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Health Protection Agency

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 7 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that emergencies and pandemics are dealt with properly in the period before the abolition of the Health Protection Agency.

The Health Protection Agency is one of many resources used by the Government to prepare for emergencies and pandemics. We propose to abolish the HPA as a statutory body but its functions will continue as a key part of the planned public health service. The Government continue to prepare and strengthen the UK’s resilience to emergencies, and we will ensure that this is maintained both before and after the HPA’s functions are incorporated into the public health service.

I thank the Minister for that Answer but I am not sure it offered the reassurance that I was seeking. I raise the issue of the independent expert advice of the HPA, which from time to time might be uncomfortable for Ministers to hear. How will the Government ensure that the independence of the HPA is guaranteed, and will the scientific advice be made publicly available? For example, scientific advisory committees such as the one on dangerous pathogens are obliged to publish their agendas, minutes and papers and to have a dedicated website. If these committees are subsumed into the department, will they lose their independence? This is a very important matter and the Government need to provide some clarity.

My Lords, transparency is one of the aims of our proposals. As regards independence, the Government will continue to rely on their scientific advisory committees, the members of which, as the noble Baroness knows, are drawn from the foremost experts in their respective fields. The fact that the scientific secretariat to each committee is provided by experts formerly within the department, instead of within the HPA, will not prevent the committees reporting as they judge to be appropriate.

My Lords, one of the most important elements in dealing with emergencies and pandemics is the communication of accurate, concise and timely information to the community. The HPA website is a very good facility for providing information to professionals during the ordinary way of things but is not particularly good at providing emergency information to the community as a whole, nor is it adequate on its own. Will my noble friend assure me that when the public health service takes over it will concentrate on this question of emergency communication to the public as a whole?

My noble friend makes a good point about communications. Indeed, the idea of creating a public health service is to have in the Department of Health a joined-up means of having advice, surveillance, training and planning that will then feed out to local authorities, which will be responsible for prioritising action on the ground. An essential part of that will be to get the communications right.

My Lords, can we have an assurance from the Minister that health and safety at work will be protected? Some industries—the construction industry is one such industry—have high levels of industrial injury and, of course, it is a human right not to suffer injury, or indeed death, while at work.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know with her long experience, health and safety at work is a cornerstone of good industrial policy. Certainly, I am not aware of any plans of my department to affect the strength and force of current health and safety rules.

My Lords, which of the tasks currently carried out by the HPA will not be carried out in the future?

My Lords, I have to defer an answer to that because we will shortly publish a White Paper about our plans for the public health service. Following that the public and interested professionals will be invited to feed in their views on exactly how that service should be configured.

My Lords, I know that the Minister is always very concerned about the needs of patients. Will he assure the House how two things will be addressed: first, how the patients themselves will be protected during the inevitable turbulence of a period of transition; and, secondly, how the Government intend to deal with the possibility of the leaching away of scientific expertise during such a period of turbulence?

My Lords, I should emphasise that the functions of the Health Protection Agency will be transferred into the department. In the mean time, we intend to make it business as usual throughout the transition process, with an emphasis on the smooth transition both of functions and of individuals on whom we rely to give advice. The functions of the HPA will not be lost in the wake of its abolition. It will continue to contribute to the Government’s response to emergencies and other areas of responsibility. I assure the noble Baroness that we have her concerns very much in mind.

My Lords, it is very disappointing news that the HPA is to be abolished. I believe that it has done excellent and timely work in an independent manner. It was set up following a report by the Science and Technology Committee, which I had the privilege to chair, on fighting infection. In the debate that followed that report, this House agreed that the funding for the HPA should be totally safeguarded because of the possibility of infection occurring. Though the Minister has said that its functions will be taken over by the department, there is the danger that the independence and timeliness that is typical of the HPA will be lost. Will the Government reconsider the issue because the HPA has done such valuable work over the past 12 to 15 years?

My Lords, perhaps I can reassure the noble Lord that the decision to bring the functions of the HPA into the department is absolutely no reflection on the quality of the work that the agency has done and continues to do. This means that the Secretary of State will take personal responsibility for public health in our country, with a direct line of sight from the Department of Health right down to the local level. That should give everybody confidence that public health is high on the Government's agenda. When the public health service is formed, it will bring together key professionals who are involved in planning, advice, surveillance and strategy-making from national to local level. I do not see this as a dilution of the quality of public health work in this country.