Clause 123 - Regulation of health care and associated professions

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 26th October 2021.

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Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 3:15 pm, 26th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 112, in clause 123, page 105, line 13, at end insert—

“(f) after subsection (3) insert—

“(3A) An Order in Council under this section—

(a) which affects Scotland may only be made with the consent of the Scottish Ministers;

(b) which affects Wales may only be made with the consent of the Welsh Ministers;

(c) which affects Northern Ireland may only be made with the consent of the Northern Ireland Ministers.””

This amendment would require the appropriate authority to obtain the consent of devolved governments before orders under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 affecting the relevant territory could be made.

Obviously, we are discussing the regulation of healthcare and associated professions. I am concerned that what we see written is that the Secretary of State will have the power to abolish certain regulatory bodies, deregulate certain professions and specifically deregulate social care workers. Most registration and regulatory bodies for healthcare are UK-wide, but it must be recognised that people work and move between the four nations, so anything that happens at that level will have an impact on the devolved health services.

During the debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, Members raised the issue that professional qualifications gained in any of the four nations must be recognised across all four. That makes absolute sense, but the debate was about teachers, and in England Teach First allows a degree holder to become a teacher within a matter of a couple of months whereas in Scotland and Wales, a postgraduate teaching qualification is required. That did not go ahead, but it highlights the issue.

We see new health professions developing—new grades, physicians and associates—and the devolved nations will have their own view on whether they would use such staff, how they think those staff should be regulated and registered, and where they would fit in their health services. We face the potential of new grades or qualifications being created that the devolved health services would have no option other than to recognise and accept, yet they would have minimal input, so we are back to the issue of genuine consultation with and consent from Health Ministers.

Earlier, when we were talking about the need to professionalise social care, I was surprised to hear the deregulation of social care workers mentioned. In Scotland, we are moving forward with the registration of care staff as the first step in that professionalisation, and we would not want to see it undermined. That is the same theme, unfortunately, that I have repeatedly put before the Committee. However, it is important to recognise that while the delivery of health and social care is devolved, some of the issues that we are debating would have a significant impact on the three devolved services, and it would be wrong for their Ministers to have these decisions forced on them by the Secretary of State with no significant input or consent as to how to take things forward.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

I shall be brief. I support my hon. Friend on this matter. Clearly, systems vary from one country to another. Indeed, a long time ago, I was involved in teaching social care staff, and we were ambitious to register all staff whereas, as I remember it, 10% of staff in England were going to be registered at that time. Across the UK, there are different approaches to health provision. As I have said before in the Committee, the Labour Government in Wales have adopted a wellbeing approach for many years, and I think the requirements of implementing such a wellbeing approach might vary from one country to another.

I restate my support for my hon. Friend on this matter and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about it.

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

Amendment 112 would place on the Secretary of State a duty to obtain consent from the devolved Administrations prior to legislating using section 60 of the Health Act 1999, where such legislation would affect the devolved Administrations. Before I turn to the substance of the amendment, I will set out the benefits of regulating health and care professionals on a UK-wide basis. It is important that we have UK-wide standards to ensure the same level of public protection across the UK and to allow healthcare professionals the flexibility to work across the whole of the UK. We value and will continue to work collaboratively with our devolved Administration partners on the regulation of health and care professionals.

Each devolved legislature, as has been alluded to, has its own devolved arrangements in respect of professional regulation, which are a mix of reserved and devolved or transferred powers. In practice, any use of section 60 affecting professionals in Northern Ireland is exercised only with the agreement of the Northern Ireland Executive. In Scotland, consent is required in relation to legislation concerning healthcare professionals brought into regulation post the Scotland Act 1998. In the case of Wales, the regulation of healthcare professionals is a reserved matter, so consent is not sought.

In practice, the UK Government always seek the agreement of the NI Executive when making changes to the regulation of healthcare professionals, and the Scottish Parliament’s consent is required in the circumstances that I set out previously. The amendment would add to that by requiring consent in relation to any changes to the regulation of healthcare professionals affecting the devolved Administrations. In addition, legislation requires that section 60 can be used only following public consultation and the affirmative parliamentary procedure.

The purpose of the professional regulation system is to protect the public. Regulating health and care professionals on a UK-wide basis helps to provide consistency across the four nations and ensures that we continue to work together with the devolved legislatures to align workforce policy. For those reasons, although I appreciate the point underlying the amendment, I ask the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire to withdraw it.

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

We have had a lot of debate over recent years about whether we are aiming for lowest common denominator or to achieve the highest standard. The concern is about delegating or creating new grades of staff who are not expected to have the same level of qualification or training as the people they may be replacing within the health service. That is not always to the benefit of patient safety. We are really calling for meaningful engagement, which is not what we have seen before. It is important to recognise the impact that it would have on the devolved nations.

I totally recognise that professionals need to be able to work across the UK, but it should be about aiming for people to have the training, professionalisation, standards and regulation that they require and which is comparative to the job that they are doing and the service they are delivering for patients. We spent the whole morning on patient safety. The standard of the staff who deliver the care is the most important thing for patient safety. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 142, in clause 123, page 105, line 13, at end insert—

“(f) After subsection (2B) insert—

(2C) The regulation of health professions and social care workers must be used where possible to raise professional awareness of rare and less common conditions.”

This amendment would require professional regulators to support improved awareness of rare and less common conditions amongst health and care professionals.

May I clarify that there will be a debate on the substantive clause afterwards?

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

There will be, if you so wish.

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

I do so wish. I will not detain the Committee long on amendment 142. We are seeking to find ways of increasing awareness of rare and less common conditions among healthcare professionals. I readily accept that the amendment may not be a perfect vehicle for doing that, but the recent UK rare diseases framework included increasing awareness of rare and less common conditions among healthcare professionals as one of its four priority areas, partly due to the challenges that people within the community face in receiving accurate and timely diagnoses in primary care.

What mechanisms can be introduced to help to raise awareness of rare and less common conditions among healthcare professionals? Will the Minister consider introducing reforms to workforce training and resourcing to facilitate that because among the raft of the entire professional regulation process and a range of development issues, continuing development about and awareness of rare conditions is at the heart of proper and effective regulation?

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

Amendment 142 would introduce a legislative requirement in section 60 of the Health Act 1999 for health and care professional regulators to raise professional awareness of rare and less common conditions where possible.

The purpose of regulating healthcare professionals is to protect the public. Regulators set the standards that registered professionals must meet; they also set standards relating to education and training. By ensuring that the standards are met, the regulators ensure that on an ongoing basis professionals have the right behaviours, skills, knowledge and experience to provide safe and effective care.

Section 60 of the Health Act 1999 provides powers to make changes to the professional regulatory landscape through secondary legislation. Each professional regulator has its own legislation that can be amended under the powers in section 60, which provides the framework for its establishment and remit. Although I have sympathy with the amendment’s aim and the points made by the hon. Member for Ellesmore Port and Neston about the need to ensure that health and care professionals are aware of rare conditions, I do not believe that writing such a requirement into section 60 of the 1999 Act is quite the right approach to achieve that.

All the healthcare professional regulators have the same set of objectives, which were placed on a consistent footing by the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act 2015. Those objectives are to protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and wellbeing of the public; to promote and maintain public confidence in the professions regulated under the Act; and to promote and maintain proper professional standards and conduct for members of those professions.

A key part of delivering those objectives is setting standards that require professionals to have the necessary skills and knowledge to practise safely. That includes knowledge and awareness of rare conditions where that is necessary for an individual’s practice. Regulators set the standards that healthcare professionals are required to meet in order to practise. Professionals have a duty to ensure that they provide a good standard of practice and care, which includes keeping their professional knowledge and skills up to date. That is set out in the guidance issued by the regulators.

For example, the General Medical Council’s “Good medical practice” sets out the standards required of a registered doctor. It specifies that a doctor must keep their professional knowledge and skills up to date, must be familiar with guidelines and developments that affect their work, and must recognise and work within the limits of their competence. That provides a clear framework that requires doctors to have knowledge of rare conditions where that is necessary for their practice.

The exact knowledge and skills required for each healthcare professional cannot be known or set by the regulator, but the current legislative requirements put in a place a framework that requires each professional to maintain the skills and knowledge needed to practise safely, including knowledge of rare conditions.

As experts in regulation, it is the responsibility of the regulators to determine what role they need to play in raising issues such as awareness of rare and less common conditions among their professionals. For those reasons, I encourage the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston to consider withdrawing his amendment.

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)

The clause provides additional powers that will widen the scope of section 60 of the Health Act 1999 and enable the Privy Council to make additional changes through secondary legislation.

The powers will enable the abolition of an individual health and care professional regulatory body where the professions concerned have been deregulated or are being regulated by another body; the removal of a healthcare profession from regulation where that is no longer for the protection of the public; or the delegation of certain functions to other regulatory bodies through legislation which previously had not been allowed. The powers will enable the regulation of group of workers concerned with physical and mental health, whether or not they are generally regarded as a profession, such as senior managers and leaders.

The UK model of regulation for healthcare professionals is rigid, complex and needs to be flexible and to change to better protect patients, support our health and care services and to help the workforce meet future challenges. The case for reforming professional regulation has long been acknowledged. Stakeholders have long expressed concern that having nine separate professional regulatory bodies is inefficient and confusing to the public. Our 2019 public consultation response reflected the desire for fewer regulatory bodies to deliver benefits to the professional regulation system. In addition, an independent review of the regulatory landscape, in particular the existing roles of regulators, has been commissioned and is due to report by the end of this year.

The powers in clause 123 will enable future changes to be made to make the professional regulatory landscape more streamlined and work more flexibly. The powers will also make it easier to ensure that the professions protected in law are the right ones and that the level of regulatory oversight is proportionate to the risks to the public.

Secondary legislation made using the new powers will be made subject to the existing provision in schedule 3 to the Health Act 1999, namely with a public consultation and under the affirmative parliamentary procedure. That will ensure that any use of the power will be informed by experts and other stakeholders, and subject to high-level scrutiny in public and in Parliament.

The policy decisions underpinning the powers also take into consideration the Government response to the Law Commission’s review of UK law relating to the regulation of healthcare professionals and the recent review, led by Tom Kark QC, of the fit and proper persons test. This clause forms part of a wider programme aimed at creating a more flexible and proportionate regulatory framework for healthcare professionals that is better able to protect patients and the public, and I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 3:30 pm, 26th October 2021

As the Minister has told us, the clause seeks to amend section 60 of the Health Act 1999 in relation to making changes to the professional regulatory landscape through secondary legislation. It will simultaneously widen the scope of section 60 and extend the Secretary of State’s powers. Members may have picked up a theme by now: whenever there is a chance for the Secretary of State to seek more power, he uses this Bill to obtain it.

At the moment, the Government have powers to bring new professions into regulation or make modifications through secondary legislation, but can remove a profession from regulation only through primary legislation. This clause will enable the removal of a profession through secondary legislation and makes it clear that a profession would be removed from regulation only when that was no longer required for the purpose of protecting the public—but then I would hardly expect a statement from the Government about deregulating only where there is a risk.

While at one end of the spectrum one could argue that virtually all interactions with patients might have some element of risk, the more balanced view might be that while not all interactions carry the same risk, it is likely that all professions at some time undertake acts where the consequences of mistakes for the patient will be significant.

I am left wondering exactly what the yardstick will be and what criteria will be used to determine when there is no longer a need to protect the public. Is that the only criterion to be applied? Does professional regulation not also help to facilitate consistent common standards? What is lacking at the moment is any sense of the principles that will be followed to inform decisions to bring professions into regulation or to remove them. Will patient organisations, representative bodies and regulators be consulted on any new criteria to be applied?

I appreciate that, as the Minister said, section 60 of the Health Act 1999 already contains requirements that legislation should be published in draft, subject to a three-month consultation, specifically with affected professionals and service users, but it would be helpful if he confirmed that that is the absolute minimum. I have to say, though, that even if the answer to that is yes, it seems a fairly minimal procedure for abolishing an entire profession. I am not sure that will cut it in terms of Parliament, never mind the public being satisfied that due diligence has been done to assess the overall risk profile of any particular role in the system. I am concerned about where that would leave matters such as professional indemnity insurance, as well as about any knock-on effect on the reassessment of bandings under agenda for change.

The more one looks at this, the harder it is to see how it could be done properly in the timescales envisaged. There are just under 700,000 registered nurses in the UK. One can see how resource-intensive it would be if every one of them responded to a consultation to abolish their profession. I suspect the Minister will tell us that he has no plans to abolish professional regulation for doctors and nurses, but imagine if he did. This process would be wholly inadequate, which leads to the question: what exactly does the Minister, or more accurately the Secretary of State, have in mind when it comes to these powers? If we got some answers on that today, it might help us to decide whether these procedures were adequate and also whether the powers are necessary at all.

Moving the power to abolish professions to secondary legislation is not putting scrutiny and transparency at the forefront, and doing so without putting any indication on the record of which professions are being considered for derecognition under this power does not instil confidence that this power grab has been considered properly or is in fact needed at all. The implications for the devolved nations, particularly Scotland, are also important. There are differences in regulation and it is not clear what would happen if there were a difference of opinion between England and the devolved nations.

Clause 123(2)(d) inserts new subsection (2ZZA) into the Health Act 1999. I would welcome the suggestion that the scope of regulation could be extended to others who might not necessarily be regarded as professionals. It remains to be seen who or what this power will be used for, but I question whether the vehicle proposed is sufficient. More needs to be done. The 2019 Interim NHS People Plan states:

“It cannot be right that there are no agreed competencies for holding senior positions in the NHS or that we hold so little information about the skills, qualifications and career history of our leaders. A series of reports over the last decade have all highlighted a ‘revolving door’ culture, where leaders are quietly moved elsewhere in the NHS, facilitated by ‘vanilla’ references. These practices are not widespread, but they must end.”

I do not know whether this will be the right vehicle for tackling this issue, but it certainly needs tackling.

On clause 123(3) and the power to abolish regulatory bodies, the case has been made rather better—most notably by the Health and Care Professions Council, which sees this as an opportunity for some much needed modernisation, with a multi-professional regulatory model that would allow regulators to retain their individual identities and independence. That would see each regulator continue to operate its own register, oversee fitness to practise processes, liaise with relevant professional bodies and set its own educational standards relating to the professions they regulate, but there would be greater collaboration, with shared back-office services and other resources, which would presumably improve efficiency.

That approach has some benefits although I am also mindful of the evidence submitted by the Professional Standards Authority, which warned:

“Any mergers would be likely to lead to a period of turbulence of three-to-five years.”

It may be of interest that the authority also said that in the coming five or so years, it expected turbulence in the NHS and referred to the Bill as part of that turbulence. Of course, there are also the issues that we have discussed many times in this place about the pandemic’s impact.

On the overall impact of clause 123, I am sure that we can all agree on the need for robust, independent processes to ensure that any decisions made are in the public interest and based on a clear assessment of the risk of harm arising from practice. It is an obvious thing to do. It is important that individuals belong to a profession because that provides a framework of standards to uphold, encourages expertise and respect, and brings a higher level of professionalism, and, crucially, accountability to the public. However, it is far from obvious how the clause will assist those aims or why in going down the road of deregulation we would want to put those important principles at risk.

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

I am grateful to the shadow Minister. His points coalesce around a number of key themes that I shall seek to address. He highlighted his concern about why we would do this and the potential disruption of either a lack of regulation in some spaces were we to abolish regulators or of that caused by moving functions. The key point here is that this is about creating a power that enables flexibility in the system that is not currently there. It is not that we have any direct or immediate plans to do this but about creating, in the context of the opportunity provided by the legislation, a framework whereby we could move powers around. There are some points sitting underneath that which I shall try to address.

The current section 60 powers are limited in terms of the changes they can deliver in the professional regulatory framework. We can use secondary legislation to bring a new profession into regulation and create a new regulatory body, but we do not have equivalent powers to remove a profession from regulation or close a regulatory body and move functions without primary legislation. Widening the scope helps us to ensure that professional regulation delivers public protection more consistently and efficiently, recognising the dynamic, to a degree, nature of evolving professional regulation.

On his concern about abolishing regulators, I know the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is no intention of doing that. But he rightly asks, “But what if?” It is the role of the Committee to look at that. Were a regulator to be abolished, that would not necessarily mean that the professionals they regulate would cease to be regulated. Current legislation allows a number of professions to be regulated by a single body, and that creates the mechanism to allow those movements and transfers.

To give an example that some might raise, would that mean that the GMC could be abolished? It is an extreme example, but hopefully it illustrates the point. The scope of the power to abolish a regulator covers all health and care professional regulators. However, the key point is that a regulator will be abolished only if the professions have either been moved to another regulator or removed, or deemed to be removed, from regulation altogether. Any use of this power is subject to existing legislative provision, namely a public consultation and the affirmative procedure. However, to take the example I gave, there are no plans to abolish the GMC, because clearly there would always be a need for continued regulation of medical practitioners. Therefore, given that the GMC regulates them, it would continue to do so.

Underpinning that concern is whether the removal of a specified profession entirely from regulation would increase in any way risks to public safety. Again, a profession would only be removed entirely from regulation following an assessment that showed the profession no longer required regulation for the purposes of public protection and that risks could therefore be safely managed, effectively and efficiently, outside statutory regulation. Given the nature of the professionals that we are talking about here, that would be highly unlikely in any of those spaces and I do not anticipate it. Any use of the power to remove a profession from regulation would be subject to consultation and, again, the affirmative parliamentary procedure.

The counterpoint could be why more professions are not included in regulation. From time to time we debate particular professions as new treatments, such as cosmetic treatments, emerge. Given the risks that some may pose, the question of whether there should be greater regulation then arises. Although statutory regulation is sometimes necessary where there are significant risks in the use of services that cannot be mitigated in other ways, we believe that it is not always the most proportionate or effective means of assuring the safe and effective care of service users. Therefore, each situation needs to be assessed carefully on its own merits. We have seen colleagues from the across the House making the case for regulating different aspects of professions, or service providers that have effectively become professional or are providing a service that is regularly used. Rather than a blanket approach, we believe that remains the right way.

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

I wonder whether, within this, there is a consideration of the issues within the cosmetic surgery and treatment field, particularly the use of Botox and the injection of fillers, which often result in side effects, and the fact that even cosmetic surgeons, as opposed to plastic surgeons, are not regulated in the same way. The problem is that whenever those medical terms are used, the public assume that they are dealing with a licensed medical professional who is both registered and regulated.

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

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Laura Trott for her private Member’s Bill, which began putting a framework around Botulinum fillers and who could or could not access them, with age limits. My right hon. Friend Ms Dorries was then the Minister responsible, but she was self-isolating and awaiting test results, so I had the privilege of speaking in that debate. As often happens on Fridays, it was an interesting and well-informed debate, rather than a political to and fro, as occasionally happens in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire highlights an important point.

My right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes has taken a close interest in the issue, as have hon. Members across the House. I am due to meet her to discuss this more broadly in the context of this legislation. I do not want to pre-empt that meeting and the upshot of it, but I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire.

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

Division number 34 Health and Care Bill — Clause 123 - Regulation of health care and associated professions

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 123 ordered to stand part of the Bill.