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Department of Health: Arm’s-length Bodies

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the cost of organisational changes required to implement the proposals to reform the Department of Health’s non-departmental public bodies; and whether the cost will be allocated to that department’s budget.

My Lords, the Government have announced that administration costs will reduce by a third in real terms across the health sector. This will impact on the Department of Health’s arm’s-length bodies. Currently, we cannot determine the exact costs, as they will be affected by how the reduction is distributed across the health sector and how much is met by levels of natural wastage. The department’s spending review settlement will meet these costs.

I thank the noble Earl for that reply. He will, I am sure, have listened carefully to the debate last week on the Public Bodies Bill. He will have heard half a dozen of your Lordships raise concerns about two health bodies in particular—the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Both have the schedule of Damocles hanging over them; both need independence and sensitivity; and both cost the public purse very little. Will the noble Earl now follow the precedent set by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, when she announced during Questions last Thursday that Ofcom will not be scrapped and was being pulled from Schedule 7. Will he do the same for the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority?

My Lords, we will obviously have an opportunity to debate these matters in Committee on the Public Bodies Bill, but I would just make a couple of general points. There are clear synergies between some of the functions performed by the HFEA, the HTA and the Care Quality Commission—they all license treatment. In addition, there is significant read-across to the potential scope of a new research regulator. All political parties at the election were agreed that we have too many of these bodies—too many quangos—and we have to reduce the cost of administration across government as a whole. We can debate at greater length the merits, and perhaps demerits, of the Government’s proposals. I look forward to that debate.

My Lords, will my noble friend give an assurance that the necessary functions of these bodies will continue and, importantly, will they be more accountable?

My Lords, the key point to make about our proposals around the HFEA and the HTA is that we are not proposing to change the functions or alter the provisions of the underlying statutes. All we are doing is proposing to transfer various functions in different directions. As for the independence of the advice, I see no reason at all why the current independence should not be maintained under the new arrangements.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a pre-legislative scrutiny committee gave an opinion two or three years ago that there was not a read-across between the HTA and the HFEA and that they had different skill sets? It accepted evidence that there was no money to be saved and that there would be a considerable loss of experience and probably money in bringing the two together. Does the Minister agree that we cannot keep revisiting this issue, which has been so thoroughly looked at?

They are different skill sets, but I am not aware that Parliament has visited these issues, let alone revisited them. As I said, we will have the opportunity to do that, but the proposals we have outlined will ensure that the teams that are currently involved in inspection activities will be kept together. I see no reason why they should not be.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Earl about the Health Protection Agency. What advantages does he expect to come out of moving the HPA into the Department of Health?

The advantages will come from collocating all aspects of public health in one place, including the Health Protection Agency. I emphasise that there will continue to be independent advice on health protection. We will have a clear line of sight in all public health matters from the Secretary of State right down the chain to local authorities and to public health programmes implemented on the ground. We do not have that at the moment.

Is the Minister aware that, in health services in general—and I apply this also to these bodies—there is a tendency that if someone leaves a post, it is kept unfilled? Will the Minister assure us that, instead of allowing that to happen on an unspecified basis, the Government will make sure that if a post is essential it is retained and not left simply because a person has given up their job?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. We need to distinguish between posts that are administrative in nature, where we will see considerable reductions, as I have mentioned, and posts that relate to clinical activities. There is obviously a clear case for the latter posts to be advertised and filled where necessary.

Will the Minister explain to the House why the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority have been included in the Public Bodies Bill when some 28 other NDPBs—I apologise to the House for that—were listed on 14 October in the announcement made about quangos? Will the Minister also explain whether an impact assessment has been done on any or all of these bodies, and when we might see the results of that? How many people does he expect will be made redundant, and at what cost?

My Lords, the impact assessment will be published as soon as we know the size and shape of the costs involved. As I mentioned in my original Answer, we do not know that at the moment because we do not know about natural wastage, the grades of the people who will have to leave, and so on. The main reason why those two bodies have been included in the Bill is that our proposals, when we finalise them, will be very simple. As I have outlined, they will involve reparcelling the current functions of the bodies in different directions. That is not a difficult thing to do: it can be done very easily by secondary legislation.