On 21 October, I invited general practice-led commissioning consortiums to put themselves forward as pathfinders, and I have been absolutely delighted by the response. The pathfinder consortiums will be announced shortly. They have formed in response to the needs of local communities, and there is, sensibly, variation around the country to take account of those differing needs. Some consortiums map on to local authority boundaries; others organise themselves around catchments for hospitals or smaller populations. This bottom-up, locally determined approach is exactly in line with what we envisaged in the policy framework.
Under the previous Government, Crawley hospital saw the removal of services such as accident and emergency and maternity. Can my right hon. Friend explain how, under the new GP-led consortiums, doctors will have the freedom and the flexibility to be able to refer their patients to local services if they so choose, as well as to new services?
That is exactly what our reforms will allow. We are putting not only the freedom to refer in the hands of general practices but choice in the hands of patients, and allying that to the power on the part of commissioners to commission services that meet the needs of their local community. That is precisely the change that will empower front-line clinicians and patients.
Having consulted widely in Milton Keynes, I am pleased to say that the Government’s plans have been broadly welcomed. However, one area of concern that has been raised with me by patients, in particular, is the amount of time that they will get to spend face to face with their GP. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents and outline the administrative support that GPs will get in fulfilling their new functions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In Milton Keynes, GP Healthcare MK and Premier MK consortiums are shaping their services in order to be able to deliver better and improved services for their patients. We do not intend that all GPs individually should become managers, by any means; there will be clinical leadership, but the consortiums should have commissioning support. The primary care trust in Milton Keynes has had some good commissioning support arrangements, as I know from having visited it in the past. It is open to the new commissioning consortiums to take teams from the primary care trust into their new consortium support arrangements, but they can go elsewhere. They can look to the local authority and to the independent sector to provide them with the commissioning support that they need so that clinicians provide leadership but continue to be responsible for clinical care.
I think that the reforms will have a positive impact on performance right across the NHS, because they will enable patients who want to exercise choice to see the quality and standard of services, including waiting times. Unlike in the past, they will be able to see waiting times for individual hospitals, rather than just a single target. They will be able to make choices based on information about the quality of services.
If the reforms are so good, why have they been criticised by the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Clare Gerada? She said:
“I think it is the end of the NHS as we currently know it, which is a national, unified health service”.
The British Medical Association has expressed concerns about competition, and we hear in this morning’s edition of The Independent from an unnamed “ally” of the Secretary of State that
“There is no wobble. No 10 and the Treasury are fully behind the principle of the reforms”—
obviously a very brave ally. Why has the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Office Minister who is in charge of Government policy to review the plans? Is it because the Secretary of State is the only one who believes in them?
The hon. Gentleman should not believe all that he reads in the newspapers. The curious thing is that the Minister with responsibility for Government policy is engaged with Government policy. That is a good and positive thing. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Royal College of General Practitioners and to Dr Gerada. In response to the White Paper, the RCGP said:
“General Practice is the central plank in our world-class healthcare system. The College thoroughly agrees that it makes a great deal of sense to give GPs, with their unique patient-centred perspective, a central role in commissioning and directing healthcare services.”
Dr Gerada said:
“I fully support placing clinicians at the centre of commissioning decisions”.
I very much welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend is taking to encourage the early emergence of pathfinder consortiums, so that the shape of the new commissioning structure is made clear as quickly as possible. Given the nature of the quality, innovation, productivity and prevention challenge—QIPP—that the health service faces, does he agree that the process must be carried forward as quickly as possible so that the new framework is clear for all concerned as quickly as possible?
Yes, I do. I was delighted by the response of general practice to the emerging consortiums, because one of the central reasons it wants to make progress quickly is to shape clinical service redesign, which is at the heart of delivering the efficiency savings that will enable us all to improve outcomes.
The right hon. Gentleman should understand that what I said was that GPs are the best people to commission services. Commissioning and management are not the same thing. GPs are already responsible for commissioning most services in the NHS, but they have no power over resources and contracting. I intend to ally clinical leadership and commissioning decisions with commissioning support that involves management. The people who should determine the shape of local services to meet the needs of patients are those who are already at the heart of designing services and referring patients.