New Clause 44 - Directors of public health

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 28th October 2021.

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“(1) The National Health Service Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) After section 73A, insert the following section—

‘73AA  Powers and duties of directors of public health 

A director of public health appointed under section 73A—

(a) is an officer of the local authority and has responsibility for its public health functions;

(b) must be an NHS consultant in public health responsible for giving independent professional public health advice and for promoting public debate on health matters;

(c) is a corporation sole and NHS body for working with others to initiate measures to improve the health of the people;

(d) is an officer of the Crown responsible for such functions as the Secretary of State may specify;

(e) as an officer of the Crown has power to draw the attention of the Chief Medical Officer and the Attorney General to events within the area of the local authority creating circumstances in which it might be appropriate to bring proceedings in the name of the Crown for public health purposes;

(f) is an officer of the National Health Service responsible for promoting the provision of services which are outcome-focused, are provided following a proper needs assessment and pay attention to the promotion of health and the prevention of illness;

(g) as an officer of the NHS, has power either personally (in the case of a body which primarily serves the population of the local authority which appointed the DPH) or through joint arrangements with other Directors of Public Health (in the case of a body which primarily serves the population of several local authorities) or through a collective arrangement established by the Chief Medical Officer (in the case of a body with a national remit) to appoint, or approve arrangements for the body to appoint, a consultant in public health to serve on the governing body of any NHS body, any NHS Foundation Trust, any of the bodies established under this Act or any of the bodies established under the Health & Social Care Act 2012. For the avoidance of doubt the consultant so appointed may be, but need not be, the Director of Public Health personally;

(h) must be contractually required, subject to law, to carry out the functions in paragraphs (b), (c), (e), (f), and (g) as an independent health professional treating a population as a patient and pursuing the improvement of its health and must be contractually entitled not to be subject to any detriment by the local authority or by the Crown for so doing.’”—

This new clause would clarify the roles, powers and duties of directors of public health and put them on a statutory footing.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to resume our consideration with you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. The new clause is in my name and those of my colleagues. If we think about the pandemic and the last 18 months, we will have various views on all sorts of things that have gone on during that period, but I think that one thing that we would be of one mind on is how well our nation’s directors of public health have performed in this crisis. They have been incredible, pulling together the local response and bringing to bear their unique combination of training, relationships and local soft power in order to ensure that the local approaches to dealing with the pandemic in aid of the community have been strong ones. I think we would all say that they have done absolutely superbly.

The new clause seeks to codify a little more formally the place of directors of public health in the system. As we are authoring a new system in the Bill, this is no bad time to do that. The purpose of the new clause is to clarify the roles, powers and duties of directors of public health and to put them on a statutory footing. Whatever structures DPHs sit within, their major role—the reason why as a country we need them and why we invest in them as we do—is that they act as an independent advocate for the health of the population, for system leadership and for the improvement of the system for the population. They are already responsible within their area for a broad range of things, such as measurable health improvement, health protection, public health input, planning, commissioning, reducing inequalities and more. There is a strong reason to put them on a statutory footing. They of course provide an independent advisory function for a wide range of organisations, including the NHS. My local DPH is very good indeed. She often reminds colleagues that she is the system’s DPH rather than just the local authority’s. She may well be hosted by the local authority, but her remit goes much broader, and that is a very good thing. Putting DPHs on a statutory footing would recognise the system leadership role that they have.

The new clause would use a corporation sole model to ensure that directors of public health have scope for independent action; it would ensure that special arrangements are made for them, as officers of the Crown, to bring certain things to the attention of the Attorney General and the chief medical officer, and to ensure public health representation on NHS managing, regulating or commissioning bodies where necessary; and it would guarantee their professional independence in these wider functions. In the vast majority of cases across the country, most of these functions and roles are operating very well indeed, but the new clause would give statutory underpinning to that.

Together, these changes would allow DPHs to have influence across the entire place that they work for and across all policy areas, including budgetary and allocative decisions, and ensure that they have a chance to play their part across all decisions being made in the local community that impact on public health. This proposal would hardwire links between DPHs and the NHS public health workforce who enact public health policy. For place-based officials, having strong links with local and regional NHS employees is not only a benefit but a necessity. It would help to strengthen our response to health inequalities and hence the prevention of ill health—we have spoken at length about that during these proceedings—as well as enhancing relationships for emergencies, which we have seen in recent months.

Where this is done best, it is a strong model. I know that some directors of public health have consultants within their local NHS trust. That is something that the Association of Directors of Public Health is very keen on. If the Bill and the direction of travel are about an integrated system, those kinds of integrators are a very good model of doing that.

These are critical roles. We have seen that in challenging times, but in more general times, as we push on in order to have a healthcare system that is more preventive, that closes inequality gaps and which delivers excellent services to our population, directors of public health will be really key players in it, so I hope that this attempt to put them on a slightly stronger and more consistent footing will be welcome.

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

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair once again, Ms Elliott.

My understanding, in the light of what the shadow Minister has said, is that one of the underlying aims of the new clause is to ensure that the public’s health is at the fore as we reform the health and care system. I have the utmost sympathy with that an aim

The Government recognise the importance of a robust public health system that works to improve the health and wellbeing of the nation and to prevent disease. That is why we have taken decisive steps to reshape our national public health bodies so that we are well equipped to face future challenges. Furthermore, we agree that directors of public health and their teams should have a crucial role at the heart of the new system.

The shadow Minister is absolutely right to say that although directors of public health are hosted by local authorities, they represent the whole system, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. In our past lives, he and I would have worked with DPHs in our local authority contexts, and of course, as Members of Parliament, we have all seen what our local DPHs have had to do over the past year and a half. I suspect that Members who did not know their local DPH have probably got to know them and their work in the community a lot better, which is no bad thing.

This fits naturally with the strategic emphasis on population health that we expect of integrated care systems. Both the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England have set out in published policy and guidance documents our expectation of directors of public health having an “official role” in integrated care systems. Officials in the Department are working closely with the Association of Directors of Public Health and others to help describe further the place of these roles, the outcomes that we hope collectively to achieve, and the ways in which they can best add value to the system’s impact on health overall.

Although we entirely understand the motivation behind the new clause, I am not sure that it is strictly necessary. It seeks to clarify the roles, powers and duties of DPHs, but their roles and responsibilities are already clearly and accurately set out in legislation and current guidance. The requirement for the recruitment to the role of director of public health, for example, is already clear on professional qualifications, and the registration and regulation requirements are clearly laid out. The new clause may have the effect of reducing the flexibility of the post, although I am sure that the shadow Minister would say that that concern is unfounded.

Furthermore, the current system already provides independence and influence for directors of public health, and that is strengthened by several provisions in the Bill, which includes, for instance, a duty on ICBs to seek advice from persons with the appropriate expertise on prevention and public health, including directors of public health, complementing the existing duty, in the section 6C regulations of the National Health Service Act 2006, for local authorities to provide the NHS with public health advice.

Additionally, we do not believe it necessary to make directors of public health officers of the NHS, as the Bill already provides opportunities for DPHs to link into and influence NHS bodies in their current guise. Integrated care partnerships, for instance, must develop an integrated care strategy to which integrated care boards must have regard in drawing up their commissioning plans. The intended result is to create a plan to meet the health—including public health—and social care needs of the population within their defined geography. That will provide directors of public health with the opportunity to influence NHS commissioning plans to meet wider public health aims.

It is also possible that the new clause would create a number of undesirable consequences—I suspect that the shadow Minister will allay some of those fears in his response. Rather than bringing clarity, the new clause could create confusion and complexity in a system that is already functioning effectively with a clear understanding of the role and how it operates.

The new clause would put a host of prescriptive new requirements on DPHs, including a requirement for them to be officers of the NHS, NHS consultants in public health, and officers of the Crown, while retaining independence of thought and action.

While we certainly understand the motivation of wanting to knit together the system through an individual post, that approach would add a layer of complexity. I believe that it would be challenging for an individual holding that office to seek to balance those complex responsibilities, accountabilities and potentially competing priorities within various organisations. That would also complicate the lines of accountability

My concern is that the new clause is overly prescriptive about the status and nature of the role, which would go against the overall aims of the Bill in terms of permissiveness. Although we hope and expect that directors of public health will act as a nexus for bringing coherence to the local system’s focus on population health, we are not convinced that this level of prescription over permissiveness is appropriate. That reflects a thread of the debate throughout the passage of the legislation on where the appropriate balance should be struck.

Proposed new paragraphs (e) and (h) would weaken the ties that directors of public health have with local authorities. Since the 2012 reforms, there has been widespread consensus that local authorities are best equipped to deal with a wider range of public health matters for their population’s needs. In that context, I pay tribute to local authorities for their role in tackling the pandemic, including those in elected roles. If I recall correctly, the wife and partner of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, is active as an elected councillor in a local authority. Many Members of this House will have served in that role, too, and will recognise what local authority councillors and officers do in that space.

From their home in local government, DPHs have been able to maintain an independent mindset while playing a critical role in improving and protecting the public’s health. Although it may well evolve in future, that system is working, and we have a strong and solid base that is understood by all system players. I therefore encourage the shadow Minister to continue to work with me and others to make that system work, rather than seeking to press the new clause to a Division.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I certainly did not intend to add complexity; I was hoping for clarity and consistency. Nevertheless, as the Minister says, those roles are currently functioning effectively, so I will not divide the Committee.

I would say to the Minister and his colleagues, however, that we need a real watching brief on this matter, because assuming that the Bill continues its onward journey and establishes those ICS footprints, there will be a range of different outcomes and organisational cultures. The stronger systems will be those in which the DPHs are at the heart of insight and decision making, and the reverse will be a defining characteristic in systems that are not as good. I certainly hope that we consider the Care Quality Commission reviews that were included in an earlier new clause, and any sector-led improvement, as well as the work those systems do to reflect on what they do and do not do well.

One of the criteria for both streams of improvement ought to be what the DPH does, how central they are, and how sighted they are on decision making. As I have said, in good systems that will be good, and in weak systems it will be weak. Those criteria would be a bellwether of how good the local ICS footprint is. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.