Clause 38 - Reconfiguration of services: intervention powers

Part of Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 21st September 2021.

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 3:15 pm, 21st September 2021

I want to speak generally to the clause and the schedule, rather than in support of any amendments. I thank the Minister for setting out the continued role of the IRP and the four tests that have been put in place. I am sure that all of us on the Committee have at some stage in our local communities faced a healthcare service reorganisation. They are very painful processes, as the hon. Member for Bristol South will recognise. We had a reconfiguration across both trusts in Bristol that began, I think, in around 2004 and has yet to be properly completed. They are incredibly painful processes that can leave local communities feeling disaffected and disempowered, whoever is taking the final decision.

We need to think carefully about the potential unintended consequences of the schedule as it stands. I have not tabled any amendments; I just want to raise potential concerns about the detail. In Bristol and south Gloucestershire, Cossham Hospital was provided to the local community by Handel Cossham, who was the Member of Parliament at the time for the east and south Bristol region. He was the only Member of Parliament who, I think, technically died in the Palace; he collapsed in the House of Commons Library and died of a heart attack. I think in those days they could not even claim that he had somehow survived.

Handel Cossham donated in his will land to the people of Kingswood, on which they built Cossham Hospital, named after him. Even before the NHS came into creation, therefore, Cossham Hospital was there, having been built in 1905. The local people of Kingswood, even though it sits in the Bristol East constituency now, felt very passionately that this was their hospital; it was not the NHS hospital. Yet there was a proposal to close Cossham Hospital, which was then reversed. In consequence, the decision was taken to close Frenchay Hospital in favour of a new hospital in Southmead. Frenchay Hospital was meant to become a community hospital, but a U-turn was taken by the healthcare authorities at the time—the clinical care commissioning groups and North Bristol Trust, which squabbled over who was in control because the land had been handed over from North Bristol to the CCG.

I benefited, when I was elected in 2010, from the “Save Cossham Hospital” campaign, which saw the very good Labour MP lose his seat. I faced battles when there were promises to put a minor injuries unit into Cossham Hospital and then there was another U-turn. Ultimately, no one has been held properly accountable, but the IRP published a report that demonstrated that North Bristol Trust had neglected its duty to communicate effectively with the public.

It is that element of communication with the public that I want to talk about in relation to schedule 6, because I have concerns. I agree with the Minister about removing the control of the health overview and scrutiny committees, because they became toxic platforms for councillors, who suddenly had to take decisions as local authority members. They did not know anything about them; all they knew was that their seats were at risk, so the committees were becoming highly politicised forums. People were turning up to the councils and demanding that councillors referred things to the IRP.

Perhaps the Minister can comment a bit more about the nature of who is doing the referral and who is contacting the Secretary of State, because the Secretary of State will not necessarily be aware of all the reconfiguration decisions. Who is the active agent who is making the referral to the Secretary of State? Will it be a councillor, a member of the public or a Member of Parliament? My worry is that when we get to election time, the Secretary of State becomes a lightning conductor, and this will electrify decisions. For new colleagues in marginal seats in the red wall, this could be one of the decisions that creates the dynamic by which the general election is fought on various reconfigurations. The Opposition will claim that it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility to deal with the matter and that he has let down local communities. That is the dynamic and toxic discussions that we have to avoid, if the provision comes into play.

I agree that the Secretary of State needs to have more information to hand and the ability to make decisions, but I am concerned about the definition in schedule 6, which states that

“‘reconfiguration of NHS services’ means a change in the arrangements made by an NHS commissioning body…that…has an impact on—

(a) the manner in which a service is delivered to individuals (at the point when the service is received by users), or

(b) the range of health services available to individuals.”

That is so broad that it could include the tiniest change. Mr Jones, a constituent of mine, might say, “Actually, this has impacted on my local provision of healthcare services for me. I want you to start a petition to the Secretary of State to change this.” I wonder whether there could be some conditionality placed within the definition that might touch on an overwhelming community interest, or something that might touch on the detriment of patient outcomes.

I believe that when we make reconfigurations, they are not necessarily done for financial reasons. They are done to deliver better patient outcomes, so we have to find a way for all political parties to demonstrate that when we put trust in professionals to take decisions, they are doing so because they recognise that there are ways in which reconfigurations can lead to better patient outcomes. We have to be able to move people in that journey. It is not just about the money when it comes to reconfigurations, and I understand that. As political leaders, it is worth supporting clinical decisions when they are the right ones for the benefit of patient outcomes, even if they are difficult decisions for us to take. Some reflection of that in the definition of “reconfiguration of NHS services” would be welcome.

Ultimately, it will come down to guidance, which is why the section on guidance is important. The Minister has mentioned guidance being published. Currently, paragraph 8 of schedule 6 only says:

The Secretary of State must publish guidance for NHS commissioning bodies, NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts.”

I think we would all really welcome that guidance being extended to the local authority’s health overview and scrutiny committee, so that it can understand what role it is playing within this fiery dynamic.

What we really need to do with the clause is ensure that members of the general public understand what the duties and responsibilities of the Secretary of State are to any reconfiguration, and that they are set out very clearly to start with. Once we start going down the journey of a petition being collected, it gathers steam and therefore becomes a campaign. Suddenly, rather than having the Department of Health and Social Care, we have a new Department called the Department of Health and Reconfiguration Services, which is what we need to avoid. For the sake of the public and the community, we have to be able to demonstrate that reconfigurations will happen—that is the nature of the NHS. Decisions need to be taken when the facts change and the clinical outcomes change, and I recognise that fact. However, we have seen flip-flopping in Bristol eroding public trust. We need to ensure that, from the outset, people understand why the Secretary of State has these powers and the conditions under which he can take decisions, working with the IRP. We would welcome guidance, potentially for Members of Parliament and local authority members, so they are able to have advance conversations when constituents come to them saying, “I want you now to refer this to the Secretary of State” or “I’ve got a petition of 10 people who want to refer this to the Secretary of State.” They will then know exactly the context in which they can consult the Departments.

Those are the only points I want to make. I am not here to support any of the amendments, although I support the clause. I wanted to reflect on things that might be added in order to break down the granularity of detail, provide wider community context and make sure the public understand where the Secretary of State sits in this potential conversation around reconfiguration.