Clause 95 - Deciding which incidents to investigate

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 19th October 2021.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 4:00 pm, 19th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 101, in clause 95, page 86, line 37, at end insert—

“(10) Following any direction under subsection (2) the HSSIB may—

(a) request additional funding in order to carry out the investigation; and

(b) at the discretion of the chief investigator, decline to carry out the investigation.

(11) Following any direction under subsection (2) the Secretary of State—

(a) must have no further involvement with how the investigation is pursued;

(b) may not give a direction which directs the outcome of an investigation; and

(c) must have no involvement in the formulation of the investigation’s recommendations.”.

This amendment would ensure that HSSIB would maintain its independence following any direction from the Secretary of State to carry out an investigation and can request additional funding in order to carry out the investigation.

I hope my voice holds out, although I hope I will not be speaking for quite as long on this amendment. It addresses a familiar theme. It seeks to preserve the independence of HSSIB’s decision making, with particular reference to clause 95 (2), which gives the Secretary of State the power to direct HSSIB to carry out investigations.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Health Service Safety Investigations Bill raised concerns about the role of the Secretary of State in making representations about investigating an incident. The Government agreed to remove the mention of the Secretary of State to make it clear that the role would not amount to a direction by a Minister. In that light, it is difficult to understand why the Government have now decided to install a power on the Secretary of State to direct investigations. It is questionable whether such a power is even needed, if HSSIB falls into line with the practice of the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which can accept referrals from anyone. If the Secretary of State has concerns relating to patients, he should surely be able to put those matters to HSSIB anyway, as anyone who has safety concerns can. HSSIB can then reach a decision based on the criteria that it has set out on whether to investigate, which we will return to later.

If HSSIB becomes the investigatory body for the Secretary of State, depending on how often the power is used, that could downgrade other safety concerns and also erode public, patient and staff confidence that HSSIB is a truly independent body. The Joint Committee on the Draft Health Service Safety Investigations Bill commented:

“Our witnesses were united in stating that HSSIB will be neither trusted nor effective unless it is, and is seen to be, independent of both health service bodies…and the Department of Health and Social Care. Only this will provide confidence that HSSIB will neither cover up failures by clinicians and trusts nor conceal issues that might cause political embarrassment.”

By allowing the Secretary of State the power to direct the investigations, trust in HSSIB is brought into question. The amendment would make it clear that if the power is needed—the Minister can try to convince us that it is—HSSIB could request additional funding in order to carry out that investigation, and the chief investigator would have the power to decline to carry out the investigation. It would also ensure that if the investigation does proceed, the Secretary of State has no further role once it has started. If this power is needed, we think the amendment would create sufficient safeguards to ensure the independence of HSSIB, by ensuring that the chief investigator cannot have its own judgment and decisions superseded by the Secretary of State.

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

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for bringing this discussion before the Committee today. [Interruption.] I will talk for a little while to allow him enough time to have a glass of water to try to preserve his voice and mine for another few hours at least. As he set out, the amendment seeks to ensure that HSSIB would be able to make its own decision on whether to pursue an investigation requested by the Secretary of State and ask for funding; it would also ensure that if an investigation went ahead, the Secretary of State would have no influence on the detail of that investigation.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, as I said earlier, we remain fully committed to the independence of HSSIB, which is of course the reason why we want to establish it as a non-departmental public body with its own statutory powers. Under our approach, the Secretary of State would be able to direct HSSIB to carry out an investigation, but only if there has been an incident that has caused particular concern. The power to direct at subsection (2) is only in relation to carrying out an investigation; it is not about directing the outcome for an individual. That is an important distinction—we can ask them to do it, but it is not about directing the outcome. I believe that is right for the Secretary of State with responsibility for the health of the nation to have a power to direct the carrying-out of an investigation, so that he is able to respond to emergent or ongoing safety priorities or issues of concern, asking that they be considered.

The measure will ensure effective and proportionate accountability between the Department and its arm’s-length bodies, and between the Department and the House and the other place. However, while the Secretary of State may request an investigation, as I have said, he cannot direct the body on how to conduct any particular investigation and will have no role in it, as he does not have any such power. I hope that offers some reassurance to the shadow Minister. The measure therefore does not encroach on the independence of HSSIB’s findings, which are one of the key concerns that the amendments seek to draw out or shine a light on, so I hope I have provided some reassurance.

In addition, should HSSIB wish to discontinue an investigation, it may determine to do so, setting out the reason why it will not be investigating an incident. That would include any investigation, including one requested by the Secretary of State. HSSIB could discontinue an investigation, but would have to explain its thinking, which is not an unreasonable balance to seek to strike.

To turn to the question of funding, the amendment seeks to ensure that, in the case of a request by the Secretary of State to carry out an investigation, HSSIB may ask for additional funding. We have estimated, in our current analysis of workloads, HSSIB is likely to carry out up to 30 investigations a year, which allows sufficient flexibility to ensure that in the event that an investigation requested by the Secretary of State goes ahead, adequate resources remain.

On the process for the Secretary of State requesting an investigation, the limitations on the Secretary of State’s ability to be involved in the investigation, and the ability of HSSIB to determine whether it will pursue an investigation further, I hope that I have offered sufficient reassurance to the Committee. Therefore, I hope that the shadow Minister will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

I want to raise with the Minister subsection (5), which calls on HSSIB to put out a statement on the issues that it is investigating with regards to an incident. However, that is right at the start of an investigation. Is he not concerned that, putting out a public statement of what the issue is at a point when no one has yet got to the bottom of that issue might be putting the cart before the horse? HSSIB might therefore twist the whole investigation into what its initial preconceptions are, instead of finding out the underlying cause.

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

I take the hon. Lady’s point. That is not the intention, to prejudge or predetermine. It is what is sought with the investigation. I take the point about the language, which is important. The measure in essence requires HSSIB to notify the public that it is looking into a particular circumstance or complaint. I think “issues” still works, but I take her point that we cannot prejudge, and nor should HSSIB, where its investigation is going, which rabbit hole it will take it down, what it might find, but that is a point of language. I hope that I have reassured her, but I accept that we always need to be careful about the language.

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

I am grateful for the Minister’s investigation, but I am still not clear why an additional power needs to be set out in the Bill. My understanding is that anyone can make a referral anyway, so why this has to be set out in black and white is a mystery to me. Despite what the Minister has said, it is important to have the amendment in the Bill, because it will give patients and the public confidence that there will not be interference or challenges that undermine the notion of independence. We will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 28 Health and Care Bill — Clause 95 - Deciding which incidents to investigate

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment 122, in clause 95, page 86, line 37, at end insert—

‘(10) The Secretary of State must by regulations lay out a process to challenge a decision made by HSSIB not to investigate a qualifying incident.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to put in place a mechanism through which any decision by HSSIB not to investigate a qualifying incident could be challenged.

We have had some discussion about the matters that may be chosen by HSSIB to be investigated, but it is probably more pertinent for the purposes of considering this amendment that we discuss what happens when HSSIB decides not to investigate. Amendment 122 would require a mechanism to be put in place so that any decision by HSSIB not to investigate a qualifying incident could be challenged. If the independence of the body and faith in its purpose are to be protected, it is essential that there is a mechanism whereby HSSIB decision making can be challenged. That is especially true when we consider the role of families in the investigation process.

My experience with HSSIB came when a patient safety concern was raised by a constituent, and after that concern was not investigated it brought home to me the distress and feeling of being let down by a refusal to investigate. Without a mechanism to challenge such a refusal, faith in HSSIB could be damaged by effectively creating a dead end to further inquiries.

I should point out that in the particular circumstances that I have just referred to HSSIB agreed to a meeting and it set out in more detail its reasons for not investigating, but that might not be possible in all situations. That meeting aided my constituent’s understanding of why their request was refused, but it did not actually mean that they agreed with HSSIB’s decision. Consequently, our view is that there needs to be some sort of process—we do not intend to set out today what it should be—set out in regulations to ensure that those who make a referral have the opportunity to articulate their concerns if that referral should not go on to be investigated. In conclusion, if the purpose of HSSIB is to improve patient safety, we should ensure that collaborative approaches are enshrined in legislation, and we believe that a mechanism along the lines of what we have set out in the amendment would go some way towards achieving that.

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

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for setting out the background to his amendment, with which he seeks to ensure that a process is set out in regulations to allow the challenging of a decision by HSSIB when it has decided not to investigate a qualifying incident. However, I have to say that I do not think that this measure would necessarily be proportionate. The Bill already sets out, in clause 95 (8) and (9), that where HSSIB makes a decision not to pursue an investigation, it may explain the reasons behind that decision and communicate those reasons to those people with an interest.

It may be that the Government or others want to understand more about how HSSIB reached a decision, but setting out within regulations a fixed process to challenge HSSIB’s decisions would again risk being disproportionate. If HSSIB discontinues an investigation that it has started, then it must publish a statement that reports that it has discontinued the investigation and give its reasons for doing so. I believe that gives a high level of transparency in that circumstance.

I do not believe that it would be proportionate to take the same approach when an investigation has not even been commenced. The key theme running through these discussions, which we have heard about in our consideration of previous clauses, is the independence of HSSIB, and its ability to determine these matters and make its decisions in an independent way. I fear that this amendment sits slightly uneasily with that principle.

As I said, we intend HSSIB to carry out an estimated 30 investigations a year, so there is not the intention, even at the outset, that HSSIB should investigate all qualifying incidents. It is for HSSIB to determine that, so I do not think it would be the best use of HSSIB and its expertise to go through a formal process to explain why it has determined not to investigate incidents. We want HSSIB’s resource to go into investigating the qualifying incidents that it has determined to investigate.

I suspect we will return to this theme again in the course of our discussions, but I believe it is important that, as the expert body, HSSIB is given the autonomy to make its own decisions about what to investigate. Any such decision would of course need to stand up to scrutiny, and of course, as part of our own arrangements, we will need to ensure consistency, while at the same time ensuring that HSSIB’s autonomy is respected as it should be. That is a difficult balance, but it is one we need to ensure we strike. I therefore encourage the shadow Minister to not press his amendment to a Division.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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

During our debate on amendments 101 and 122, we discussed a number of the key themes that run through clause 95. This clause sets out that, as an independent body, HSSIB will be able to decide its own priorities and determine which qualifying incidents it investigates. We would expect this to be the result of referrals it receives, but also its own intelligence. The clause also gives the Secretary of State powers to direct HSSIB to carry out an investigation when, for example, there has been an incident that has caused a particular concern, and it allows the Secretary of State to request a report to be produced by a specified date.

I appreciate that, as we have heard today, some could argue that the clause could be perceived to encroach on the independence of HSSIB. I hope I set out in my earlier remarks why I do not take that view, and why I believe it is right that the Secretary of State, who has responsibility for the health of the nation, has such a power and is able to respond to emerging, ongoing safety priorities or issues of concern. I believe that this measure strikes the right balance, providing the Secretary of State with that flexibility while ensuring effective and proportionate accountability. HSSIB is not bound to follow the instruction, but it is bound to explain why it deems it unnecessary, or why it has determined it should not pursue a particular investigation request.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

As a point of clarification, I notice that clause 95(2) gives the Secretary of State the power to direct both an individual investigation and

“qualifying incidents that have occurred and are of a particular description”, but I wonder whether HSSIB, off its own bat and as part of its independent investigation, is able—as we were when I chaired the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel—to look at a number of incidents in which there is a theme that it would want to investigate. For example, we looked at a number of cases of co-sleeping with babies, which gave us an opportunity to look at that issue in the round, rather than individual cases. Is that something that HSSIB will also be able to do?

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

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I put on record my gratitude—our gratitude—to him for his work, which he alluded to. He is right: one of the key things we would hope HSSIB would seek to do, where it was supported by the evidence, is to join the dots where there is a systemic issue—not just in an individual trust, for example, but an underlying issue for the Department or the NHS as a whole—and be able to reflect that in its decisions on what to work on and how to broaden the scope if it deemed that to be necessary.

Clause 95 provides that whenever HSSIB decides to undertake an investigation, it is required to make a public announcement, setting out briefly what it will be investigating and what it expects to consider during the investigation. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire: that announcement should give the public an indication of the fact that something is being looked at, but it should not limit which leads—for want of a better way of putting it—HSSIB decides are worthy of investigation and of following. HSSIB will also be able to get in contact in advance with anyone who it thinks may be affected by the investigation. This may, for example, include patients, families or any individual who has referred the incidents to HSSIB, a trust or other healthcare provider.

Finally, there may be occasions when HSSIB decides not to investigate an issue or to discontinue with an investigation. Clause 95 covers those scenarios. If HSSIB decides to discontinue the investigation of an issue, we have set out that it should make a public statement explaining the reasons for doing so. If HSSIB decides not to investigate a qualifying incident, it will be able to give notice of the decision to those who it considers might be affected by it and to explain the reasons to those who have an interest in it.

I hope colleagues on the Committee will agree that the provisions are necessary for HSSIB to be in control of the qualifying incidents and to investigate and to ensure transparency about what investigations are being carried out or discontinued by the agency. We expect that the Secretary of State’s power of direction will be exercised extremely sparingly but it can ensure that crucial patient safety issues can always be focused on where appropriate. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

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

These processes will be critical if HSSIB is to function properly. The Minister has had three or four attempts to explain why the Secretary the State needs the power to direct when he can make referrals anyway, but we are still to understand why that power needs to be there. If the Secretary of State asked HSSIB to undertake an investigation, it would jolly well get on and do it. That aside, we will not be voting against the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 95 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.