Clause 51 - Licensing of NHS foundation trusts

Part of Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 23rd September 2021.

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

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.