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NHS: Consultation on Reform

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they propose to report the outcome of the consultation on NHS reform to Parliament.

My Lords, we ran a public consultation on NHS reform last year and received some 6,000 responses. As a result, we brought forward important changes to our modernisation proposals. We are now taking advantage of the natural pause in the legislative process to listen and reflect, supported by advice from the new NHS Future Forum. The Government will then respond to the forum’s report and the wider listening exercise, setting out the improvements that we will make to the Bill based on what we have heard.

My Lords, did the Minister see the Statement by the Secretary of State that the reason for the pause was because the Bill was allegedly not understood and he had to explain it better? Will he explain to Mr Lansley that it is precisely because the Bill is well understood that there is such widespread opposition, including an unprecedented vote of no confidence by the Royal College of Nursing? Will he give a guarantee that substantial amendments will be brought before Parliament after the current consultation? Otherwise, it will be seen as a complete sham.

My Lords, I think there is widespread agreement that the principles on which the Bill is based, such as devolving control of the NHS to local levels, placing patients at the heart of decisions about their own care and improving public accountability are the right principles for us to be guided by, but that there are also, as the noble Lord said, questions and concerns, some quite deep, about what we are doing and the mechanics of putting the principles into practice. As the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister made clear, this is a genuine chance to make a difference. Where there are good suggestions to improve the legislation, those changes will be made.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to plug the gaps in the membership of the NHS Future Forum? Will the minutes of the forum be made available to the public?

My Lords, the forum, as I understand it, is now fully composed. The appointments were made over the past 10 days or so. I am not aware of any further appointments. The plan is for the forum to produce a report which will be published at the end of the day. I will, however, write to the noble Baroness as regards the minutes, which are a matter for the chair of the forum, which is independent of the Government, as she will know.

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the pause and the mechanics that he has talked about have to be dealt with—there are lots of issues around that—but that the pause or gap is causing great concern to people working in the health service? Pause is an incidental word as regards the feelings of people who are going through this process and are caring for patients but are not sure what method they are supposed to be using. Will the noble Earl please tell us when we will know what is happening and how these people can get on with the job that they want to do?

My Lords, I am aware of that concern. This matter has occupied the minds of Ministers. I say to those who are serving in the NHS day by day and, indeed, to the pathfinder consortia and the early implementer local authorities that they should continue with the work that they are doing because it is from them that we most wish to hear about the practical lessons that our proposals may point to. It is, I am sure, an unsettling time for them but we hope that after this period of reflection we can continue with the passage of the Bill with proper momentum.

Does the Minister agree with me that the principles referred to earlier underpin the NHS reforms? These principles are supported by the coalition Government and follow on from the same reforms that were introduced by the previous Government. I would like him to acknowledge that these principles should be reaffirmed in any response to the listening exercise.

My noble friend is quite right: the principles that underpin the Bill and—I emphasise this—the principles that have always underpinned the National Health Service, are not going to change. He is right that the approach that we are adopting is in many senses an evolutionary one, following on from initiatives taken by the previous Government. I am grateful to him for pointing that out and I am sure that this will be a feature of the government response that we shall publish in due course.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that there is some concern about so much of public health going over to local authorities? Will he give an assurance that directors of public health will be well qualified in public health?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point about local directors of public health, who most certainly do need the right qualifications for that role. As she will know, they will be jointly appointed by local authorities and by the Secretary of State and we need to ensure that they can perform their role properly. The four main themes to the listening exercise are: choice and competition; public accountability and patient involvement; clinical advice and leadership—that may be an area that impacts on her question; and education and training. In some ways it is difficult to separate those issues; they are all of a piece and we do need to look at them very carefully.

My Lords, if the current listening exercise hears the almost universal concerns about the Government’s proposal to introduce a new economic regulator into the heart of the NHS—concerns, I have to say, that were expressed but ignored by the Secretary of State right through the autumn and the spring—will the Government be removing that part of the Health and Social Care Bill?

My Lords, no, because we are clear that the current system requires independent oversight of competition within the health service. Essentially, we have an unregulated health service at the moment; the Government in which she played a distinguished part as a Minister rolled out the independent sector treatment centre programme but its terms were, in the judgment of many, not fair. We need independent scrutiny and determination of pricing in the health service to ensure that there is a fairer playing field for all those providers of NHS services.