Motion to Consider
My Lords, the Government have identified improvements that can be made to the legislation within which the Nursing and Midwifery Council operates, to improve public protection and increase public confidence in the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Therefore, the department carried out a UK-wide consultation on proposed changes to the Nursing and Midwifery Order 2001, which is the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s governing legislative framework. The majority of respondents supported these amendments.
The first of the proposed changes is to enable the Nursing and Midwifery Council to appoint case examiners who will be given powers currently exercised by the investigating committee to consider allegations of impairment of fitness to practise, following an initial screening which has considered that an investigation is appropriate. Two case examiners—one lay and one registrant—will consider the allegation, following the procedure set out in amendments to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (Fitness to Practise) Rules, which are being developed in parallel to this order by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
The case examiners will then agree their decision on whether or not the registrant has a case to answer—this is the same process used by General Medical Council case examiners—and whether the allegation should therefore be considered by the health committee or by the conduct and competence committee. If case examiners fail to agree on whether there is a case to answer, the allegation will be referred to the investigating committee for determination. The introduction of case examiners should lead to the swifter resolution of complaints and thereby improve public protection and the efficiency of the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s fitness to practise processes, as well as reducing the stress to registrants caused by lengthy investigations.
The second change is to introduce a power for the council to review “no case to answer” decisions made at the end of the investigation stage in fitness to practise cases, and to make rules in connection with the carrying out of such a review. This will bring the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s power in line with the General Medical Council’s power.
The third change is to introduce a power to allow the council to delegate this function to the registrar—the chief executive. The amendments to the fitness to practise rules being developed by the NMC will provide that the registrar may review a “no case to answer” decision where new evidence comes to light that has a material impact on the original decision or if it is considered that the decision may be materially flawed, and in both cases that it is in the public interest to review. Save in exceptional circumstances, a review of a “no case to answer” decision cannot be commenced more than one year after the date of that decision.
The fourth change is to revise requirements for the composition of the registration appeal panel by removing the requirements for a Nursing and Midwifery Council member to chair the panel, which is intended to establish a clear separation of duties between the operational and governance functions to avoid suggestions of perceived bias and conflict. Additionally, it will remove the requirement for a registered medical practitioner to be on the panel in cases where the health of the person bringing the appeal is an issue. It is intended that medical advice will be provided by independent medical witnesses and reports to ensure the panel remains detached from that part of the process, and therefore making the process more robust and transparent. This will also ensure more consistency between registration appeals and fitness to practise appeals.
The fifth element is to clarify existing legislation that the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s Health Committee or Conduct and Competence Committee has the power to make a strike-off order in a health or lack of competence case upon a review of a final suspension order or conditions of practice order, provided the registrant has been the subject of such a final order for at least two years. This is not a new power but provides clarification of the existing legislation to protect patients and the public by ensuring that those whose fitness to practise is impaired cannot continue to practise.
The sixth change is to introduce a power for the Nursing and Midwifery Council to disclose to a third party certain information relating to a person’s indemnity arrangements for the purpose of verifying that information for the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s purposes. This will enable the Nursing and Midwifery Council to verify the information it receives to ensure that indemnity arrangements are in place and provide sufficient cover against the liabilities that many be incurred by a practising nurse and practising midwife registrant.
The seventh change is to give the Investigating Committee a new power to also make an interim order after it has referred a case to the Health Committee or to the Conduct and Competence Committee if that committee has not begun its consideration of the case. At present, once the Investigating Committee refers a case, the power to make an interim order rests only with the Conduct and Competence Committee or the Health Committee. This will ensure that if new information is received which suggests that an interim order is necessary for the protection of the public after a case has been referred to another practice committee, but before the committee has started to consider it, the Investigating Committee will have the power to make an interim order.
The introduction of case examiners and the power to review “no case to answer” decisions, made at the end of the investigation stage in fitness to practise cases will bring the Nursing and Midwifery Council in line with the General Medical Council. The implementation of these recommendations requires a Section 60 Health Act 1999 order to amend the legislation governing the Nursing and Midwifery Council. I commend this order to the Committee, and I beg to move.
My Lords, this amendment to the Nursing and Midwifery Order is to be welcomed. A regulatory body has to balance the respected traditions and structures of an informed 150 years of experience with the urgent needs of the current issues that the council faces when there may be rare problems with registered nurses and midwives. Much of what is proposed follows good practice. However, there is one area in which I have some minor queries and I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can help.
The move away from independent consultants forming an investigation committee to having an in-house employed case examiner raises two minor concerns that are not reflected in the consultation response at paragraph 8.6 of the Explanatory Memorandum. Will the case examiners have extensive training in gathering the evidence that they will have to present to the quasi-judicial relevant committee considering each case? Will the benefits that other investigating groups such as Ofsted and local government inspectors have, given that at least one member of those teams comes in from outside, ensuring that there is always fresh challenge, be lost with this new arrangement?
Secondly, as employees of the council, will their job specification make it absolutely clear that they must conduct their role without fear or favour? It may be obvious when they are dealing with people outside the council but occasionally—very rarely—there may be a case where, for example, a decision not to have an interim suspension might have resulted in further injury or damage, and therefore members of the council themselves and other judgments might be being examined. The case examiners must be truly free to examine the council’s own processes and to feel no pressure from their own managers.
The no case to answer decision and the independent chair of the appeals panel are important and to be welcomed. However, given what I have just said about the case examiners, I find it slightly peculiar to remove the requirement for a registered medical practitioner to be on the panel, because that person in the past has provided that independent voice from the members of the council.
The points that I have raised are minor ones, and I welcome the order. However, I hope that I can have some reassurance on these points relating to the new role of case examiners.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for explaining the details of the order so clearly. However, he did not mention the Law Commission proposals for legislative changes relating to all health regulatory bodies. I note that the Explanatory Memorandum says that the Government will publish a response in due course, but I have to say that there is huge disappointment among the regulators that no Bill appeared this Session—not even one for pre-legislative scrutiny. Essentially, we are now faced with a series of Section 60 orders dealing with the regulatory bodies in an individual and piecemeal way, without the consistency and modernisation of the regulatory landscape that was promised by the Law Commission work. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to say a little more about when the Government will publish their response to the Law Commission proposals and perhaps give a little more information about how he sees the pipeline for Section 60 orders coming forward.
In particular, he will know that, in relation to the NMC, part of the Law Commission proposals were that there would be a reduction in the number of public hearings that have to take place. That would reduce the cost to the NMC and the time it takes to deal with cases. Given that we are not having primary legislation, is it the Government’s intention to bring forward as quickly as possible a Section 60 order in relation to that? As far as the proposals in this order are concerned, they seem sensible and unexceptional. I hope that they will lead to the NMC being able to be more efficient in its processes.
Having read the consultation document, I would just like to raise a couple of points on it. First, I will follow up what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said about case examiners. The consultation document refers to a small number of people who are unsure about this proposal. I am particularly worried that as case examiners will be employees of the NMC, they will be target driven rather than acting as independent professionals. The consultation response from the Government says this will not be the case. It states:
“Although employed by NMC, Case Examiners will be both registrant and lay (non-registrant) and experienced senior decision makers who are used to making independent decisions”.
I very much endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on training and the need for people to be brought in to provide fresh challenges. However, this issue about targets is a very important one, and I wonder whether the noble Earl can give me a reassurance that there will not be targets—even unseen ones—in relation to cases and their outcomes. Can he just say a little more about how we can ensure that case examiners will be wholly protected when they carry out their duties? If they are in a managed organisation, they will be accountable to a manager, and we need to have some assurance that there is not going to be interference by the hierarchy of the NMC in case examiners’ decisions.
I would like to ask about another point raised in the consultation document. One response was about the need for more diversity on panels,
“in particular a point that black, minority and ethnic (BME) employees are disproportionally represented within the disciplinary systems of both employers and regulators”.
The consultation says:
“These comments have been fed back to the NMC to consider”.
Has the NMC now given consideration to that issue?
Turning to the Deregulation Bill, the noble Earl was present at our debate last week and will know that we have some concerns that, according to a list issued apparently by the Government, the Professional Standards Authority is subject to the economic growth duty within that Bill. I do not expect the noble Earl to answer me on that today. But, given that the Professional Standards Authority is to be involved, can I take it that by implication that duty will fall also to the NMC, the GMC and other professional regulatory bodies? Obviously, we will come back to this issue when the Deregulation Bill returns on Report but we are finding it difficult to find out the list of organisations that the Government consider should be encompassed within it.
Of course, the issue is that there may be an impediment to the non-economic regulators taking regulatory action because they now have to consider the economic growth duty. In the main, that will apply more to the CQC when dealing with organisations than it will to the individual regulatory bodies. But as the Government think that the PSA is encompassed within the Bill, I would be interested in a response from the Government.
Will the noble Earl say something about the overall performance of the NMC? He will know that this has been the subject of some concern and indeed scrutiny by the Health Select Committee. At the most recent accountability hearing in 2013, the Health Select Committee concluded:
“The NMC is an organisation with a recent history of poor performance, including lack of focus on its core regulatory activities, financial mismanagement and long delays in processing Fitness to Practise cases”.
The PSA’s 2013 performance review of the nine healthcare regulators it oversees, which was published in July this year, stated that the NMC,
“is not yet meeting eight of the 24 Standards of Good Regulation”.
I know that in the 2013 accountability hearing the Health Select Committee concluded that,
“the NMC has made progress”—
indeed, I pay tribute to the chief executive and the chairman, who have done a lot to ensure that this happens—but it also says that,
“more progress is required before the NMC can be regarded as an effective regulator”.
Would the noble Earl care to comment on that?
The Select Committee also looked at the issue of revalidation. Following the introduction of revalidation for doctors, the need for revalidation for nurses is self-evident. The Health Select Committee says that it welcomes,
“the commitment of the NMC to introduce revalidation for nurses and midwives from the end of 2015”,
“it does not believe the NMC yet has a workable plan to deliver this commitment”.
That is the 2013 report of the accountability hearing. The Select Committee has not yet had the 2014 hearing, which I think will take place in January. Will the noble Earl update the Committee on whether he now thinks that the NMC has a workable plan?
Overall, this is a sensible order. We need to do everything we can to help the NMC improve its processes. I express my thanks to the current leadership of the NMC and the work that it has done. It clearly needs to do more and Parliament needs to be prepared to help it. If we are not going to have a substantive Bill, I would have thought it a priority to bring further Section 60 orders in relation to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, particularly on the question of whether we can help it streamline its fitness to practise hearings.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for their questions and comments. My noble friend Lady Brinton asked for reassurance about the case examiners. Under the proposals, the two case examiners will independently review the evidence and then agree their decision. This is the same process as used by GMC case examiners, and I am not aware of any particular difficulties that it has encountered in this connection. If the case examiners cannot agree the decision, the case will then be referred to the investigating committee for determination, as I explained.
My noble friend asked about training of the case examiners. Two case examiners, one lay and one registered nurse or midwife, will consider an allegation of impairment of fitness to practise, whereas three investigating committee members are required at present. Co-ordinating meetings of the investigating committee members is time-consuming due to panel members having other commitments or requiring refreshed training. A case examiner will be a skilled role. They will develop expertise that will lead to greater consistency when making decisions because they will be considering a greater number of cases on a regular basis than individual members of a large pool of investigating committee members. This will speed up the fitness-to-practise process and result in reduced costs.
My noble friend asked whether the job specification of case examiners, as employees of the council, must specify that they carry out their roles without fear or favour and be truly free to make comments. Case examiners will be employed by the NMC, whereas investigating committee members, who currently consider allegations of fitness to practise, are chosen from a pool of around 100 individuals who provide their services to the NMC as independent contractors. But, once again, there is no reason to suppose that, as professional people, they will feel inhibited from voicing their full and frank views whenever they feel the need to do so. Despite their being employees, it is more than any professional’s self-esteem is worth to feel inhibited in that sense. It is a very responsible role. While the individuals will need to be carefully chosen, I have confidence that this arrangement will work.
My noble friend asked about the removal of the requirement for a registered medical practitioner to form part of the panel where health is an issue. We consider it more appropriate for medical advice to be provided by independent expert witnesses and medical reports. Having an independent medical witness will ensure that the panel remains detached from that part of the process and is therefore more able to make an independent decision so making the process more robust and transparent. This would ensure consistency between registration appeals and fitness-to-practise appeals.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, expressed concern that case examiners might be target driven, and this was an issue raised in the consultation. We do not believe that this will be the case. Although they will be employed by the NMC, case examiners will be both registrant and lay; that is, a registrant nurse or midwife and a lay person. Their role will be distinct; they will be responsible only for making an assessment of whether a registrant has a case to answer against an allegation that is made to the NMC that their fitness to practise is impaired. They will make their decisions impartially and independently, and based solely on the information provided for the case, including any representations made by the registrant. Any such decision would be made by a pair of case examiners. The NMC will seek to appoint people to these roles who have demonstrated sufficient skills and experience to make robust decisions. The NMC’s case examiner resource will be sufficient to ensure that all decisions will be considered on their merits, without any undue time pressure. Case examiners will not be involved in undertaking the fitness to practise investigation itself, nor in presenting cases at any final hearing.
I am aware that the decision not to progress a professional regulation Bill in the current Session has come as a disappointment to interested parties and I understand the comments made in that connection by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The process of putting together a Bill dealing with all the professional regulators is a complex matter because it touches on many pieces of legislation. However, this decision provides the opportunity to invest time to ensure that this important legislative change is right, and that we get the right framework in place for the benefit of those who will ultimately be affected by it. We continue to work and engage with all the regulators responsible for the healthcare professionals, the Professional Standards Authority and other stakeholders. We are committed to legislate on this important and complex issue when parliamentary time allows. The department is working on a formal response to the Law Commission’s recommendations and will publish it in due course.
The noble Lord asked me about the performance of the NMC and remarked on the progress made to date. I am sure he knows that the NMC has something of a troubled history regarding its performance, which is why Ministers commissioned the predecessor body to the Professional Standards Authority, the CHRE, to undertake a full strategic review in 2012. On 3 July 2012, the final report of this strategic review was published, which put forward 15 high-level recommendations for improvement in the delivery of the NMC’s regulatory functions, along with the expectation that demonstrable improvements should be seen within two years.
Earlier this year, the NMC commissioned KPMG to undertake an independent review to assess its progress in addressing the recommendations from the 2012 strategic review. The associated report was published on 15 September this year, in which KPMG concluded that the NMC had made a substantial number of improvements, which cumulatively placed it in a much stronger position than in 2012. We have welcomed KPMG’s report on that progress, but we want the NMC to improve much further and faster. These amendments to its existing legislation will undoubtedly help in that endeavour. We welcome the appointment of Dame Janet Finch as NMC chair from 1 January next year and hope that, under her leadership, the NMC will continue to make improvements to become a confident and capable regulator.
On 3 September, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health met with Mark Addison, the current NMC chair, and Jackie Smith, the NMC’s chief executive, primarily to discuss the NMC’s failure to meet the standards that were highlighted in the Professional Standards Authority annual report. He explored with the NMC how it is responding to the concerns expressed by the PSA and the action it is taking to ensure compliance. The report shows that the NMC has made progress in becoming a more effective regulator, supported by government grants and decisive NMC leadership, but, as I have said, we believe there is further to go. We will continue to monitor its performance closely and are working to amend existing legislation—this Section 60 order being the first such example—to help in that process.
On revalidation, nurses and midwives have some of the most important jobs in the NHS, caring for patients every day. Making sure that they are up to speed with the latest treatments and practices will help them maintain the high standards that they and their patients expect. That is why we support the NMC in its drive to introduce revalidation. It will improve safety and quality of care and reassure patients that nurses remain fit to carry out their important work.
I am happy to write to both noble Lords to cover the points that I may not have done full justice to. With that, I beg to move.