Clause 51 - Licensing of NHS foundation trusts

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 23rd September 2021.

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

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 52 to 56 stand part.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mrs Murray. With your indulgence, I will speak to each of the clauses in turn.

Clause 51 amends section 88 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Section 88 requires that Monitor—or, in future, NHS England—treats an NHS trust that has become an NHS foundation trust as having made an application and met the criteria for a licence. The clause will require NHS England to apply that provision when that queue of NHS trusts waiting to become foundation trusts do so—[Laughter.] I hope the Committee will forgive my gentle reference to what the shadow Minister said last time. On a more serious note, the clause will also require NHS England to apply it when a foundation trust is created as a result of the merger of an existing foundation trust with an NHS trust or another foundation trust, or the separation of one foundation trust into two or more new foundation trusts.

Clause 51 clarifies the situation when new foundation trusts are created, merged or separated and ensures there is no unnecessary bureaucracy as a result. It is an important clarification for NHS England on how to exercise its licensing powers in such situations, should they arise.

We are investing record levels of capital expenditure into the NHS to help it build back better after the pandemic. We intend to set capital expenditure budgets at integrated care board level, and we expect providers to work with ICB partners to agree capital expenditure, in line with the ICB capital plan. To ensure that the interests of the wider system are taken into account at individual provider level, clause 52 provides a new power to allow NHS England to make an order imposing capital expenditure limits for NHS foundation trusts.

That narrow and reserved power will ensure that a limit can be set only for an individually named foundation trust for a specified period, and would automatically cease at the end of that period. The power relates solely to capital expenditure and not to revenue expenditure. NHS England must also consult the foundation trust before making the order. There will be clear transparency, as the order will be published.

In applying to an individual foundation trust in particular circumstances, the power stands in contrast to the capital limits that apply to all NHS trusts. The power is likely to be used where there is a clear risk of an ICB breaching its system capital envelope as a result of non-co-operation by that foundation trust, and when other ways of resolution have been unsuccessful.

NHS England must set out in guidance the circumstances in which it is likely to set a capital limit and how it will calculate it. NHS England intends to work closely with foundation trusts to develop that guidance. I want to make it clear to the Committee that the clauses are not intended in any way as an erosion of the autonomy enjoyed by foundation trusts. Unlike NHS trusts, foundation trusts will continue to have additional financial freedoms, such as the ability to borrow money from commercial lenders. However, the clause is crucial for managing NHS capital expenditure across a system and to ensure that all NHS providers operate within the ICB capital limits. Without that control, other NHS providers may have to reduce their capital spending to ensure that the NHS lives within its allotted capital resources and that resources are spent in a way that best delivers for patients and the taxpayer.

The provisions in clause 53 are largely a consequence of the merger of NHS England and Monitor, in this case reflecting Monitor’s oversight role in relation to foundation trusts. Subsection (1) gives foundation trusts greater flexibility in their forward plans. Paragraph (a) removes requirements currently in the National Health Service Act 2006 concerning the content of the forward plan. Paragraph (b) removes the requirements for the forward plan to be prepared by the foundation trust’s directors and for the directors to have regard to the views of the foundation trust’s governors when preparing the forward plan.

Foundation trusts will no longer be mandated to set out information in the forward planning documentation around non-health service activity and income. The clause also removes the requirement for governors to be mandated to determine whether the foundation trust’s forward plan interferes with the trust’s health service activity.

As the Committee will know by now, and as a consequence of the abolition of Monitor and its merger with NHS England, NHS England will formally become responsible for the support and oversight of foundation trusts, which includes taking on Monitor’s regulatory and intervention powers. That change will enable improved oversight and greater flexibility across the system. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill make the detailed changes, including formally giving NHS England responsibility for giving directions in relation to the content and form of foundation trust accounts. That includes specifying information to be included in the annual reports and accounts of foundation trusts.

The clause is simply part of transitioning the provider-based functions of Monitor into NHS England, ensuring continuity of oversight of foundation trusts’ accounting and forward planning. NHS England will be able to provide fundamental advice and guidance to foundation trusts in the exercise of their functions. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill will formally allow NHS England to monitor the performance of foundation trusts and to take steps to intervene where necessary, which may take the form of advice and support. As we discussed on a previous occasion, however, it may also involve NHS England requesting the trust to take action to remedy emerging issues. At the same time, the clause makes the requirements on annual plans more flexible, to reflect the direction of travel towards system-wide, rather than organisation-specific, planning.

I turn now to clause 54, which inserts proposed new section 47A into the National Health Service Act 2006 and allows an NHS FT to carry out its functions jointly with another person, should the foundation trust consider such arrangements to be appropriate. That would allow a foundation trust to exercise its healthcare delivery functions jointly with another foundation trust as part of a provider collaborative. The clause will make it easier for FTs to work with partners across the health system to develop integrated, seamless services in the best interests of patients.

Clause 55 amends sections 56, 56A and 56B of the 2006 Act, which relate to the merger, acquisition, separation and dissolution of NHS foundation trusts and NHS trusts. It removes the requirement that an application to acquire or merge an NHS FT with another NHS FT or an English NHS trust be supported by the Secretary of State if one of the parties is an NHS trust. NHS England will now consider each application, but the Secretary of State’s role has been strengthened, as he must now approve such applications. However, NHS England will consider the applications and provide advice. That is in keeping with the policy intention that the Secretary of State should have a strengthened accountability role for NHS foundation trusts, in the light of the transfer of Monitor and NHS Trust Development Authority functions to NHS England. NHS England replaces Monitor in the relevant sections of the NHS Act 2006.

Like Monitor, NHS England has a duty to grant the application to merge, acquire or separate if it is satisfied that the necessary steps have been taken to prepare for an acquisition or the dissolution and establishment of new trusts. Additionally, the clause adds a further requirement to each of the sections, which provides that NHS England must refuse an application if the Secretary of State does not approve it. That strengthens the role of the Secretary of State in the process, and it will be for NHS England to take note of the Secretary of State’s comments in taking forward its plans. The clause provides for enhanced oversight and places strategic decision making in the health system in the hands of NHS England, while also conferring a commensurate and important role on Ministers, in line with the direction of accountability set out in the Bill.

Clause 56 relates to the transitioning of the provider-based functions of Monitor and the NHS TDA into NHS England. That will allow NHS England to grant an application by an NHS foundation trust for dissolution. The clause confers the powers that rested with Monitor to transfer or provide for the transfer of property of an NHS foundation trust on its dissolution. Previously, on the dissolution of an NHS FT, Monitor had the power to transfer the property of the NHS FT to the Secretary of State. The clause amends that power so that, when making an order to dissolve an NHS foundation trust, NHS England now has the power to make an order to transfer, or provide for the transfer of, property and liabilities to another NHS FT, an NHS trust or the Secretary of State. The clause also includes a new duty for NHS England to include the transfer of any employees of a dissolved NHS FT in the transfer order.

Taken together, these clauses ensure that foundation trusts are able to play a central role in a more integrated and collaborative healthcare system. As part of that, the clauses also provide NHS England with the powers it will need to help support NHS FTs. I therefore commend clauses 51 to 56 to the Committee and propose that they stand part of the Bill.

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

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mrs Murray. I am glad you enjoyed Tuesday so much that you came back for another round. We will do our best to inform and entertain as we go along.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the Department’s position on the clauses. We really need to have another go, don’t we, at trying to understand the landscape for foundation trusts? I have already referred the Committee to the description of foundation trusts when they were first established, as vigorous, autonomous, business-like new organisations that would shake up the NHS and bring choice and competition into healthcare. As we know, there was no evidence that that model did any better than the previous standard trusts, once the high performers had been accounted for.

The Minister’s contention that the clauses do nothing to impinge on a foundation trust’s autonomy is quite the claim. The big change in the clauses is the stripping away of financial autonomy, as set out in clause 52, directly contradicting the many occasions when we have been told that the Bill is all about permissiveness, local decision making and accountability. In clause 55, we also see the Secretary of State giving himself yet more powers.

Clause 52(2) could, in effect, mean there was an indefinite block on foundation trusts using their own capital resources. Will there be any limitations on what is a broad power? I refer to the evidence from Dr Chaand Nagpaul, who touched on that:

“At the moment, we are seeing foundation trusts thinking about their budgets, community providers thinking about theirs, and general practice as well. There is not even collaboration between the community and the hospital. No foundation trust currently has the ability to say, for example, ‘We will go beyond our budget and invest in the community—it may actually reduce our hospital admissions.’ At the moment there is no structure or processes to enable collaboration even within the NHS.”—[Official Report, Health and Care Public Bill Committee, 9 September 2021; c. 93, Q120.]

Dr Nagpaul sets out very well the lack of clarity that we still have about how finances will work at a local level within an ICB, and clause 52 gives foundation trusts even less autonomy in that respect.

On that point, I noted with interest today yet another Health Service Journal article, which talked about how integrated care partnerships may not be up and running for some time after the ICB has been set up. That raises questions about what their role is going to be in helping to form those capital priorities for an integrated care system.

In other evidence, Richard Murray said:

“The bit that I think is really uncertain is how the big hospital schemes get picked. That is the bit that looks very different. Obviously, there is a manifesto commitment.”—

although we know that, in recent times, the Government have not been so keen to follow those commitments. He continued:

“There used to be a process by which it was determined whether providers could afford to repay—if they could do it through loans, or if there was a need system. That is now going off in a completely different place, and I think that is the bit that is not quite clear. How does that work within this system? Who gets to choose how those projects get picked, so to speak?”—[Official Report, Health and Care Public Bill Committee, 9 September 2021; c. 118, Q158.]

I appreciate that the point is slightly off-piste, but as we are talking about capital expenditure it is appropriate to raise it, and I am sure the Minister will take the opportunity in his response to set out that process in more detail. At the same time, can he set out in more detail what the guidance set out in proposed new section 42C would entail? Hopefully we will be able to set out some broad points in respect of that.

While we are on the Minister’s response, will he consider the broader point we made on Tuesday about foundation trusts’ focus on involvement of patients and the public and whether that needs to be strengthened across the board? He needs to think again about the whole question of accountability on ICBs.

To go back to the essential question, are foundation trusts now any different to plain, old-school NHS trusts? Is a foundation trust now a dodo? Is it extinct or on its way out? If an ambitious young chief executive of a trust were to approach the Minister and say they were thinking of putting in an application for foundation trust status, what would the Minister say to them about the benefits of such an application, both to their trust and to the wider healthcare system?

It could be argued that there is now a negative reason to not go down that route, as foundation trusts face risks that ordinary trusts do not face. They could decide to engage in some important capital works, carefully setting aside resources for a number of years to pay for them—not forgetting that with a £9 billion maintenance backlog there will be no shortage of projects to identify—but they face the risk that all that planning and prudence could be swept aside with a stroke of the pen by NHS England. Where is the incentive for them to invest in the future? What is the appeal process? Is a decision of that nature challengeable by a foundation trust? If the Minister can help us out by answering that, I would be obliged.

On the question of licensing in clause 51, we are none the wiser as to why that is still a requirement. Now that Monitor has gone, is there any longer a need for anything resembling licensing? Why do we need this roundabout way for NHS England to tell foundation trusts what they can and cannot do? Monitor used to be able to allow licence conditions to be modified where that would lead to certain, specifically defined, desirable outcomes, such as improving the quality of healthcare. Will that be possible under the new system?

Monitor has now left this place—it is deceased, it has fallen off the mortal coil—and NHS England will be there instead. It will be able to use its power to enable co-operation between providers of healthcare services without, as far as the Bill is concerned, having any need to explain why it is requiring that. The clause also extends the remit somewhat by applying to the NHS end and forcing it to co-operate with local authorities. Now that the trappings of the market are fading away, we need to understand better what licensing is going to achieve.

In the spirit of our many suggestions to help the Minister ease his workload, why not get officials to work on a new consolidation Act for the NHS? As we have seen, there are many amendments to the 2006 Act as a result of this Bill and other pieces of legislation, and it takes time to cross-reference so many parts, so one piece of legislation would be helpful for everyone, not least overworked shadow Ministers. Maybe the time to do that is when we have the next reorganisation in approximately two years’ time, when the Prime Minister’s latest integration plans come to the fore and we see that something else has to change. In the meantime, can the Minister set out clearly the purpose and function of the licensing process? I am sure we would all be grateful to hear about that.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 11:45 am, 23rd September 2021

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his suggestion of a consolidation Act. I can tell just how much he enjoys the sessions we spend in Committee and how eager he is that, no sooner do we finish, than we are back in another Bill Committee together. In terms of his gentle gibe about reorganisation in another two years, there was roughly a two-year gap between the 1999, then the 2001, then the 2003 and then the 2006 reorganisations of the NHS under the previous Government. I fear this is something that affects Governments of all types.

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

Indeed, but the point that we would make is that there was such a mess to clear up after 18 years of Conservative Government that we had to do a lot of reorganisations. If the Minister can state for the record that there will be no reorganisations within a specified timescale, we would all be delighted to hear that.

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

We must always retain flexibility so that the legislative framework reflects the evolving nature of healthcare provision in this country and we can we deliver what all our constituents want us to.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the importance of licensing. The licence applies to anyone providing NHS services, including the independent sector. With the system oversight framework, it provides a tool that helps to ensure quality across all types of providers in a consistent way, hence the importance that we still attach to it.

At the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s speech were his points about foundation trusts, a 2004 innovation. The reason we are introducing these changes is that we recognise not only the ability of foundation trusts to be autonomous, but the need for them to collaborate and integrate. The aim is to create a framework that allows for local flexibility but brings together local services, recognising the synergies that need to exist between all healthcare providers in an area. With the ICB holding the ring, we get local flexibility, but we look at it the local system level rather than the individual provider level. I alluded to it jokingly, but as I promised in our last session I can confirm to him that I was correct that there are no current applications from NHS trusts to become foundation trusts. I said that I was relying on my memory, but I can confirm for the record that my memory was accurate.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the new hospitals programme and capital more broadly. While slightly stretching the scope of the debate, I think that is probably relevant because he was talking about capital, so I am happy to accept that—subject to your judgment, of course, Mrs Murray—as being in scope. In terms of investment in new hospitals, the bottom line is that this is capital provided by the Treasury—by central Government —to build new hospitals where they are most needed. He will have seen the criteria and the approach set out for the next eight schemes, which are currently being considered. An expression of interest is the first stage of that process. A number of criteria are set out—for example, are there safety issues? Is there an urgent need? Will this facilitate transformation and improve patient experience? The criteria are set out publicly.

The next stage, which will take place next year, is the whittling down of the applications to a shortlist and further consideration. I believe it is entirely right that, guided by advice from officials and local NHS systems, Ministers make those decisions, because it is central Government money that is being invested directly in the schemes, rather than the normal capital allocations from NHS England to local NHS systems that are decided at local system level. This is additional, over and above the normal capital allocations.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned proposed new section 42C and asked what it is envisaged the guidance will say, what it will cover, and how it will work. Essentially, we envisage it setting out how and when NHS England and NHS Improvement will exercise the powers—for example, where a foundation trust’s plans potentially put at risk the broader ICB plans for capital, unduly divert resources, or skew the capital allocation in a particular direction. We do not envisage their being used with any regularity, and hope that, as now, broadly, there is a collaborative approach. It is more informal now than envisaged under the provisions, but there is a collaborative approach.

In his broader remarks about the balance between autonomy and freedoms, the hon. Gentleman asked what I would tell a keen and ambitious NHS trust chief executive who was considering taking advantage of the spaces in the queue to become a foundation trust the advantages in doing so are. Essentially, I would say that they should consider what best reflects the local needs for their local healthcare system, because foundation trusts will of course retain freedoms around commercial borrowing and other existing freedoms. The powers that we are introducing act as a safeguard should they be used against the wider interest of the system. There are still advantages, but each NHS chief executive in that situation should consider carefully their own local circumstances and what is most effective in providing for their patients and service users.

My two final points go to what the hon. Gentleman said about the fear that the powers are significant and should be used only as the last resort, and his second point about whether there should be a greater willingness to allow NHS providers to decide how they spend their surpluses, rather than a regulator or central Government deciding. I might be paraphrasing, but I think those were his two key concerns. On his first point, the powers act as a safeguard to allow national-level intervention when local negotiation cannot resolve disputes. I have alluded to what we would use the guidance for, which is to add a bit of flesh to the bones. We think that is best set out in guidance rather than on the face of statute, as circumstances change over time and applying a narrow statutory test could hinder the aims of the clause, which would ensure that NHS spending overall is in the best interests of the public.

To the second point about whether it should be down to NHS providers and systems to determine how they spend surpluses or moneys that they have saved each year for a particular purpose, the hon. Gentleman is right that NHS trusts and foundation trusts operate as autonomous organisations that are legally responsible for maintaining their estates and providing healthcare services. That will continue, but only where there is a clear risk of a trust acting against the wider interest of the NHS system locally and an ICB would the controls be considered for application.

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

The Minister is setting out the aims, but I am a little unsure what a foundation trust acting against the wider interest of the ICB would look like. Can he give us examples of where that might have happened?

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

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to give a specific example. The reason we chose the flexibility of using guidance is that we cannot envisage every eventuality, so we will set out in guidance the process and approach. I will try to give him an illustrative example rather than a specific one, if he will allow me. If we have an ICB making collective decisions about where capital investment is most needed at a system level, and if we have a foundation trust with resources deciding to prioritise huge investment in one particular area, that might not necessarily reflect the broadly agreed local priorities in the ICB plan and the ICP plan for that area. I envisage such matters being resolved at an ICB level. I have certainly seen in this job and in a past life, as I suspect the hon. Member for Bristol South has, where informal resolution of these things is often the most effective way, so I would not envisage these powers being used often, but it is important that we have the flexibility that they bring. On that basis, I commend the clauses to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 51 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 52 to 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.