Clause 51 - Licensing of NHS foundation trusts

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

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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.