Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)
20: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“The Secretary of State’s duty to ensure transparency
After section 1A of the National Health Service Act 2006 insert—“1B Duty to ensure transparency
The Secretary of State must act with a view to securing—(a) that any persons providing health services should provide, within as short a period as possible, full information to patients, their carers or representative about any incident or omission in or affecting their care which may have caused harm, or may in the future cause harm,(b) that regulations are introduced to enable the Care Quality Commission to take action against a registered person or body who fail to disclose details of such incidents as set out in those regulations.””
My Lords, Amendment 20 would establish a duty of candour so that any provider of National Health Service services would have to inform a patient, or their family or next of kin if they died or lacked capacity, when something went wrong with their care or treatment that had led to harm or could cause harm.
The principle of “no decision about me without me” has been stressed. If the patient is to be central to the legislation, the amendment should be taken very seriously. I hope that your Lordships agree with me that there are always risks in the treatment of patients, but that there should be openness and transparency, with no cover-ups, when things go wrong.
There is currently no statutory requirement on providers of National Health Service services to tell a patient, or their carer or representative, when something has gone wrong during their care and treatment, while a host of compulsory standards are set out in statutory regulations. The issue is left to guidance and a non-binding requirement in the National Health Service’s constitution to have regard to the principle of openness. This has allowed cases to occur where NHS organisations have withheld such information from patients, delayed its release or, worse, actively covered it up.
Organisations concerned with patient safety have campaigned for a statutory duty of candour to rectify this situation. The Government have agreed that a duty of candour is required, but their preferred route is a contractual duty built into the standard contracts between commissioners and some providers of NHS services. Patients’ organisations do not believe that that is adequate. It would not include all NHS providers, only those with standard contracts, and would not create access to the sanctions that the CQC has at its disposal.
It is not just patients and patients’ groups who advocate a statutory duty of candour. Action Against Medical Accidents presents an impressive list of organisations and leading clinicians who support it. Just recently, at the Mid Staffordshire Hospital NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry, Sir Liam Donaldson, the former Chief Medical Officer for England and internationally renowned champion of patient safety, reiterated his long-held belief in a statutory duty of candour. When asked directly, he said that he had always personally agreed that there should be a statutory duty of candour. He explained that he favoured it because he was of the view that professionals should be encouraged to take responsibility when they have done something wrong rather than withhold instances of harm. I believe that failure to commit to a more meaningful measure in this Bill will not only fail to have the desired effect, but is a snub and an insult to patients, patients’ groups and other experts.
There is little if anything in the Bill that is genuinely drawn directly from the priorities and wishes of patients. A commitment to a statutory duty of candour certainly would be. This is an opportunity to show that patients really are being listened to. If the Government agree that the requirement to be open really is fundamental and essential, why on earth would a different approach be taken to this essential requirement, with it being left to the commissioning process? Commissioners are simply not equipped to regulate issues of this kind. If one accepts the argument that this is the appropriate way to proceed, then all of the core standards currently in the CQC regulations could simply be dealt with in the standard contract for providers.
Another key weakness in the Government's proposal is that providers’ contracts relate only to NHS contracts with trusts, PCTs and private voluntary providers of NHS services. That would not include primary care practitioners such as GPs. The Government admit in their consultation document that GPs are subject to different arrangements and that the duty could be brought in only in negotiation with their representing organisations. Very significantly, the BMA General Practitioners Committee has already stated that it would not sign up to a duty of candour, but it should not be negotiable. A duty is a duty.
The Government’s proposed contractual duty of candour would be weak even where it did apply. It simply would not cover the area where so much NHS care is undertaken—in primary care.
As recently as June of this year, MPs on the Health Select Committee recommended, in their report Complaints and Litigation, that a duty of candour be included in the licensing arrangements with the Care Quality Commission. That is precisely what AvMA and others are arguing for.
Restricting the duty of candour to the contracting process diminishes its importance and impact and is inconsistent with how any other genuine “must do” is regulated. It is also offensive to patients, and undermines the principle of candour, that there is a statutory requirement in the CQC regulations for providers to report patient safety incidents to the CQC but no statutory requirement to report them to the patients affected. Inclusion of such a requirement in the CQC registration regime would cover all providers of NHS services—not just those with a particular form of contract—including dentists and, in due course, GPs.
We believe that creating a statutory duty of candour to provide a right for patients to know when things have gone wrong with their care and treatment is fully justified, would improve healthcare, would put the patient at the centre of health services and could, I hope, gain the support of the House. If the patient is to be central in this Bill, I can see no reason why the Minister should not accept this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, when I was director of the Association of Community Health Councils, the message from community health councils around the country was that people who complained were seeking not compensation from, or retribution against, those who had perhaps caused the reason for their complaint—for example, the death of a loved one—but information. They wanted to know what had happened, and they wanted some reassurance that what happened to them or their relatives would not happen again.
Always, the most tragic cases were those in which people had not known what had happened and discovered the actual circumstances only much later, perhaps when their relative’s case came to an inquest or, in some cases, even long after that. I would like to hope that, in the 10 years or so since I was director of the Association of Community Health Councils, this problem would have become less, but it remains a serious blemish on the health service that, too often, such mishaps are covered up.
In a case reported only three weeks ago—the most recent case that I have come across, but I am sure there are many others—a mother discovered long afterwards that the death of her seven year-old daughter, which she had blamed on herself for not being able to perform the necessary first aid, was actually the consequence of a failure by a paramedic called to the scene. She discovered that only ages afterwards when she became aware of the transcript of the inquiry which led to the paramedic being dismissed. That case, reported in the Doncaster Free Press only three weeks ago, is an indication of the sorts of incidents that one is talking about.
I met the family of someone who had died while detained in a secure mental health facility. They discovered the circumstances in which their loved one had died only when the matter was reported at an inquest. In such incidents, the health service officials knew what had happened and had conducted their own inquiries but did not think it necessary or appropriate to tell the families concerned. That is why it is so important to have this amendment, which would place a statutory duty of candour on the health service, to make it something that runs right the way through the system.
Of course, accidents can never be eradicated. Healthcare is of its very nature a risky business and health professionals are only human, so these things will happen. However, what is unforgiveable is that the fact that something has gone wrong is not told to those concerned. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, quoted Sir Liam Donaldson, but I thought that she was also going to quote the maxim that he gave:
“To err is human, to cover up is unforgiveable”.
That is precisely the concern that motivates this amendment.
In the White Paper Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS, the Government said that they will require hospitals to be “open and honest” when things go wrong. That stems directly, I think, from the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment, but, unfortunately, their manifesto referred only to hospitals rather than to the wider health service. I think that the Liberal Democrats intended that such a duty should be statutory, but my understanding is that the Department of Health is looking at this as something that could be written into contracts. As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has pointed out, having a lesser status than a requirement to inform a central agency that something has gone wrong would mean a lesser status in terms of informing the family. It is really important that we look at this issue and take it seriously, so I hope that the noble Earl will accept the amendment.
In 2005, a National Audit Office report revealed that only 24 per cent of NHS trusts routinely informed patients of a patient safety incident—that implies that more than three-quarters of NHS trusts do not do so routinely—and 6 per cent admitted that they never informed patients of a patient safety incident. Quite clearly, there is a “culture of denial”. Noble Lords may think that that is rather an alarmist statement, but I am simply quoting from a Department of Health document from 2006.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I do not want him to interpret my question as opposition to the general point that he is making, but before he finishes will he say a word about the role of lawyers of health service bodies in these circumstances? I am not a lawyer, as I have told the House before, but in both cases that he has cited I could see legal advisers saying, “Say nothing”. If we are to take this amendment seriously, we need to have some idea of what part the law might play if the Bill were to be so amended. As the noble Lord has experience, I would be grateful if he would reflect on that.
My Lords, the noble Lord, with all his experience—albeit, like me, as a non-lawyer—is speaking exactly the truth. In many of those cases, the legal advice would be, “Say nothing”. There therefore needs to be a statutory duty, because then the responsibility of the lawyers concerned would be to advise, “There is no option but to tell the patients or their families”.
An interesting point is that insurers in the United States often require open disclosure policies and practice by health providers to qualify for insurance. The international evidence is that, as well as being the right thing to do morally and ethically, being open and honest when things go wrong can actually reduce litigation and complaints.
My concern is that the Government will say that they are doing enough by saying that the duty of candour can be achieved through a contractual process. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has pointed out, this would apply only to hospitals with an NHS contract; it would not apply to GPs, dentists, pharmacists or private healthcare providers. I do not see why the duty of candour to patients and their families should be regarded as of lesser importance and impact than those things where there is direct regulation. I hope that the Minister will say that the Department of Health will take this away and that he will come back to the House with proposals to give a statutory duty of candour to protect the interests of patients.
I, too, wish that there was not a need for this duty and that it was unnecessary. However, as we have already heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, there is a compelling case that now, more than ever, we need a duty of candour.
As has been said already, we know that accidents will never be eradicated, and nor will human error. We know that healthcare has risks—most people accept that—and that health professionals are only human. However, when things go wrong and they are caught up in things that can cause harm to patients, they need to be supported and helped to deal with a very difficult situation.
There has to be absolute clarity that anything less than complete openness and honesty when things go wrong is unacceptable in modern British healthcare. That is what I understand that the amendment is trying to achieve—a duty of candour.
In my previous life, I was a chief officer in a community health council. Unfortunately, I came across many cases in which a complaint was brought to me and, when we started to look into it, it became apparent that all was not what it seemed. It would often take months, if not years, to establish what had happened. For a family who has lost somebody or when something has gone badly wrong, that compounds the distress that is caused. It makes things worse. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said, most people want to know. They just want information; they want to know the truth of what happened to their loved one. The last thing that they want is to find out, sometimes months or years later, that there has been a cover-up or they were given the wrong information. Sometimes, deliberately, the shutters simply come down because a trust fears litigation, as we have heard. Because of that fear, parents, patients and families are often left floundering in the dark and running to lawyers.
None of us can imagine losing a loved one as the result of an avoidable error and then finding out how the information had been kept from one. As has been said, there is no statutory requirement. It would come as a surprise and a shock to most of the general public that there is simply no requirement to be told when something goes wrong with any of our loved ones. The onus would be on them to find out and get to the bottom of it. Most patient groups that are campaigning for this are coming at it from real experience of having to take up some of the most tragic cases that we have heard about in recent years. The phrase “having regard to” the principle of openness is in the NHS constitution, but it is really not sufficient. It is not adequate to deal with the sort of cases that we have heard about.
Successive Governments have usually agreed that a duty of candour is a good thing and may be required, but so far there has been a failure to establish what that duty should entail. It is different from the contractual duty built into standard contracts between commissioners and some providers of NHS services. I believe that this is wrong; surely, honesty is the only policy in this instance. This should be a commitment to the protection of patients in healthcare and a legal duty of candour, which places a duty on all healthcare professionals to be open and frank with patients and their families. I was disappointed to read just last week that the GPC said that GPs would not back an openness clause in the GP contract, for example. I found that very disappointing.
There are many tragic examples of where things went wrong and guidelines were not followed—and also, as I have said, where trusts actively covered up. I cite one instance, as citing cases is very important so that we know what we are talking about and how people have suffered. Mayra Cabrera, who was 30, died of a heart attack one hour after giving birth to Zachary, a healthy 8lb baby, in May 2004 in the Great Western Hospital in Swindon, where she worked as a theatre nurse. A drip-bag containing a powerful epidural painkiller had been mistakenly connected into a line into her right hand instead of a saline drip. Although it became clear early on that the drug error had something to do with her death, there was an internal investigation and Mayra’s husband, Arnold Cabrera, was told that Mayra had died from a rare but natural event—an embolism. He was given no idea that something untoward had happened. It was not until some 14 months later, after a legal investigation had been instigated by his solicitors, that the circumstances were revealed. The records showed that in May 2004, as had been acknowledged internally, a drug error had been a contributory factor in Mayra’s death, yet no one at the trust had informed her husband. It is quite extraordinary that no one had a duty to do that. They did follow guidelines—they just did not do it. This is simply wrong. We need a consistent, strong, statutory procedure, not just guidelines, in order that this should happen automatically. It should run in parallel with a very strong, robust complaints procedure.
We have heard many arguments over the years that creating a statutory duty might make people more likely to cover up. It is simply not a credible argument to suggest that placing a statutory duty on an organisation to do everything reasonably practical to ensure that patients are dealt with openly and honestly will drive people to cover up. Where is the evidence for that? The proposal also includes requirements for organisations to treat their staff fairly and support them. However, everyone needs to understand that it is simply unacceptable to allow dishonesty over medical accidents. Sending the message that cover-ups may be tolerated, as the current arrangements could imply, can in no way support an open and fair culture. We have also heard the argument that the professional duty of all health professionals to be honest with patients means that a legal duty is unnecessary. Again, that does not cover other health professionals. It is contained in codes of conduct that apply only to certain health professionals, whereas it should apply equally to health managers and trust boards.
Many in your Lordships' House will be aware of the case of Robbie Powell, whose family have lent his name to the duty of candour. The GMC in that terrible case maintains to this day that the strong allegations of an attempted cover-up and forgery of medical records were not even important enough for it to waive its five-year rule and investigate. To change culture and behaviour, we need something stronger than just guidelines. It would send out a powerful and clear message about what is acceptable and not acceptable.
The simple principle at stake is the right of patients and their families and carers to know what has gone wrong with their care and treatment. It cannot be right that distressed, bereaved families have to resort to legal remedies for years and find out at the end of it that what they thought had happened had not happened. I have been told by patients’ families that I dealt with that it is like having a bereavement all over again. In the spirit of honesty, openness and transparency that we talk about a lot in the Bill, this proposal would ensure transparency—and, importantly, that patients and the public have complete confidence in the NHS.
My Lords, I intervene at this point because I have all too real personal experience that may be helpful to the movers of the amendment. When she was still a teenager, my daughter was the subject of a terrible error made during a simple investigative measure. It was covered up by all concerned, who said what a tragedy it was that such a young girl should have got this illness, which was inexplicable. Because she was a private patient, we were able to bring in other advice that led to a conclusion which was that a very serious mistake had been made. She was hospitalised for three months. She suffered several operations as a result and, when she was finally recovering, we sought in law to get some kind of satisfaction.
We were not without means or influence, but no single lawyer would take the case. They said it was not in their interests because their main clients were usually health service providers or medical providers and therefore our case was not going to be taken. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, made the point that these people may or may not want to follow legal processes. I make the point that if that were one of the objectives of the amendment—which I hope it is not—they would have no chance whatever.
My Lords, I intervene briefly to do precisely what the noble Baroness has just done; namely, to draw attention to an individual case that might influence the judgment of the Committee. In a former incarnation as a Member of Parliament, I received in my post an anonymous letter from a person in the north of England, which made major allegations about a hospital in the north of England where a child had been badly brain-damaged as a result of negligence in that hospital. The letter was unsigned, as I say, and the child's name was not included. I had the task of asking around in the community to find out whether they know anyone who the child might be or whether they knew anybody in the hospital who knew about the incident that had taken place. I suspected that the letter had come from a member of staff.
After some time, I managed to identify a family. I knocked on the door and a lady answered. She said, “Yes, it was our child and the health service has basically converted our garage and put a bed in it”—for this boy who was very badly brain-damaged and remains so to this day. The family had been to lawyers and been advised that that was the best deal they could get. The reason why that happened was because there was no duty of candour and because the health service covered up what had happened. I told the family that they should go to Manchester and pick a very smart lawyer whom I knew and ask him to handle their case. It took six years, at the end of which there was a multimillion pound settlement covering a lifetime's provision of care for this child.
There are many cases of negligence in the National Health Service. I have probably spent more time in hospital in my lifetime than a large number of Members of this House put together and I have seen it myself. You hear stories in hospitals all the time when you are sitting in a bed, although some of them are not so much about negligence as stupidity. I wonder whether we are really being sufficiently transparent in the way we ensure that the information is made available to patients and their relatives. I hope that the amendment goes through.
My Lords, I congratulate the movers of the amendment on the sincerity with which they and the people who supported it spoke. I think that I am going to make myself deeply unpopular both inside and outside this House by saying that I am implacably opposed to the amendment. It is a profound mistake and its wording is quite inadequate and actually very dangerous for patients.
I say this because I have spent some 25 or 30 years of my practice in a secondary referral centre, where I have seen patients from all over the United Kingdom and outside it being referred because they had surgery and other treatments that were botched, mistaken or not properly done and that caused problems. From my serious experience of occasions when I was much younger, telling patients that the thing had not been properly done was often a profound error. It caused immense distress and continued to cause problems afterwards when there was no legal redress possible in any case, as there often is not. By presenting patients to a court, you often add to the distress that might be caused to them and the tensions that they have to go through. The problem with this amendment, good though its intentions are, is that it will increase that risk in the health service.
I do not wish to be anecdotal because I do not think it is appropriate. I could tell numerous anecdotes, rather than just one or two, from a surgeon's perspective to show why I am highly suspicious of this amendment. I will say one thing about why I feel so strongly about this. When you as a doctor give a second opinion on somebody who you believe has been badly treated, there is invariably a degree of subjectivity in your assessment because you are not in the situation that the previous person was in. The amendment refers to,
“any incident or omission in or affecting their care which may have caused harm”.
This is highly dangerous. I believe that it would cause massive problems to a large number of patients and I hope that the noble Lords who tabled it will think seriously before pressing it this evening.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as a former Member of Parliament. I am guessing that anyone who was a Member of Parliament for any length of time could, through their constituency casework, repeat the sort of story to which he referred; so I will not burden the Committee by adding similar types of anecdote, other than to say that we cannot all be wrong. Up and down the country, people are going to see their Members of Parliament and saying, “We have a problem that we can’t get past”. There has to be something in the system that is not working right. Like other ex-Members of Parliament, I have from time to time tried to intervene, but the fact that I was a Member of Parliament made virtually no difference whatever to the health authorities. Maybe you would argue that Members of Parliament were the last people they would tell, but they were not going to tell anybody.
Having said that, I also agree with one thing that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has just said. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, will not take this amiss—I will come to my view in a minute—but I do not think that this amendment is the right amendment. Perhaps I may read to her just a few words:
“full information to patients, their carers or representative about any incident or omission”,
that may affect their care. That has been taken to refer to a major problem—a life-threatening problem, a permanent disability or disfigurement problem—but, actually, it could also refer to the numerous stories that appear in our national newspapers, week in and week out, about the absence or inadequacy of nursing care for the elderly. Those are incidents and omissions that affect their care. An amendment that is that wide in its potential scope seems to me to require further thought. It might be described, to use my example, as inadequate nursing care—and, incidentally, I speak as the husband of a qualified nurse—but the nurses do not appear to think that it is inadequate, because it keeps on happening. The management does not think that it is inadequate, because it keeps on happening. The boards of the hospitals do not seem to think that it is inadequate, because it keeps on happening. So, identifying at that level what this amendment might mean seems very difficult.
I come to the central point. I share the view of those who believe that more candour is required. I hope that my noble friend will take this away and look at it again in the context of reaching out to those delivering NHS services, not just to some of them. The legal point is a real stumbling block. If you are a professional paying a lot of insurance against medical cover or if you are running a big hospital and paying a lot of insurance health cover, then lawyers are important. We can be dismissive of lawyers and say “transparency reigns, OK”, but in the real world lawyers also reign, OK. If I may say so to my noble friend, your Lordships’ House needs help on this issue. Do not make us pick between the reality of the need for candour and the reality of the professional job that lawyers are doing to protect their clients. Instead, I ask my noble friend to bring forward a more comprehensive view, perhaps with mediation at its heart. Even in this debate we have heard about people who did not want a lot of money or retribution; they just wanted to know. That rings bells in my head about mediation. Perhaps if a mediation type of arrangement were included in all of this, the problems with the lawyers would be so reduced that the NHS could handle it.
Let me cheer up my noble friend. I can remember my time in Richmond House, with the escalation of money that we had to set aside year by year as more legal cases went to the courts. That was a genuine problem; it was money that was not going to be available for patient care on a day-by-day basis. There are two real issues here. I think we can solve them not in terms of the Bill, either in the way it is written or, with due respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, in the way that she is seeking to amend it, but rather by asking the Minister if he can come back with a more comprehensive and coherent strategy for dealing with this problem. I hope that he will put mediation somewhere near the centre of it.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, who has given the Minister some very positive and practical advice. When the Minister responds to this debate he will probably say something similar to what he said at Second Reading, where he was very clear that the Government agree that there should be a duty of candour. The question is about how best to deliver that. As I understand it, the Government have launched a consultation about how to deliver a duty of candour through the contractual means that noble Lords have already alluded to. There seems to be agreement around the House; the noble Lord, Lord Winston, suggests that he is unpopular, but he too accepts that there is an issue we need to address.
I believe that the consultation on the contractual route finishes on 2 January. I do not know how that fits in with our Committee timetable, but it would be helpful for the Committee to see how my noble friend’s amendment could be worked through in a more practical way. My noble friend Lady Masham has spoken very eloquently about issues of deep concern to patient organisations in this country, and we have to do better than a contractual route. Patients have a right to know when something goes wrong, and in this country’s NHS we need a system, a process, that allows health professionals to admit when something goes wrong in an environment that can learn from those mistakes. Where there are errors and where professional misconduct takes place then of course action must be taken, but it is important that there is openness so that the system can learn and these errors can be stopped from happening again. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, made the point about patients and others not always seeking legal redress but in many cases looking for an apology and an assurance that the mistake will not happen to anyone else.
I am sure that the Minister will be persuaded by this debate that we need a more practical and constructive way forward. I appreciate his comment in his response at Second Reading where he said that it would be inappropriate to pre-empt the consultation that finishes on 2 January and to amend the Bill before the Government have a chance to respond to the consultation. That may coincide very well with Report stage—I do not know what the timetable is like—but I hope that the two can dovetail and help my noble friend Lady Masham with her cause in this amendment.
My Lords, I welcome the amendment introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and others, and applaud the powerful and eloquent way in which she opened the debate and in which others have spoken.
I wish to make a brief contribution regarding the litigation consequences of a lack of transparency. Over a number of years, though not in the immediate past, I conducted clinical negligence cases, many of which concerned allegations of negligence against practitioners and organisations within the health service. I am not one of those who regard such litigation as frequently the result of an unwelcome development of a compensation culture within this country, approaching the situation in the United States. Without generalising, in most of the cases in which I have been involved— certainly those that came to trial—there has been a real basis for concern on the claimant’s part, whether or not the claimant has ultimately been successful.
With respect to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I remember cases where the process of litigation itself demonstrated not only that that particular claimant had been poorly served but that there had been systemic failings within aspects of the health service that required changes to be made. When those changes were then made, they brought substantial benefit to subsequent patients.
A feature of much of the early litigation in which I was involved, though, was that it was frequently very difficult to obtain full records and a full account of the history from the point of view of the defendants within the NHS providers, and of course they alone were in possession of the relevant information. That is against the background that for many years there has been a procedure for obtaining the disclosure of relevant documents from potential defendants to these actions, even before the actions are commenced.
In recent years, procedures have been greatly improved by the impact of the clinical negligence protocol, introduced in 1999 as part of the Woolf reforms. However, the protocol is not binding, although it introduces a code of good practice and provides a partial answer to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney. The code requires a comprehensive system of what it calls adverse outcome reporting. It requires clear and comprehensible information to be given to patients, and for advice to be provided to patients on any serious adverse outcome and the options available to them. In such cases, access to records is to be given to patients within 40 days of a request. The protocol has done a great deal when it is fully observed. However, the fact that it is not always observed is clear from many of the speeches that we have heard this evening.
A further point is that the protocol applies only in cases where there is a serious adverse outcome for patients. Furthermore, it is only a code and does not impose statutory requirements. Even in serious cases, and where the code is followed, requests for documents and pursuit of the procedures generally involve lawyers, and this process can be lengthy, time-consuming and expensive. If not well handled, the process can tend to harden and entrench positions, making conflict and, therefore, contested proceedings more likely. Furthermore —this is another point I make to the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney—the process is not effective in less serious cases but this amendment would apply in such cases, although there is a limit to it. It refers only to cases that,
“may have caused harm, or may in the future cause harm”.
The cost of negligence cases to the NHS is simply staggering. According to a Written Answer given in the other place on 8 June this year, the total in damages paid to successful claimants in 2010-11, including in periodical payments cases—which are treated in the figures as lump sums—exceeded £1 billion. The total of claimants’ costs paid out was around £214 million, and the total of defendants’ costs was £72 million. If improvements in transparency could be made to reduce these vast amounts, particularly the costs, they would be very welcome. As my noble friend Lord Mawhinney pointed out, all the money spent on costs is money that might have been made available for healthcare.
In a large number of cases, as the protocol recognises and as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, and others have pointed out, what claimants and potential claimants want is to know at a very early stage what has happened to them—to have someone explain frankly exactly what has gone wrong and then, where appropriate, to have someone apologise for any errors. Anything that helps to bring about a more effective way of ensuring that that happens will avoid many cases that currently end in litigation. As a result, many patients will be far better served. Therefore, there is much to be said, across a range of cases, for establishing far better procedures than there are now to ensure that full explanations are provided in a timely fashion.
My Lords, often it would. If there is to be litigation, an apology tends to suggest an admission of liability. Generally speaking, people do not apologise when they do not think that anything has gone wrong. An important exception to that—one that I have come across—might be where there is an admission of liability and that something has gone wrong, but a dispute over the consequences or what damage might have been suffered. If there would have been adverse consequences to an operation in any event, the fact that it went wrong might not make a difference. However, in those cases the apology might well avoid the litigation because of the difference in attitude and spirit between the parties that results from the apology being made and the recognition that something has gone wrong.
I suggest that we should welcome this amendment. It elevates good practice, as shown by the code, to an enforceable statutory duty of candour, as the noble Baroness points out, backed up by sanctions. It may be that this precise wording is not what is required but I invite the Minister to consider the statutory duty of candour as an important help for future patients. I welcome this amendment as going some way to helping that to happen.
My Lords, I shall be extremely brief in my contribution. As a former practising doctor and neurologist, I am fully aware of the immense distress and concern that patients, and often their families, have experienced as a result of medical accidents in the broad. It is clear that there are certain circumstances in which episodes construed as being so-called medical accidents have been the inadvertent effects of treatments that have had completely unforeseen complications, for which no one could possibly be held responsible.
When I was a young doctor, the medical protection groups—the Medical Defence Union and the Medical Protection Society—always recommended that if an error occurred, under no circumstances should one apologise in such terms as to constitute accepting liability. However, when I was president of the General Medical Council, the concerns that have been so eloquently expressed around this Committee, particularly by my noble friend Lady Masham in her opening speech, led to a gradual and significant change in attitude. After regular consultations with the medical protection bodies, the General Medical Council eventually recommended, and still recommends, a duty of candour on doctors to apologise and explain in depth if accidents and errors have occurred. This is, I believe, still part of the advice that the GMC gives.
Having said that, I understand and sympathise deeply with the purpose that underlies this amendment. However, in several respects it is very difficult to make its wording the basis of a statutory requirement. In particular, proposed new paragraph (b) states that,
“regulations are introduced to enable the Care Quality Commission to take action against a registered person or body who fail to disclose details of such incidents as set out in those regulations”.
This could cut across the responsibilities of the statutory regulatory authorities—the General Medical Council, the General Dental Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council—and I simply could not accept the wording of that part of the amendment. Therefore, I have great sympathy with the view that something might well be done to reinforce the advice that is being given by a regulatory authority such as the GMC to enforce the duty of candour. However, sadly, the amendment in its present terms would not fulfil that very worthy objective.
My Lords, an apology is not, of itself, an admission of liability. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for allowing me to put that into English law, if I can update the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on it.
I come at this question from a slightly different angle. My familiarity is with doctors who have blown the whistle and had their careers destroyed as a result. That, too, has its roots in a lack of internal candour. I want to see the health service become more constructively self-critical, and for the mistakes and wrong judgments that have been made to be the subject of ordinary conversations within a hospital or other medical organisations, so that better care is provided in the future. This is the way it is in schools. Teachers are generally pretty open about things that have gone wrong and look to find ways of doing things better, but they do not tell parents about it. You can look at schools that have improved from 20 per cent to 80 per cent of students achieving five GCSE grades of between A and C. The kids are the same and the intake is the same. That school has failed thousands of children but no one has ever admitted that to the parents, which is very hard to do. In fact, it would tend to freeze any kind of internal self-critical attitude, particularly if the duty was drawn as widely as it would be in this amendment.
I therefore find myself siding with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, in this, although I am very committed to candour. Candour needs to be there, particularly in something as dangerous as medicine, where you are skiing down the edge of a precipice for half the time. You cannot be blamed when things go wrong because mistakes are bound to happen under those circumstances. Downhill skiers crash; they do not intend to do that and are well trained not to—but it happens. This spreading of blame for every slight mistake or wrong judgment taken in the circumstances of surgery or something with a longer timescale, such as pharmacology, is not the right way to approach the issue. We need to find ways of being open and of encouraging professionals, in particular, to be open with each other in a culture of self-improvement. To expose all this to litigation and in effect to encourage patients to go to law whenever something goes wrong, under circumstances where it is inevitable that a large number of things will go wrong, would be a mistake.
I am sorry; I hear someone behind me saying that that is not so. My experience in my 12 years of leading the national consumer organisation representing patients in the NHS was that that was precisely the circumstance in which many people went to law. They went to law because they wanted to get the information. That was the fact, and I suspect that that is the reality.
Perhaps I may add a few words on an aspect that was touched upon only a moment or two ago by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—the role of people who act as whistleblowers, particularly regarding patients who, for one reason or another, are not capable of standing up for themselves, are perhaps in institutions where they get little attention paid to them, and are not much listened to. They would be heavily dependent on the willingness of NHS staff to blow the whistle when bad standards are being allowed to continue.
One thing has always worried me about the NHS. As a parliamentarian of many years’ standing, I have received many letters from junior members of NHS staff asking me to look into some aspect of a hospital or care home in which they work, and almost invariably saying at some point in the letter, “I dare not do this myself because my job would be at risk”. This is a very serious aspect of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, but we have not talked about it very much at all.
I tend to favour the idea proposed by my noble friend Lord Mawhinney for having an element of mediation, as well as an element of court behaviour, in the way in which we deal with such cases. However, it rests on us all to give high priority to thinking of the ways in which we can protect whistleblowers and distinguish the genuine whistleblowers from those who are complaining merely about their personal position. For example, if we included private as well as NHS hospitals and care homes, the kind of position that the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, talked about—she described a terrible case with regard to her daughter—would not arise so readily.
I ask the Minister to say something about the view that mediation is one way forward, as well as court cases. At least as importantly, perhaps he can say whether the General Medical Council or others would now seriously consider protection for whistleblowers within NHS staff, who are often the most effective inspectors that we can find—much more effective than people with no clear knowledge of the way in which medical and health services work.
Perhaps I may raise a couple of issues that have been touched upon. The first is that I do not know how far the consultation that is looking at the duty of candour will tease out the role played by whistleblowing. I should like some clarification about that.
The General Medical Council’s document, Good Medical Practice, in paragraph 31, makes it clear that doctors must be honest and open and act with integrity. I mention that because my noble friend Lord Walton spoke about the GMC’s role and said that he was not sure how far the medical defence unions currently adopt the same approach to encourage doctors, when they are aware of an error, to be open and honest. I decided to telephone my medical defence union before this debate and ask it for its current advice. It said that it refers doctors to Good Medical Practice and reminds them of paragraph 31, which states that they must be honest and open and act with integrity. I hope that the House will be reassured to hear that.
In my experience, a culture of openness and honesty leads to a culture of learning. That point has been made by a number of noble Lords. We should not be afraid of the idea that apologising will in some way lead to a greater culture of litigation. It is certainly my experience that being open and apologising does not necessarily imply negligence; it reflects the fact that something harmful has happened and that the lessons from mistakes must be learnt from in order that other people will not be harmed by the same mistakes in the future. That is what this is really about.
Does the noble Baroness not agree with me, however, that this is not what this is about? The problem is that any persons providing healthcare—someone who is seeing a patient but is not concerned with the original treatment—would be required to be open and candid. The problem with that is that it is likely to be highly dangerous and damaging to patients in that situation, as extensive medical experience over many years has shown to the many people trying to do an honest and open job within the health service. The matters of each case have to be looked at on an individual basis.
I absolutely agree with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Winston. Commenting on another practitioner’s practice and making judgments is fraught with error. That is why it is important when looking at the duty of candour to understand the role that whistleblowing plays. A great deal more could be said but it is extremely dangerous to make assumptions about another person’s practice.
My Lords, I was not intending to intervene in this debate, but after listening to the discussion I want to remind the Minister of the many happy hours that we spent taking the NHS Redress Bill through this House six or seven years ago. Can he tell us the extent to which some of the measures in that Act may or may not have helped to deal with some of the concerns that have been expressed in this debate, because that legislation was an attempt to give patients more satisfaction without going to court and to encourage a greater culture of openness and apology on the part of the NHS when it made mistakes?
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the excellent work of the charities, Action against Medical Accidents, National Voices and the National Association of LINks Members on this important issue. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and other noble Lords who have supported and sponsored the amendment and have spoken so forcefully in favour of it. They have put forward the strong arguments for a statutory duty of candour, and I do not intend to go over them or to repeat the detail of the many harrowing cases that have led to the huge support among the general public and patients' organisations for the measure.
The instances of serious failure in care and treatment that have led to the campaign in support of a statutory duty of candour are dramatic, shocking and deeply tragic. The need to ensure openness and transparency of instances of patient care which lead to harm or adverse impact on the patient's future care quality of life apply to both those major cases and to everyday care and treatment solutions. I am sure that, in respect of the latter, many of us will have had personal experience of pursuing instances of poor care and treatment, communication and ordination of services, through the PALS hospital complaints system, only to find how quickly the shutters come down, as has been said, and how hospitals can seem to go into automatic denial and obfuscation as soon as an event occurs.
This is a probing amendment. On behalf of the Front Bench, I urge the Government to look closely at the issue and respond positively on how the Bill can be strengthened to enshrine the right of patients, their carers and families to know when things have gone wrong. In April 2010, my Government established responsibility for the Care Quality Commission to require health providers to report incidents which harm patients to the national reporting system of the National Patient Safety Agency. We recognise that that was a first step. The requirement to report the incident to the patient within a specified period would be a major second step that should be considered to ensure that all information about such incidents is shared with the patient and their family.
Many, both inside and outside the Chamber, have worried about the extent to which patients actually feature in the Bill and whether it will really achieve the Government's objective for patients of “no decision about me without me”. Surely, underlining in the Bill the rights of patients to be truly involved in decision-making about their care, to participate in decisions about their future treatment, and to be told honestly and openly when something goes wrong should all be part and parcel of the “no decision about me without me” mantra.
There is clearly growing momentum and enthusiasm for the current CQC regulations to be extended to provide a related duty to share all information about incidents which cause harm with the patient concerned or their family. As we have heard, the House of Commons Health Select Committee in June of this year specifically recommended that a duty of candour to patients from providers also be part of the terms of authorisation from Monitor and of licence by the CQC.
As for the Government’s consultation on how a proposed contractual duty of candour should be implemented, it is regrettable that the consultation does not allow for consideration of whether the duty should have a different status. The concerns of the Health Committee and patient groups that a contractual duty alone will not be effective need to be addressed. A powerful argument for the duty being in the CQC registration requirements is that that would then cover all providers, not just those with a standard NHS contract.
The consultation document does not adequately address a number of issues in relation to the proposed contractual duty. For example, it does not make clear how the Government envisage a contractual duty working in practice; or how commissioners should act when a provider has failed to be open; or what effective remedial measures they will be able to take.
We recognise that further work needs to be undertaken on the amendment. For example, the CQC powers should not interfere with or duplicate the role of the health staffs’ professional regulatory and disciplinary bodies. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, and other noble Lords have spoken about their concerns. This is a probing amendment. It is designed to raise issues and to seek ways to take the matter forward.
It has been an excellent debate. We strongly support the suggestions that noble Lords have made on taking this matter forward, and we urge the Minister to give urgent consideration to them.
My Lords, Amendment 20, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, looks to place a new duty on the Secretary of State to ensure transparency when something goes wrong in the treatment of a patient. I hope that she feels gratified by the quality of the contributions to which we have listened this afternoon.
I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and other noble Lords that ensuring full candour on the part of the medical, nursing and allied professions and NHS organisations is essential. We know that achieving an open and honest system is vital to ensure that the health service learns from its mistakes and that patients and their families are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. I take no issue with the powerful arguments from noble Lords about the need for openness and candour between health professionals and patients. That is a real concern.
To emphasise that, in our response to the Future Forum’s report we made a clear commitment to introduce a duty of candour—a new, contractual requirement on providers to be open and transparent in admitting mistakes. This will be the first time that such a requirement has been specified in contractual agreements with providers. Contracts are increasingly the key way in which providers will be held to account for the quality of the care that they are providing by those who best understand local healthcare—clinicians and patients. The contracts give the people who are actually spending NHS money on behalf of their populations the power and the levers to require quality improvement and to scrutinise the performance of providers. Therefore, placing a duty of candour in the NHS and contracts reflects the importance we place on the issue. I cannot agree with the noble Baroness that it is somehow a snub or an insult to patients, as she put it. Nor do I think that it is an obligation with a lesser status than a statutory obligation would be.
Accordingly, I support the intention behind the noble Baroness’s amendment, but I do not agree that the most effective way to achieve it is through a duty set out in the Bill. The amendment suggests that the Care Quality Commission should have a role in ensuring that health service providers comply with a duty of candour. However, we do not believe that the CQC overseeing compliance would be the most effective way to underpin a new requirement. The CQC itself has said that it would not be able to enforce such a duty routinely and that it would not fit in with its role as a risk-based regulator.
The Government want the duty of candour to be as effective as possible in promoting openness. Rather than rushing to insert what may be an ill-thought-through and impractical duty in primary legislation, we are currently consulting on how best to implement a duty of candour through contracts with commissioners. The consultation explores how we can best support patients and clinicians to demand candour from healthcare organisations and how commissioners would enforce and report publicly on it. If appropriate, there may be an opportunity in future to include such information in the CQC's quality and risk profiles. Incidentally, I encourage the noble Baroness to take part in the consultation, if she has not already done so. The consultation also explores what we should expect commissioners to report publicly in terms of their enforcement of the requirement. As I said, if appropriate, there may be an opportunity in future to ask the CQC to report on that.
Transparency is important, but I assure noble Lords that measures are already in place to ensure transparency within the NHS. For example, as has been mentioned, clinicians have a professional duty to act openly and admit mistakes. In addition to their professional duty, the NHS Constitution sets out the responsibility of health service staff to aim to be open with patients, their families, carers and representatives, including if anything goes wrong. The majority of clinicians are open with their patients and will, despite the difficulty of the conversation, admit mistakes to patients, so patients receive an apology. Where openness does not happen, it is usually as a result of a closed culture that exists within an organisation rather than a case of individual clinicians simply covering things up. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins: clinicians must be able to work in a supportive environment where they are encouraged to admit mistakes and learn from them. It is this culture that we aim to foster in the NHS. The question is how best to promote that culture.
I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Before he leaves the commissioning issue, would the conditions on candour laid down in the contracts apply to contracts with new providers who came from the private sector as well as to those from the old NHS sector?
Will this cover private contractors where they provide a service to the National Health Service? What would happen in a dual provision facility whereby, let us say, half the clients were private and the other half were from the National Health Service? Would this provision apply only to those who were in effect being funded by the National Health Service?
Clearly, our concern is for NHS patients. We cannot legislate for private patients who may have completely different terms in the contract. However, the point is that if an independent provider comes forward as an accredited provider for the health service, we should subject that provider to exactly the same kinds of duties that apply to an NHS provider.
I was about to say that I listened with great care to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and my noble friend Lord Lucas, who I thought spoke wise words in their respective speeches. We have made it clear that we think that services should be commissioned by those who are closest to patients and who best understand the needs of their patients—the clinicians. Therefore, we think it is right that the duty of candour is set out in the contracts that clinical commissioning groups will enter into with service providers. CCGs will be responsible for holding providers to account and therefore will in any case need to consider patient safety events in doing so. In future, the Secretary of State will ensure that this contractual duty is introduced consistently, as the Bill already contains powers for the Secretary of State to set standard contractual requirements where necessary using “standing rules” regulations under new Section 6E of the National Health Service Act, inserted by Clause 17.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, suggested that there was nothing in the Bill about patients. I confess that I am disappointed that she has come to that conclusion, as the Bill is all about creating a patient-centred health service—for example, through placing clinicians at the forefront of commissioning, strengthening patient involvement and ensuring that quality is at the heart of all that the NHS does. She suggested that if a duty of candour were in the contracts, perhaps all CQC standards should also be in the contracts. I disagree. A duty of candour is best suited to the contract because, first, the CQC has specifically stated that it is unable routinely to enforce such a duty, unlike the contents of its core standards. Secondly, the issue is very difficult to monitor effectively. Placing the duty closer to patients and clinicians maximises the chances of it working, and placing it in contracts does exactly that.
I would not want the noble Baroness to think that we have chosen the contracting route as in some way a lesser option, showing that this issue is not of importance to the Government. That is absolutely not the case. We propose a contractual duty of candour because we feel strongly that it has the best chance of working. If I may say so, I believe that the noble Baroness has been rather too quick to dismiss the Government’s proposals, which, I say again, represent a considerable advance on the current position.
It has been pointed out that the contractual duty will apply only to providers with an NHS contract and that GPs, for example, without a standard contract will not be covered. We have explicitly acknowledged that primary care contractors will not be covered under the current proposals for a requirement in the NHS standard contract, and we have asked for views on this as part of the ongoing consultation. We recognise that we should aim for an holistic system that applies to every provider of NHS-funded services, but we still need to consider what legislative and contractual changes will work best within primary care.
It should also be remembered more widely that the policy of openness still applies to all NHS services, regardless of the existence of any contractual requirement. For example, primary medical services contractors must have regard to the NHS constitution, the professional codes of conduct and any guidance issued by PCTs or the Secretary of State. Once they are registered with the CQC, a failure to be open with patients will contravene clear expectations set out in CQC guidance. Therefore, not including a requirement in primary care contracts now does not provide a reason for primary care contractors to avoid telling their patients about things going wrong with their healthcare.
My noble friend Lord Marks spoke with his customary experience and legal background about the effect of a duty of candour on negligence claims. He made some very interesting remarks about this, and I think he would agree that it is a complex issue. The evidence is split on the effect of a duty of candour. We are aware of studies from the United States on this topic, including work undertaken at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, and we will continue to monitor this area as further evidence becomes available. However, I can cite one example that is also from the United States. Pennsylvania has a duty to notify patients in writing if a serious event has occurred. Feedback from the Pennsylvania Department of Health on that duty to notify suggests that there are unintended consequences. Experience suggests that a likely behavioural change is towards challenging definitions of a serious event and not apologising. Lawyers may try to twist the definition of a serious event so that the hospital is legally not required to send a letter. In the case of Pennsylvania, the cause of this seems to be an ambiguous definition of serious event. Therefore, this is not without its hazards.
On the noble Earl’s point about GPs who are not employed by the National Health Service and the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, about NHS patients and private patients, does he agree that the professional regulatory authorities impose a duty of candour on those professionals, irrespective of whether they work in the NHS or in the private sector? The same duty imposed by the recommendations of regulatory bodies applies to all.
I agree with the noble Lord. In fact, the GMC sets out in its Good Medical Practice the following:
“If a patient under your care has suffered harm or distress, you must act immediately to put matters right, if that is possible. You should offer an apology and explain fully and promptly to the patient what has happened, and the likely short-term and long-term effects”.
Therefore, the noble Lord is quite right: this would apply whether a doctor was treating an NHS patient or serving in a private capacity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, asked—
I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way yet again on this perhaps longer than expected debate. Although we have clarity about the duty placed by the General Medical Council on individual doctors, which is obviously helpful, the noble Earl gave us an example from the United States where in essence it is not that doctors conspire to keep material from the patients but that the management of the institution finds different ways to get round the duty to report an incident. The reason for saying that a very clear duty needs to be placed on them is management cover-up, which so often takes place when things go wrong.
That is exactly why I referred to the need for a culture of openness rather than encouraging a situation in which we simply try to catch people out when they are not open. The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness looks to me like yet another way for people to get into trouble, rather than a way in which an organisation can take ownership of things that go wrong, encourage openness and look in-house to put things right. That is my fear about the amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, asked whether the consultation that we are undertaking covers whistleblowing. No, the consultation is focused on the duty of candour; whistleblowing is a separate, but linked, issue. Since coming to office, we have, as she may know, taken a number of important steps to promote it in NHS settings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about the timing of the consultation response. She is right to say that the consultation finishes on 2 January. The government response will follow in due time after that. Unfortunately, I cannot be more specific. I shall be happy to write all noble Lords upon publication of the government response and I encourage noble Lords to take part in the consultation before it closes.
My noble friends Lord Mawhinney and Lady Williams referred to mediation. I take their point. They will know that mediation can mean a number of different things. As part of the proposed contractual requirement, we suggest that providers will have to offer an apology and an explanation and provide further information as appropriate, all in person with the patient, their representative, the relevant clinicians and other hospital or trust representatives as appropriate. That might well involve a mediator. I am all for mediation if legal fees and all the expense and heartache that goes with them can be avoided.
My Lords, unfortunately, I am not an expert in consumer law. My noble friend Lord Marks might be able to enlighten us on this, but there are, of course, consumer protection laws, which every organisation has to abide by, as provided for in the Consumer Protection Act. I think there are probably consumer protection aspects to contracts relating to healthcare services, but we have to tailor the contracts to ensure that we cover the issues that healthcare gives rise to.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, asked me about the NHS Redress Act and whether the provisions of that Act were capable of taking forward some of the issues raised in the debate. I understand why he has asked that question, but there is a difference between redress for negligence and openness and it is important to distinguish between the two. As such, some of the issues raised this afternoon fall into the remit of redress and associated legislation rather than being specifically linked to a duty of candour. However, I note that, notwithstanding the long hours that we spent debating the NHS Redress Bill some years ago, the previous Government chose never to bring it into force; it is potentially on the statute book, but it is not in operation.
I shall reflect carefully on the points made in this debate. I hope that I have in some way reassured the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, that we are putting systems in place to introduce the duty of candour. To answer my noble friend Lord Mawhinney, we have a strategy. There are good reasons for the contractual route that we have chosen as well as a real potential downside if we were to go down the statutory route proposed here. So against that background, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
The Minister's comments on mediation prompt me to ask a further question. When I dealt with many of these cases, the complaints procedure was on three levels and the first, immediate level was when the patient or the patient’s representative came forward with a complaint to seek local resolution, and often mediation was used to bring the parties together to give, as far as possible, full information. This is very patchy and I was wondering whether, within the consultation and the contractual duties to which the Minister has referred, that will be extended so that things can be resolved at the first level before they get to the litigation stage. Is that being considered?
I shall have to get back to my noble friend on whether it is specifically mentioned in the consultation. I can say that it is absolutely pertinent to the subject matter on which we are consulting. It would be extremely helpful if some of the response to the consultation covered issues such as mediation. We need to factor that in and perhaps my noble friend, with her experience, will feel able to send us her views on the subject.
I thank all noble Lords who have supported, or not supported, the amendment. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that the last thing one wants is to make a difficult situation more dangerous. One wants to achieve accident prevention. It is vital that patients have trust in the doctors, nurses and other professionals who are treating them. Something has to happen now about the culture. We have to look at what happened at the Mid Staffordshire General Hospital. I sincerely hope that something will be learnt from that. I know that the Government want to improve things. I think that all doctors in the House are trusted by their patients, but there are doctors who have lost their patients’ trust. That is why I feel very strongly that whatever the Government try to do will have to be done by statute. Many doctors just follow the book and do not do what they should do.
I feel very strongly that your Lordships’ House, with all its expertise, as displayed tonight, must find a way. I sincerely hope that that will happen with the blessing of the Minister and the Government. I hope that we can work together and, before Report, get something that is acceptable to everyone, especially to patients. One must remember the patients who have suffered so badly and who are suffering today. Every time I open a newspaper, I see something about the culture of nursing, and something has to be done. It is the Government’s responsibility. We should go for a statutory obligation to protect patients. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Clause 3 : The Secretary of State's duty as to reducing inequalities
21: Clause 3, page 2, line 33, leave out “must have regard to the need” and insert “is required”
My Lords, my name is on this amendment along with that of my noble friend Lord Rooker, who cannot be with us this evening. I also support many of the other amendments in the group aimed at strengthening the Bill's provisions relating to reducing inequalities.
The problem of health inequalities has bedevilled the NHS since its inception. There are very considerable variations in health outcomes around the country and even in the same area between different groups. That variation was graphically illustrated by my noble friend Lord Darzi in his excellent report on London's health services in 2007, just before he became a Health Minister. That report showed that, as you travelled the seven stops on the Jubilee line between Westminster and Canning Town, so male mortality worsened by seven years. Of course, some of this deterioration is to do with income, housing, education and environmental issues. However, good access to services, good health education and good-quality treatment can have a strong mitigating effect. Therefore, we should be unequivocal in the duty we place on the Secretary of State to work to reduce inequalities. The wording that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I propose is—if I may put it as gently as I can—much less weaselly than the Bill’s current wording in proposed new Section 1B. Our wording effectively strengthens the impact of the other more detailed provisions in this group. I hope, therefore, the Minister will look sympathetically on our more dirigiste wording. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment. If ever there was a case against inequality of treatment, it is for people with ME. I am saying ME rather than ME-CFS because that is too long. The postcode lottery for people with ME has been highlighted in two inquiries by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ME over the last five years. People are constantly writing to Ministers complaining; the noble Earl himself knows, because I keep complaining about it. In 2002, the Chief Medical Officer announced an award of £8.5 million to set up specialist centres for ME. These have just fizzled out. Once the £8.5 million ring-fence money had been spent, the first thing that was cut was services for people with ME. The trouble is, they are blighted with the distinction of being yuppie flu sufferers—people who swing the lead. They are not: this is more and more often now being proven to be a physical disease with mental side effects, as cancer and MS and a whole lot of other chronic diseases are. It is time the inequality of treatment for people with ME-CFS was obliterated.
Perhaps the worst inequality is in services for children. There are virtually no ME services for children in the UK, particularly children who are bed-bound and housebound, and this is a disgrace on our society. These children—very often high-achieving children—are suddenly struck down; they can no longer have social relationships because they are too ill or too tired to cope; they cannot continue with their education and yet there is no medical attention for them. I am sorry—I am suffering myself at the moment, so I am not being very comprehensive in what I am saying—but it does need to be said that these people need to be looked after. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Warner.
Eight noble Lords have amendments down in this group about inequalities. Many of them seek to do the same kinds of thing. I intend to speak to Amendments 22, 25A, 27A—I mention in passing that my noble friend Lord Beecham has his name against Amendment 29—31, 32, 68A, 68B, 69B and 120A.
I will quickly run through these amendments. Amendments 21, 22, 23 and 25 strengthen the duty on the Secretary of State to reduce inequalities in the health service. The Bill currently requires the Secretary of State simply to “have regard to” this need. Amendment 21 says “is required”—the strongest of these amendments—followed by Amendment 22 with “seek”, and Amendment 23 with “act with a view”. Amendment 25A says it is the Secretary of State’s duty to reduce inequalities between people and “between communities” in England. I will return to that in a moment. In Amendment 27A, we on this side are seeking to add detail to the inequalities that the Secretary of State has a duty to reduce. We argue that,
“inequalities in health status, outcomes and experience, … the outcomes achieved … by … those services”,
“ability to access such services”,
must be taken into consideration. My noble friend Lord Beecham has added his name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. It adds a qualifier to the duty to reduce inequalities:
“to ensure that greater patient choice is not accorded a higher priority than tackling health inequalities”.
Amendment 31 says that, in an instance of a conflict of duties on commissioners or regulators, the duty to reduce inequalities is paramount. Amendment 32 says that, as part of this duty, the Secretary of State must publish comprehensive, publicly available data on the extent to which inequalities have been reduced across the NHS. Amendment 68A says that the duties of the NHS Commissioning Board as to the improvement of public health should be extended to cover the duty to reduce health inequalities. Amendment 68B concerns each local authority having to take steps to reduce health inequalities between people and between communities. Amendment 69B again relates to public health: the Secretary of State must also seek to reduce health inequalities between people and communities. Finally, Amendments 120A, 190A and 190B are about the national health Commissioning Board having a duty to reduce inequalities in health status. Noble Lords will get the theme that is running through here.
Clause 3 places a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to health inequalities, and that is an aim and aspiration that we would, of course, support. However, the problem with this clause is that that duty is not capable of effective fulfilment. For example, public health analysis and needs assessment require comprehensive area-based population data. This is the basis of the current health system mechanisms for resource allocation and for the commissioning of public health measures designed to prevent or ameliorate systematic inequalities both between groups of residents in an area and across and among areas, with respect to the access of resources, services, and their use and outcomes. Census estimates, adjusted for factors such as age and deprivation, are used as the denominator for the population in such analyses. Our problem with this Bill is—and I would be grateful if the Minister would address this issue—that public health analysis will not be able to be carried out in this way in future because of the proposed shift from area-based PCTs to GP-listed clinical commissioning group structures. Therefore, denominators which allow GP registrations to promote reductions in inequalities might be inherently problematic because of continuous enrolment and disenrolment, which affect accuracy, as does patient selection. The denominator will not be representative of all the people in a geographically bounded area. Without a geographic population focus, it will not be possible to monitor inequalities. I realise that part of these issues is also addressed in amendments needed to Clauses 7 and 10, but they are points which we would like to have addressed here.
Amendments 120A and 190A address the argument that local authorities and clinical commissioning groups should have a duty to reduce inequalities not only in their areas, but also in England. We think this makes sense because, for example, somewhere like Lambeth or Bradford—where I come from—could make huge improvements within area inequalities but still lag miles behind the rest of the country. Amendment 25A calls on the Secretary of State to act to reduce inequalities between people and communities. The word “communities” is important in this context because it speaks to local authorities. Given that public health inequalities are going to be in their jurisdiction, it seems that this is an important matter. Therefore, we would like the Bill to address within-area geographical inequality because it refers to inequalities between groups and communities of groups, not just an individual’s access and receipt of services. We believe that the Government should set out how they intend to use non-legislative levers and incentives to translate the duties in the Bill into practical action and how the NHS will be accountable for progress in reducing health inequalities. Our Amendments 31 and 32 tie in with this. We think we need to understand where those levers will exist, how they will be used and how the Government will measure inequalities.
As noble Lords will realise, Amendments 120B and 190B also arise directly out of the Equality Act and concern individuals and discrimination in the receipt of services. I know the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, will address Amendment 33, which is tabled in her name. We believe that Amendment 120B addresses the general duties of the national Commissioning Board, which are vital parts of the picture. If the duties to deliver and secure provision of the health service are split between the Secretary of State, the board and CCGs, corresponding duties to reduce inequalities must also be exercised by all three, and these amendments seek to put that in the Bill.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak to these amendments, but it is clear that we have had problems associated with inequalities for a very long time, and they persist. Many years ago, we had the Black report on inequalities in health, which was a major landmark, and since then we have had Sir Michael Marmot and his marvellous book The Status Syndrome pushing away at the inequalities in health, and my noble friend Lord Layard and his book on happiness and the inequalities in life in general. There is no doubt that the effects of inequalities are very severe. We see quite marked differences in health and life expectancies in communities adjacent to those where life expectancy is very high. We have some communities where several years of life are lost. The effects are very severe indeed. The reasons why there are such inequalities are multiple. They are certainly way beyond the ambit of a health Bill. Clearly there are factors outside health services that make the difference. Nevertheless, it is important that we have within a health Bill recognition of that fact and of the need for those within a health service to take account of inequalities and make recommendations as a result of them, so I am very much in favour of these amendments. We should have them in the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for so clearly analysing the different amendments. I shall keep to those that are grouped together. As she said, the gravamen of the amendments is towards the view that the duties of the Secretary of State and, indeed, of other bodies involved in the NHS should be strengthened and put in rather more forceful terms. Whether one prefers “require” or “with a view to”, those words strengthen the position with regard to health inequalities from the rather low-level pressure of “with regard to”.
I say right away that my noble friend Lord Howe said, and I thought said very strongly, that this Bill contains a great many references to inequalities. It is also absolutely true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said, doing something about them is a very difficult exercise. One of the striking findings of the wonderful book The Spirit Level, which I have referred to before in this House, is that where there are grave inequalities in society, there are almost invariably grave inequalities in health as well. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said, the two are very closely related. Blame cannot be put entirely, or even largely, on the health service for the continuing inequalities. We know that there are very grave inequalities, both geographical and generational, between different parts of our society. To take only one example, lifestyles that feed bad health tend to be rather different between one section of society and another. I shall quote the words of the King’s Fund on the attempt made by the previous Government, to whom I give due credit, to deal with inequalities using the quality and outcomes framework. There was not much effect. The King’s Fund dismissed the whole effort with slightly contemptuous phraseology. It referred to,
“a medicalised and mechanistic approach to managing chronic disease”,
which is fairly damning. In addition, we know that economic differences between regions are very often reflected in health outcomes and, therefore, that looking at health outcomes has to be related to other outcomes: educational, income and social.
Let me therefore speak very quickly about some of the practical steps that can be taken to make the ethos and goal of this Bill more effective. The very first, which we will come to later, is crucial. It is taking public health from the Cinderella role it has had for many years to being seen as an essential part of a holistic health service. I refer to a series of articles in the Health Service Journal, the most recent of which appeared two weeks ago, about the failure to use modern communications much more effectively to get across to the public their own share in creating a better health outcome for themselves. All over London at the moment one can see in the windows of pharmaceutical companies, drug companies and so on abjurations to all of us to get ourselves a flu jab as quickly as possible. We also see, more widely, references to the dangers of smoking. Those are very simple examples of communications, but they could go a great deal further. If we can persuade our colleagues in public health and in individual clinical commissioning groups to use communications of the latest kind much more broadly and proactively, we would find one way in which to reduce the heavy demands made on the health service’s clinical and medical aspects.
Let me give one example. Nowadays quite a few people with chronic illnesses have formed networks of patients. They exchange an extraordinarily advanced and sophisticated level of mutual knowledge and understanding about the use of new drugs, new techniques and even about how the way in which one lives can reduce the risks inherent in particular chronic sicknesses. I think that is absolutely right. At the heart of public health is not only treatment but, perhaps more importantly, education. We still have a long way to go in that respect to bring patients into the business of helping to look after themselves, so my first question to the Minister is: how far are we putting emphasis on new communications technology as part of the future of public health?
The second thing I want to mention is the importance of clinical commissioning groups looking at the real danger, which was spelled out by Mr Dalton, the director of a PCT cluster, of creating what he called sink estates: clinical commissioning groups that end up with all the tough cases in an area. As we move towards coterminosity, I hope we will move away from that risk, but one cannot completely rule it out. It is something that a very close eye will have to be kept on by the clinical Commissioning Board to ensure that we do not see the creation of groups that are underfinanced, or at least, perhaps, underqualified, ending up with the hardest cases in the community.
I promise that I am not going to go on for very much longer, but thirdly, I believe it is of great importance to ensure that as far as possible—and this is caught up in the amendment to which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, referred—publicity is given to the inequalities continuing in health so that we become more aware of the extent to which health inequalities could be tackled, possibly by methods other than simply health itself.
In that context I say rather loudly and clearly that I find it rather hard to understand the distribution of funds to local authorities on the basis of the so-called non-chronic expectation of life figures—which seem to have bitten very hard on some of the poorest communities in the country—and to emphasise that it is important for those who are dealing with a health service to look at their relationships with other government departments to ensure that the one objective is supported and helped by the others. I am worried that areas such as Knowsley, Merseyside and Manchester appear to be among the heaviest losers at a time when we are trying to bring social care and health together.
The final instance I want to give, which I think is also very important, is the crucial role in this respect of the health and well-being boards. I pay tribute to the Government for the role they have given to health and well-being boards. We are only at the very beginning of the development of the strength and influence of them. To take one example, I hope we will move towards a situation where the health and well-being boards not only are consulted by the clinical commissioning groups but their support and approval is required before a clinical commissioning group can go ahead with the business plans it has for its neighbourhood.
To conclude, the mobilisation of health and well-being boards behind the concept of a fairer and more equal health service is an absolutely crucial potential we all need to help realise.
My Lords, I support these amendments and I have my name on two of them. I particularly associate myself with the comments that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, made on the need to address the issues within public health to reduce inequalities.
We must all be very encouraged to see the recommendations of the Health Committee in its report of 2 November on public health. One of the recommendations says:
“We do not understand why the Secretary of State’s new statutory duty to reduce health inequalities under the Bill appears to apply only to the exercise of his functions in relation to the health service. We recommend that the Bill be amended to make it clear that the Secretary of State’s duty to reduce health inequalities applies in the exercise of all his functions, including those applying to public health”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, already referred to the inequalities in health that occur because of lifestyle-related diseases. In previous discussions we have noted that 40 per cent of acute admissions are related to lifestyle-related diseases. It must be right that the statutory duty of the Secretary of State includes functions relating to public health.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 33 in my name. I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, because a lot of my work is concerned with the sort of inequalities they have spoken about. The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, mentioned Professor Sir Michael Marmot. I have been privileged to chair the advisory group for the longitudinal study on ageing that he established. I have done that since it started. It demonstrates so clearly the terrible, almost life-or-death sentences that health inequalities impose on different groups in terms of their life expectancy. This is really something that is quite impossible for us to continue.
My other role as the lead commissioner on age at the Equality and Human Rights Commission means that I hope very much that we can, if we amend this Bill, achieve more positive healthcare outcomes. The Bill, in order to achieve that, must be explicit that improvements have to be achieved across the whole population, not just some parts of it. We know that one group whose needs are currently very often underprioritised and underrecognised is older people, particularly within the NHS. Sadly, ageism persists in clinical practice—very often older people lag behind other groups in terms of better healthcare outcomes. I am very concerned that unless a clear obligation to demonstrate that improvement is being achieved across the whole population, the specific needs of older people will continue to lag behind those of other groups or sometimes to be ignored and similar existing health inequalities may even be maintained and strengthened.
My amendment would define the Secretary of State’s duties to reduce health inequalities against three different criteria: the definitions of equality contained in the Equality Act 2010; different parts of England; and different socio-economic strata. In any subsequent reporting of progress towards reducing health inequalities, the Secretary of State would have to demonstrate consistency in the progress made against the three criteria.
My amendment would clarify the Secretary of State’s duties in relation to reducing health inequalities. I am afraid that without this in the Bill health service improvement may not reach everyone. There may be a failure to improve services for specific groups such as those mentioned within the list of protected characteristics. Clause 3 currently requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities between the people of England with,
“respect to the benefits that they can obtain from the health service”.
The amendment to this clause would ensure that access to health services and improving health outcomes were an intrinsic part of the Secretary of State’s duties. Without guaranteeing improvement in access to services, there is a risk that there could be high levels of variation in the kinds of services the NHS provides across the country.
I have listed the equality characteristics detailed in the Equality Act 2010 which is not necessarily Members of your Lordships’ House. Too often it has been the case that health inequalities exist in part because people belong to one of the groups listed here and there is actual discrimination against a patient. In relation to specific treatments, patients are treated differently not purely on the basis of clinical decisions but on the basis of one of the protected characteristics, particularly age. For example, despite improvements in cancer outcomes, a 2007 study of breast cancer patients in Manchester found that older women are less likely than younger women to receive “standard” management for breast cancer and less likely even after accounting for differences in general health and co-morbidity to have surgery for operable breast cancer.
My amendment will ensure that the Secretary of State’s duties are clear and specific and that people across England can be sure their access to healthcare and the quality of the healthcare they need will be assured regardless of who is providing the service. The areas where the Secretary of State can demonstrate improvement in reducing inequalities should be balanced and fair in their focus. The risk otherwise is that commissioners will be incentivised to invest their efforts in improving health outcomes for those groups where they believe they can make the easiest and quickest gains and some groups, including older people, risk being shunted to the sidelines. This must not happen.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with those who want to beef up this duty on the Secretary of State. I want to ask the Minister to explain why the public health function was left out—it is very specific about NHS responsibilities. I suspect the answer is that public health is in relation to other departments of state. He is shaking his head so perhaps that is not the answer. Working in the NHS one cannot but be aware of these profound inequalities. Within the first week of going as chairman to the east London health authority, three facts hit me in the face. First, in Hackney, people had only a 25 per cent chance of referral for a hip replacement as per the norm for England. Secondly, in Newham, mortality rates for bowel cancer after treatment were 30 per cent worse than elsewhere. It clearly emerged that there was a failure of referral to access, for, particularly, certain of the ethnic communities. Thirdly, on a visit to the community podiatry service, every patient was white in an area where the population was 25 per cent black and minority ethnic. Simply, no one had ever asked them the relevant question. Addressing inequality seems to be profoundly difficult on the ground: you must have the information and the wit to discover whether there is a problem of access, referral or discrimination and treatment, or whether there are underlying features of the illness that make inequalities difficult to address.
This clause, which fundamentally is a great improvement on what has gone before, is important because it gets the matter into the Secretary of State’s duties. The phrase “have regard to” is quite powerful but I wonder whether it quite reflects the determination that we have all felt over the years when we have read the work of Michael Marmot and various groups, going right back to the Black report, and to ask why we do not have something a little stronger that gives teeth to local commissioning groups to examine these issues very carefully locally.
I want to pick up on something that the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, mentioned; namely, elderly patients perhaps being denied treatment. There is a real danger in not recognising that the clinical decision is based on the quality of the patients rather than their age, which is important. We are all aware of 60 year-olds who are basically crumbling with significant code morbidity and who would not be considered for surgery. Yet, there are many fit and self-caring people in their late 80s who may fracture a hip and would be worthy of surgical treatment. In fact, many people in your Lordships’ House in that age group may have benefited from that type of treatment. It is very important that we should see this in the context of clinical need rather than just one of age.
Similarly, as regards cancer and the point I made about the older generation, not that long ago in the United States a carcinoma of the prostate was open season for anyone to have a radical prostatectomy practically at any age, be it 80 or 90 years old. The morbidity and mortality associated with that radical surgery was very high. The American College of Surgeons, at recent meetings I attended, recognised that patients over the age of 75 should not be offered this type of surgery unless there is a very good reason. It is also a well known fact that 80 per cent of males aged 80 and over actually have—not just probably have—carcinoma of the prostate. But on whether they should have treatment for it, they are more likely to die from other conditions than from their cancer. Although age is important, it should not be a specific criterion for determining whether treatment is given or not.
My Lords, I, too, should like to speak in support of this raft of amendments which are all designed, to use the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, to give greater teeth to reducing health inequalities. We have already heard various statistics from a number of noble Lords and those for life expectancy are generally the most stark. The statistic that means the most to me relates to London, probably because that is where I live; namely, that the life expectancy of men ranges from 71 years in one ward in the London Borough of Haringey to 88 years in one ward in Kensington and Chelsea. That is a huge difference of 17 years. It is worth also pointing out that even within Kensington and Chelsea, there is a difference of nearly 12 years in life expectancy across different parts of the borough.
As many noble Lords have said, there is a whole range of reasons for this, including the social and the economic. It is one of the things that underline the critical need in our debates to put more focus on public health interventions. I also very much welcome the establishment and the role of Public Health England, and the fact that the public health function at a local level will sit with local authorities.
In discussing the need to strengthen these duties, it is important to recognise and welcome that having explicit duties placed for the first time on the Secretary of State, the NHS Commissioning Board and the clinical commissioning groups is a landmark, representing a major shift from the current position. There is something very significant about the whole raft of these NHS reforms.
The phrase “have regard to” health inequalities for the clinical commissioning groups is not sufficient because we need to make sure that they act and behave to secure real improvements, which need to be in both access to NHS services and in outcomes. I want those CCGs to account publicly for their progress, not simply as part of normal accountability but as part of sharing good practice and workforce development, and in the training of NHS employees. It should become part of the everyday currency and language of the NHS, part of the DNA of the way in which the health service operates. I believe that this strengthening is necessary if the NHS reforms are to become a real game-changer for some of the most disadvantaged group in society—to borrow from the words of the public health White Paper, Improving the Health of the Poorest Fastest.
Perhaps I may give an example in relation to homeless people who experience some of the worst health inequalities of any group in society. They are more likely to die young, live with a long-term condition, have multiple health problems and have mental health or substance use issues. They are also far less likely to have regular contact with a GP or other health professional and are much more likely to access healthcare through A&E, which is inappropriate and, as we know, causes all sorts of problems for A&E departments. In short, they are the most likely to have very poor health and the least likely to benefit from what the NHS has to offer.
Of course, many services are needed to help homeless people to improve their outcomes, including housing, employment, family support and other things. But it is particularly important that the NHS is able to cater for the needs of these groups. Appropriate services are far more likely to be commissioned where clinical commissioning groups have a duty to take account of these health inequalities in their plans and reporting mechanisms and the standards to which they are held to account, and that they are ensuring that these arrangements are incentivised through the commissioning arrangements.
I very much support the principle of the amendments put forward and I look forward to hearing the Government giving an even stronger commitment to tackling health inequalities and to making this a key outcome of the overall package of reforms that we are discussing.
My Lords, I seek only to intervene briefly on this. The whole issue of how to tackle inequalities in health is an extremely complex and difficult one. When I was a Member of Parliament, I looked forward to receiving from the department reports on a regular basis on how inequalities had been addressed and how health had improved throughout the constituency. What was clear was that the more effective our public health interventions were, such as on reducing smoking, the more difficult it was to tackle inequalities. The people who automatically responded best to those interventions were those on higher wages, with better qualifications and who were likely to be in higher class groups than those in the poorest parts of the constituency. That could always be seen clearly in those reports. The amendments that support better information are very important because clinical commissioning groups in particular are not well placed instinctively to tackle inequalities. It is generally not part of the training of GPs to look at these issues and work out how to address them.
We have already discussed the second issue today, and it is important—the issue of access. Unless we open up access much more sharply to the disadvantaged we will not have a chance of addressing inequalities. The noble Baroness opposite talked about homelessness. I have discussed this issue with the Minister on a number of occasions, and I am not content that the Bill deals with it adequately. It is not fair to ask clinical commissioning groups to address this issue. Sometimes they will simply be too small to do so. Also, homeless people tend to be fairly mobile, so in London they will cross authority areas. From my experience in the north-east of England, a single PCT—or what will now be the smaller clinical commissioning groups—does not have the people available properly to offer the sort of services that are needed to open up access effectively to those who are not normally registered on a GP list.
I am also concerned that clinical commissioning groups may be responsible for areas with poor GP coverage and there will be a need to bring in salaried GPs. It will need someone other than a clinical commissioning group to address the issue of GP shortages—and it is always the poorest areas which have the poorest access to GPs. It is an issue that continues to have to be addressed time and time again. I was pleased when the last Government introduced many more salaried GPs, but we have to keep on top of that agenda.
I also support the amendments that look to the responsibilities of the NHS Commissioning Board. There will be occasions when the board has to come in specifically to address inequalities in a range of ways. I am not sure that it is really geared up to do that at the moment. But because I certainly do think that clinical commissioning groups are not going to be able to do this on their own, and indeed it would not be appropriate for them to address some areas of clinical commissioning, it is very important that the department, the Secretary of State and the Commissioning Board think about how they are going to do this effectively.
My Lords, I particularly welcome the amendments which are designed to strengthen the duty to reduce health inequalities between people and communities, the emphasis here being on inequalities not between “the people of England”, but between individuals as well as groups. I draw attention to this because in 2008 the Department of Health drew up a policy on health inequalities, and I sat on the group which developed it. I was pleased when the document was published in June 2008 because it talked about the group that I am interested in, which is people with learning disabilities. I shall read out a short paragraph from the executive summary because it makes my point very nicely:
“Progress on health inequalities will be judged against how public services treat especially vulnerable groups. The recent Disability Rights Commission report made it clear that people with learning disabilities often receive a poorer level and quality of service from the NHS. If services and health outcomes are improving for people with learning disabilities, they are likely to be improving for other groups at risk of health inequalities”.
The report goes into some detail about the importance of measuring the improvement in health inequalities for particularly vulnerable groups. That is a good measure to measure progress in the NHS.
My Lords, perhaps I may respond very briefly from these Benches. I took the Committee through our amendments at a gallop, so perhaps I may make two points very quickly. This debate has illustrated the problem that these amendments seek to address, and indeed it was illustrated by criticism from the King’s Fund and the Commons Health Select Committee, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. The duties, although welcome, are too narrowly drawn and, crucially, do not extend to local authorities. I might say that the noble Earl’s party does have form in this matter. We know how a previous Conservative Government treated the Black report, ready in 1980 just after the Conservatives came to power. It was not to Mrs Thatcher’s liking and was never printed. Only 260 photocopies were distributed in a half-hearted fashion on bank holiday Monday—my noble friend says that he has two of them. I know that the coalition Government would not allow that to happen and I welcome the change of heart that is shown in this part of the Bill.
However, my understanding is that the weighting given to health inequalities in the formula of allocating NHS funding has been reduced from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. Can the Minister confirm that that is indeed the case? What signal does it send about the Government’s priorities and their commitment to dealing with health inequalities? It seems to me that the commitment to dealing with health inequalities could be remedied. There is a need for a widened definition of health inequalities to include reducing inequalities in the health role, and of access for the Secretary of State, the NCB and clinical commissioning groups. There is a need to specify and define inequalities, particularly inequalities between groups and communities rather than individuals, and there needs to be a strong duty on local authorities as public health duties are transferred to them.
Finally, the message here is that the Minister needs to look carefully at these amendments and that the Committee is very interested in engaging with the Government to strengthen this part of the Bill. I look forward to the noble Earl’s remarks.
My Lords, the Government are committed to reducing health inequalities, to ensuring equity and fairness across the health service, and to improving the health of the most vulnerable in our society. On top of the pre-existing general public sector equality duty, for the first time the Secretary of State will have a specific responsibility to,
“have regard to the need to reduce health inequalities”,
whatever their cause. This duty will be backed by similar duties on the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups. Taken together, these duties will ensure a focus on the reduction of health inequalities throughout the system, with special consideration paid to outcomes achieved both in relation to NHS services and to public health.
While many noble Lords seek to amend these new duties, we believe that they are right as they stand. The duty will not be an add-on or an afterthought. The Secretary of State, the Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups will be required always when carrying out any and all of their functions to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities. I should also point out here that the duty is purposefully non-specific. Amendments 21, 22, 23, 25, 27 and 27A all aim in different ways to strengthen the wording of the Secretary of State’s duty. While I fully accept that the reduction of health inequalities must be a priority for the Secretary of State, it must also be recognised that the causes of health inequalities and the remedies to them are complex and multidimensional and require a multisector approach. Factors such as poverty, education, employment and culture require solutions which extend far beyond the Secretary of State’s or the Department of Health’s remit or capabilities. The duty on the Secretary of State must recognise the nature of the challenge we face in reducing health inequalities, and it must be deliverable. We should hold the Secretary of State to account only for the things that he is responsible for. The duty in the Bill is drafted with these factors in mind.
For the same reasons, I am afraid that I cannot accept attempts to amend the wording of the duty to “act with a view to” or “seek to reduce”. While I understand the noble Lord’s attempts to make the duty as strong as possible, “have regard to” captures the intention of the legislation; that is, that the Secretary of State must consider the need to reduce inequalities in every decision that he takes about the NHS and public health. The approach that the unamended clause sets out is the right way to achieve this. As it stands, the Secretary of State would have to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities in any decision that he made. Contrary to what some have thought, having regard is a strong duty which shows the Government’s commitment to the reduction in health inequalities. The duty to “have regard to” has established meaning and has been used in other important legislation, such as the duty to have regard to the NHS constitution in the Health Act 2009. The courts can and do strike down administrative actions in cases where decision-makers have not had regard to something in contravention of a statutory duty to do so. For example, they have struck down decisions of public authorities for failure to have due regard to their equality duties. The courts have said in relation to public sector equality duties that the duty to have due regard must be exercised with rigour and an open mind—it is not a question of ticking boxes. The duty has to be integrated within the discharge of the public functions of the authority. It involves a conscious and deliberate approach to policy-making and needs to be thorough enough to show that due regard has been paid before any decision is made.
Perhaps I could clarify for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that the duty in Clause 3 already applies to public health functions. The expression,
“functions in relation to the health service”,
covers both NHS functions and the Secretary of State’s public health functions. “The health service”, as that term is used in the 2006 Act, is not limited to the NHS.
Amendment 27, tabled by my noble friend Lady Williams, would have the effect of making the Secretary of State and the Department of Health responsible for reducing inequalities generally, beyond those relating to health. We cannot accept the amendment because there are many areas, such as wealth inequality, which are rightly not within the department's responsibility, and therefore to place a duty on the Secretary of State for Health to reduce these would not be practical.
Amendment 27A, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would specify that the Secretary of State’s duty in reducing inequalities should be in relation to health status, outcomes achieved, experience and the ability to access services. The amendment is modelled partly on the wording of the Commissioning Board’s and CCGs’ inequality duties. While I agree with the intention behind the noble Baroness’s amendment, I can reassure her that the reference to “benefits” in the unamended clause already covers these aspects and so the amendment is unnecessary. The reason that the Secretary of State’s duty talks of benefits that people can obtain from the health service is that it includes public health as well as the NHS. The Secretary of State's duty is deliberately broader than the duty of the board and CCGs.
Amendment 29, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, aims to ensure that promoting patient choice is not given a greater priority than reducing health inequalities. I understand that some people have concerns that greater choice and competition could exacerbate inequalities, and I am aware that there are particular concerns that choice could benefit the better-off at the expense of others. However, our proposals on choice are intended to ensure that all patients are given opportunities to choose. We do not believe that the assertion that the better-off will benefit more from choice is borne out by the evidence. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that choice has the potential to improve equity. For example, some noble Lords may have seen the study published recently by the Centre for Health Economics at the University of York, which found that,
“increased competition from 2006 did not undermine socio-economic equity in health care and, if anything, may have slightly increased use of elective inpatient services in poorer neighbourhoods”.
So I do not believe that there are any grounds for thinking that improving choice and tackling health inequalities are incompatible. They should be mutually reinforcing.
Amendment 31, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would introduce wording to ensure that if the duties placed on commissioners or regulators came into conflict with any other duty, the duty to reduce inequalities would prevail. I fully share the intention of making sure that these organisations do not ignore the goal of reducing inequalities. However, the inequality duty must already be complied with when bodies are exercising all their other functions. Therefore, I cannot agree that other duties placed on commissioners or regulators would conflict with their general duty to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities.
Amendment 32, also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, seeks to place on the Secretary of State a duty to publish evidence about the extent to which inequalities have been reduced annually. I fully agree that the NHS and the Secretary of State should be accountable for their efforts to reduce inequality. Clause 50 already places a duty on the Secretary of State to report annually on the NHS. Since tackling inequality will be such an important legal duty throughout the NHS, we have every expectation that inequalities will be a key reporting theme in the Secretary of State’s annual report.
Amendment 33, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, would place a duty on the Secretary of State to give particular regard to certain factors and characteristics when having regard to inequalities. Amendments 120B and 190B, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would amend the Commissioning Board’s and clinical commissioning groups’ inequality duties, in new Sections 13G and 14S of the 2006 Act, to include the same list of characteristics and factors. I hope that I can persuade the noble Baronesses that there is no need for these amendments. First, it is unnecessary to prescribe the characteristics and factors to be covered by the Secretary of State, the Commissioning Board and the clinical commissioning group duties. The current, unamended duties would already cover health inequalities arising from any characteristic or factor. On top of this, as we have already discussed, the Secretary of State and the NHS are already bound by the general Equality Act 2010. Section 149 of that Act lists the characteristics covered in paragraphs (a) to (i) of the amendments. Therefore, the Secretary of State and NHS bodies will already have to give specific consideration to these characteristics. In not being specific in the duty on the Secretary of State, the Commissioning Board or CCGs, we are keeping the duty with regard to health inequalities as broad as possible, so that no characteristics which drive health inequalities are inadvertently omitted.
As the noble Baroness made clear, there are two new factors not listed in the Equality Act but proposed by the amendments. These are geographical variation and socioeconomic variation. However, it is unnecessary to specify these factors either. They are already wellestablished dimensions of health inequalities and will be taken into account under the duties on the Secretary of State, the NHS Commissioning Board, and CCGs. They are also already specified in the NHS outcomes framework, subject to data considerations.
Apart from being unnecessary, the amendments are also in a real sense undesirable. While I am sure that this is not the intention, their effect would be to give pre-eminence or priority to certain characteristics or factors. We are dealing here with the perennial problem of “the list”; by implication, anything not on the list is less important. Instead, the Government are committed to ensuring that all dimensions of health inequalities are encompassed by the proposed duties, a principle that I am sure all noble Lords can agree with. All factors leading to health inequalities should be considered, with the weight given to them depending on particular circumstances.
Amendments 25A, 68A, 68B, 69B, 120A and 190A have been tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and focus on health inequalities between communities. The amendments to Clause 9 would alter the duty on local authorities to take steps to improve the health of the people in their area and the equivalent power for Secretary of State.
Amendment 25A would amend the existing duty of the Secretary of State to reduce inequalities. While I share the noble Baroness's concerns about the reduction of health inequalities between communities, the unamended Secretary of State's duty already covers this. The current duty applies to inequalities between the people of England, and communities are made up of people.
Amendments 120A and 190A would place a similar duty on both the NHS Commissioning Board and CCGs, when exercising their functions, to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities between people and between communities, not only in access and outcomes, which includes the patient experience, but in health status, which is intended, as I understand it, to mean a standard of health and well-being.
Moreover, the amendments would require CCGs to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities between individuals and communities in their area, and in England as a whole. The board, similarly, would need to reduce inequalities between individuals, and between communities across England.
However, the amendments go beyond this simple replication of existing duties on commissioners by including a reference to health status. This would place a significant additional burden on CCGs and the NHS Commissioning Board, as neither is directly responsible for commissioning for public health.
Amendments 68A, 68B and 69B would amend new Section 2B of the National Health Service Act 2006, which relates to functions of local authorities and the Secretary of State in the improvement of public health. The amendments would add duties to reduce health inequalities as well as to improve health. While I fully appreciate the noble Baroness’s intentions in highlighting inequalities, we do not think that the amendments are necessary or appropriate. I hope to reassure the noble Baroness that tackling inequalities in health is a priority for public health professionals and for the Government.
At a national level, Public Health England will be a source of information, advice and support for local authorities and clinical commissioning groups as they develop local approaches to improving health and well-being and communicating intelligence to local commissioning about how best to tackle the public health challenges that they face.
As the Committee may be aware, Public Health England will carry out the Secretary of State's functions. This means that the Secretary of State will already be closely involved in matters of public health. In exercising these public health functions, the Secretary of State is already under a duty to have regard to the need to reduce inequalities between the people of England with respect to the benefits that they can obtain from the health service, as set out in Clause 3.
Amendment 69B would amend the Secretary of State's power to take steps to improve the health of the people in England. The amendment would be intended to give the Secretary of State additional powers to take steps to improve health and reduce health inequalities between people and communities as well as steps to improve health. We think that such a power is unnecessary. In exercising his powers to improve health, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to reduce inequalities, as a result of Clause 3. This means that he would be able to take steps to reduce inequalities in exercising his health-improvement powers. Reducing inequalities should be an integral part of how other functions are exercised, so this amendment is not the best way of achieving the noble Baroness’s aim.
Amendment 68B would amend the local authority duty to take steps to improve the health of the population. The amendment would require local authorities to take steps to improve the health of the population and to reduce health inequalities between people and between communities.
Local authorities are independent democratic bodies that are accountable to their populations in a different way from NHS bodies. We have used different levers such as the grant circular to ensure that a reduction in inequalities is the fundamental driver of the public health system. We believe that these non-legislative levers will be at least as effective as any duty, although of course local authorities are already subject to the provisions in the Equality Act 2010.
The noble Baroness indicated that without area-based populations for CCGs it would be too difficult to measure public health data and tackle inequalities. She is incorrect about that. We disagree that the reforms will hinder the collection and usage of public health data. First, in response to her specific point, CCGs will continue to have a strong geographical basis, as we discussed at length last week. CCGs will play an active role in tackling inequalities. Secondly, the functions of bodies that are currently responsible for public health information and intelligence will also be brought into the department, such as the public health observatories and the cancer registries. This will enable Public Health England to make the most of opportunities for synergies across different services and to eliminate gaps in information to support the better delivery of public health interventions at a national and local level.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked about the reduction in the disability-free life expectancy component of the resource allocation formula. The DFLE adjustment is retained as part of our commitment to reducing health inequalities. The size of the adjustment determines the weighting of the main formula, which aims to fund equal access for all and funding for work to support work to reduce health inequalities. The main formula already includes weighting for additional need to access healthcare in elderly and/or deprived populations.
In the last allocations round, ACRA could find no technical basis for the weighting of the DFLE adjustment and left it to ministerial decision. Until further work on allocations to GP clinical commissioning groups and the public health service has been completed, it is being set at 10 per cent to ensure that funding for work on health inequalities continues.
I apologise for the length of my remarks, but it was important to set out the Government's position on each of the amendments. I hope that I have persuaded noble Lords that the Government are committed to reducing health inequalities, and that the current duties in the Bill are the most effective way of supporting this aim. In the light of my explanation, I hope the noble Lords will not press their amendments.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I do not want to prolong it. The mood of the House was to strengthen the wording in Clause 3 on the Secretary of State's duties on reducing inequalities. A key factor that the noble Earl may have overlooked is the relationship of that duty to the Secretary of State being more active on the subject of access, which is a key part of securing inequalities. In the mean time, I will withdraw my amendment, but I must tell the noble Earl that we may return to this at a later stage.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Amendments 22 and 23 not moved.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 9.07 pm.