinical advice from the ICB’s medical director. It is of course vital that local views are represented in any reconfiguration. However, although I understand the rationale behind these amendments, I do not think they are strictly necessary. The new power will not replace the important role that local scrutiny and engagement plays in service change decisions; we expect the vast majority of reconfiguration decisions to continue to be managed by the local system, and system players will be encouraged to resolve matters locally where possible.

The Secretary of State will continue to be advised by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, which is being retained. The focus of the IRP is and will continue to be the patient and quality of care in the context of safe, sustainable and accessible services for local people. It has also provided the system with advice based on its experience to date around critical success factors.

If I may go down a slight rabbit hole here, I would like to put on the record my appreciation for the work of the IRP. Certainly during my tenure in this post, I have consulted it and seen its advice on a number of occasions, and I am grateful for the work its staff do, the speed with which they do it and the benefit I have gained from that advice in making decisions or advising the Secretary of State on particular decisions.

In practice, the Secretary of State will always need to seek appropriate advice from clinicians, local leaders or other experts before making any decision, and all decisions made using the powers inserted by clause 38 and schedule 6 must be published. This will ensure transparency and allow for proper scrutiny of the way the power is being used.

Schedule 6 also includes the requirement for NHS commissioning bodies, including integrated care boards, to give the Secretary of State any information or other assistance required to carry out any functions under the schedule. It is envisioned that the Secretary of State will obtain information from NHS commissioning bodies when making reconfiguration decisions. This will include any representations that an HOSC, stakeholder, patient group or any other interested party have made, if applicable.

All decision making on reconfigurations, at both local and ministerial level, will continue to be guided by the four tests laid out in existing guidance that reconfiguration should be assured against: strong public and patient engagement; consistency with current and prospective need for patient choice; a clear clinical evidence base; and support for proposals from clinical commissioners.

As such, we believe that clause 38 and the guidance that the Secretary of State is required to produce under the powers in schedule 6 will provide sufficient safeguards to ensure that the Secretary of State receives appropriate advice before using the powers in this clause. As a result of not accepting amendment 103, we will also resist amendment 102, which is consequential on amendment 103.

Amendment 104 would require the Secretary of State to publish, alongside any decision they have made under this provision, a statement demonstrating that the decision is in the public interest. The Secretary of State is accountable to Parliament for all his or her decisions. Ministers are expected, as a core principle of the constitution, to act in the public interest, and this is reflected in the ministerial code. In addition, the Secretary of State’s scrutiny and direction-making process on this and any other matter must already take into account the public law decision-making principles, all relevant information and their legal duties, including the public sector equality duty, that adhere to such decisions.

The Secretary of State is also under a number of duties set out in the National Health Service Act 2006, including a duty to promote a comprehensive health service, to secure continuous improvement in quality of services, and to have regard to the NHS constitution. As I have already set out, the Secretary of State will continue to be advised by the IRP, and will seek appropriate advice from clinicians, local leaders or other experts.

As for paragraph 4 of schedule 6, the Secretary of State already has a duty to publish any decision they make on a reconfiguration and to notify the NHS commissioning body of the decision. For those reasons, I urge the hon. Member for Nottingham North to withdraw his amendment—I suspect that I will be unsuccessful in that plea, but I make it none the less.

I will now address clause 38 and schedule 6. The clause inserts proposed new section 68A and proposed new schedule 10A into the National Health Service Act 2006. It also introduces schedule 6, which includes a new intervention power to allow the Secretary of State to call in a reconfiguration of NHS services at any stage of the process, without the need for a referral from a local authority. A reconfiguration of NHS services is a change in service provision that has an impact on the manner in which a service is delivered at the point at which the service is received by the user, or the range of health services available to individuals. That could be, for example, a change in where a mental health in-patient unit is based, building a new stroke unit, or restructuring a whole hospital trust.

The new intervention power will enable the Secretary of State to act as a scrutineer and decision maker for reconfigurations, to intervene where, 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 significant cause for public concern. We do not expect or intend to use the power with any regularity, and where it is used, it will be done so transparently. As I have emphasised, the Secretary of State must publish any decisions made about reconfigurations.

Schedule 6 sets out the scope of the reconfiguration powers as they pertain to NHS commissioning bodies, NHS services, NHS trusts and foundation trusts. It introduces a new duty for the relevant NHS bodies to notify the Secretary of State of any proposed or likely reconfiguration. The Secretary of State will be able to take any decision that could have been taken by the NHS commissioning body. That includes the ability for the Secretary of State to decide whether a proposal should proceed, the results the NHS commissioning body should achieve, and the procedural steps that should be taken. As I set out earlier, decision making will continue to be guided by the four reconfigurations tests. The new power will not replace the important role that local scrutiny and engagement play in service change decisions.

As the shadow Minister set out, the public expect Ministers to be accountable for the health service, which includes reconfigurations of it. The clause ensures that decisions made in the NHS that affect all our constituents are subject to democratic oversight. Without it, the Secretary of State’s ability to intervene and take decisions will remain limited, often coming at the end of a long local process. As now, he would not be alerted to a potential change in services until the change became an issue and he would remain powerless to intervene without a formal referral by a local authority.

I am conscious that that existing arrangement satisfies few in Parliament, including Opposition Members, on the occasions when they make representations about the process. However, it will be for this debate to see whether Members feel that the proposed new arrangement satisfies them—I will not prejudge that for a minute, looking at the faces of the Opposition Members. I therefore commend clause 38 and schedule 6 to the Committee.