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General Medical Council (Fitness to Practise and Over-arching Objective) and the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (References to Court) Order 2015

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the General Medical Council (Fitness to Practise and Over-arching Objective) and the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (References to Court) Order 2015.

Relevant documents: 24th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 26th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

This Section 60 order will amend the Medical Act 1983 to establish the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, the MPTS, in statute and make other reforms to the General Medical Council’s fitness to practise procedures. Reforming the way that the GMC adjudicates on cases where a doctor’s fitness to practise has been called into question has been a long-term policy objective for both the Department of Health and the GMC, following the decision not to proceed with the establishment of the Office of the Health Professions Adjudicator, the OHPA, in 2011.

The introduction of these amendments will strengthen and modernise the GMC powers and systems, enabling it to carry out its fitness to practise adjudication functions more effectively. They will place the MPTS on a statutory footing and enable the GMC to make amendments to its fitness to practise rules to further modernise the procedures which govern how fitness to practise cases are handled.

These reforms will increase the separation between the investigation of fitness to practise cases and adjudicating on what should happen in each case to enhance public and professional confidence in the system of medical regulation. They will modernise the MPTS’s adjudication function, including strengthening the case management arrangements, by introducing enforceable case management directions. These include costs for unreasonable behaviour, introducing the ability to hold reviews on the papers where the parties agree, and introducing a duty to use rule-making powers in order to pursue the objective that cases be dealt with fairly and justly, similar to the courts’ Civil Procedure Rules.

The MPTS will be subject to accountability hearings held by the parliamentary Health Committee in Westminster, ensuring transparency and public debate in relation to the way that it discharges its statutory functions. The MPTS will also be required to lay its annual reports and accounts before the UK Parliament, and it is also held to account by the Professional Standards Authority, the PSA, via its annual performance review.

This order will address a number of patient safety issues, including strengthening the power of the registrar to require the disclosure of information from a doctor, to refer a doctor to the MPTS for decisions as to whether to impose conditions in relation to registration or to suspend that doctor in the event of non-compliance.

The GMC currently operates a rule which enables it not to proceed with an investigation if the matters relating to the allegation are more than five years old, unless it is deemed to be in the public interest to do so, and is in the “exceptional circumstance” of the case. The Government are using the opportunity of the order to remove the “exceptional circumstance” element. That is because a developing body of case law demonstrates that the additional test of having to prove that a case has an exceptional circumstance has prevented cases from being taken forward, even when it was considered in the public interest to do so. By expressly setting this out in statute, we are ensuring that an investigation can be taken forward, regardless of the amount of time that has passed, without having to prove exceptional circumstances. That will mean that the GMC will be able to investigate an allegation no matter what the circumstances or how much time has passed, if it feels that it is in the public interest to do so. That can only strengthen public protection and reduce risk to patient safety.

The order will bolster the objectives of the GMC in relation to its fitness to practise functions expressly to take account of the need to promote and maintain public confidence in the profession and the need to uphold proper professional standards and conduct, in addition to protecting the health, safety and well-being of the public. However, maintaining public confidence must only be considered as being relevant in pursuit of the protection of the public. Its inclusion in the overarching objective will help to ensure that it is given due weight in all fitness to practise cases.

The proposed overarching objectives will include the term well-being, as this term encompasses those aspects of a professional’s role that may have an impact on individual patients—not directly impact on their health or safety, but nevertheless affect them in a manner which is relevant to the health professional’s clinical care. Dignity, compassion and respect are all important in delivering care, and it would not be right to disregard them. The inclusion of the term well-being ensures that the well-being of a patient under the care of a health professional is not disregarded as a standard for regulatory action. The Law Commission’s report states that well-being has already been incorporated, without difficulty, into the main duties or objectives of regulators, and it feels strongly that, within that context, the term cannot be misinterpreted.

Increased separation will make it explicitly clear that the GMC has the role of investigating and presenting evidence in fitness to practise cases, but it will be for the MPTS to constitute tribunals to adjudicate on whether a doctor’s fitness to practise is impaired. With the greater separation between investigation and adjudication introduced through the order, the Government believe that it would be appropriate for the GMC also to have a right to appeal decisions made by the MPTS in cases where it believes that a decision does not protect the public. That will provide a transparent mechanism for decisions to be challenged in those instances where the GMC has concerns about a decision made by a medical practitioner tribunal.

The proposals also change the grounds on which the Professional Standards Authority can make a referral to the higher courts. That will enable the PSA to make a reference if it believes that a decision is insufficient to maintain public protection, which involves protecting the health, safety and well-being of the public, maintaining public confidence in the profession and maintaining proper professional standards and conduct. The order will ensure that the PSA can take action where it considers it appropriate in the interest of public protection, guaranteeing its right to intervene and take over an appeal where the GMC has withdrawn. The proposed GMC right of appeal would be in line with these revised grounds.

The Department of Health undertook a UK-wide consultation on making changes to the way that the GMC makes decisions about doctors’ fitness to practise. The consultation received 81 responses from a range of respondents, including medical and legal professionals, healthcare recruitment organisations, regulatory bodies and members of the public. The responses demonstrated strong support for the principle of enhancing the separation between the GMC’s role in investigating fitness to practise concerns and its role in adjudicating on whether those concerns amount to impaired fitness to practise.

A significant proportion of respondents—52%—felt that creating an entirely independent body like the former Office of the Health Professions Adjudicator, rather than establishing the MPTS as a statutory committee of the GMC, was a preferable approach. However, this group included an organised group of 39 co-ordinated and near-identical responses, which the department had to consider as individual responses. The department’s original decision not to proceed with OHPA was taken in 2011 and endorsed and implemented by Parliament in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. The Government’s proposed approach remains that we should enhance and protect the independence of decision-making at fitness to practise panel hearings, to secure public protection and the confidence of doctors and patients. However, the department believes that the same benefit as establishing a separate body can be achieved without the expense by retaining the adjudication function within the GMC and increasing the separation between its investigation and adjudication functions. Taking into account the group of respondents who wanted greater separation, as well as those who supported the statutory committee model, there was significant support for the principle of greater separation. We consider that establishing the MPTS as a statutory committee of the GMC is the right means of achieving this. The majority of consultation respondents did not agree that the GMC should have a right of appeal to challenge MPTS decisions. However, this again included the group of 39 co-ordinated responses, although they did not give reasons.

The policy intention, once separation of functions has been achieved, is to enable the GMC—the organisation that is best placed to challenge a tribunal decision about a doctor’s fitness to practise, having already acted in the prosecution role before the tribunal—to be better able to make such a challenge, given its closer knowledge of the case. These proposals to strengthen and modernise the GMC’s fitness to practice process will make the system more efficient and effective, benefiting patients, practitioners and the health service. They will result in improved public protection and an increase in public confidence in the GMC. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the way he introduced this legislation. We debated much of the content and wording of it previously in discussions on the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Bill. I do not intend to go over that ground again. I simply ask the Minister whether I am correct in believing that the guidance relating to this legislation is to be produced by the GMC, not the Department of Health, and whether the Department of Health will be able to have some kind of scrutiny role over the way that guidance is worded. As I have outlined before, there is concern among the profession—I declare my interest as a licensed practitioner, as well as a registered practitioner—that the term “well-being” could be viewed as being much wider. The public confidence issue is one where there remains concern—I am sure there will be concern—about trial by media and what is in the public domain that might influence the thinking of a panel.

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the order. I declare an interest that, maybe for a short while only, I am a licensed practitioner and a registered practitioner, and the rules of the GMC may not be sufficient for me to revalidate.

However, the issue to which I want to refer is the separation of the functions, of which I approve—we have discussed that many times—but for the fact that the GMC can appeal against the decision made by the MPTS. Its role becomes that of an adjudicator as well. I would like the noble Earl to clarify that. I know that in the consultation process there were the same number of responses—39, as mentioned by the noble Earl.

Another issue that we have discussed before is that these changes are welcome, but there are other changes that the Law Commission identified in its report, published in April 2014, on the regulation of health and social care professionals Bill. The Government indicated that they would bring in legislation to deal with all the issues. This is obviously a piecemeal measure taken out of that Bill, so the noble Earl may want to comment on that.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl for introducing the order. I shall say at once that the Opposition support it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Patel, we are disappointed that it is yet another Section 60 order being considered in Committee. We should have had the Law Commission Bill, either in pre-legislative scrutiny or in its substantive form. It is disappointing that we are having to deal with these various professional regulation bodies in such a piecemeal fashion.

That said, on the question of the overarching objective, we very much support that and the three pursuits set out in Article 21(1B),

“to protect, promote and maintain the health, safety and well-being of the public … to promote and maintain public confidence in the medical profession, and … to promote and maintain proper professional standards and conduct for members of that profession”.

I want to pick up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the British Medical Association. I suppose it is an issue of proportionality. In its report, the Law Commission expressed concern about examples given, suggesting that regulators were inappropriately imposing moral judgments in essentially private matters under the guise of maintaining confidence. The BMA has raised the issue of whether the order might end up punishing doctors who pose no threat to the health and safety of the public, on the basis that failure to do so might incur the public’s disapproval. The Law Commission has urged regulators to look carefully at regulatory interventions that do not take some colour from the need to protect the public.

This is a very important point. I have been very impressed with the GMC and the way in which it has improved its procedures and processes—and certainly with its current leadership. However, there are other regulators, perhaps not so much in the health sector, which clearly lack confidence and which are very much influenced by the flow and ebb of media comment and potential political interventions. I think that we have to be very careful about regulators which, in a sense, lose confidence in their own ability to make common sense judgments, and then have knee-jerk reactions in the face of media storms. I hope that the noble Earl will agree that that is not the intention in the case of the health regulators, and like me, he will express confidence, particularly in the GMC to apply common sense judgments in response to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay.

I now come to the question of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service. The Minister referred to the fact that the consultation demonstrated strong support for enhancing the GMC’s investigative and adjudication roles, but that 52% of respondents took the view that creating an entirely independent body would be preferable, with only 27% supporting the proposal to put the MPTS on a statutory footing.

We must refer in particular to the evidence of the Professional Standards Authority. It,

“did not agree that the proposals to establish the MPTS as a statutory committee of the GMC would achieve the aim”,

of appropriate separation of function. It commented that,

“former and current members of GMC staff should be excluded from sitting on medical practitioner tribunals or interim orders tribunals … The PSA also asked about the ability of the GMC to make rules delegating functions from the MPTS committee to ‘officers of the Council’”,

and it,

“referred to the fact that case managers will be paid by the GMC, but case managers will be performing a statutory office”.

The PSA was obviously concerned that because those managers were paid by the GMC, they might come under undue influence. As the Explanatory Memorandum points out, the PSA,

“conducts annual performance reviews of each of the health and care professional regulatory bodies”.

I would like the noble Earl to explain why the views of the PSA, above all others, were ignored in relation to this issue.

To pick up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about guidance, again, the Explanatory Memorandum says that:

“The Department does not intend to publish any guidance in respect of”,

this statutory instrument but that the GMC,

“will publish guidance as appropriate”.

Is the Minister in a position to respond to the noble Baroness about what kind of guidance will actually be produced?

However, overall I believe that the GMC has made great strides in recent years. It deserves to be supported for what it is doing. I accept that this will speed up processes to protect the public and provide more and better information about doctors on the register. It will improve doctors’ education and training and increase efficiency, and on that basis we are very glad to support the order.

My Lords, I shall endeavour to answer the questions that noble Lords have asked but first I endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about the GMC, in which we in the department have great confidence. It is a well led organisation and has approached this whole exercise in a very responsible way. The background to this order is of course, as the noble Lord stated, that we do not have— much as we wish we did—a consolidated Bill building on the Law Commission’s work. In the absence of parliamentary time for a Bill, we are therefore working within the limitations of existing legislation and using Section 60 orders. Let me reassure the Committee that we are very much committed to taking forward a Bill in this important area when parliamentary time allows.

The various Section 60 orders being taken forward are driven by the need to address a small number of areas which we view as priorities. They both deal with the priorities of government such as English-language concerns, which will be debated later this afternoon, and address some immediate issues that have hampered the regulators from being able to fulfil their basic function of protecting the public. I therefore welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is willing to give the order a fair wind.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about the possibility that the inclusion of the objective of promoting and maintaining public confidence in the medical profession could in some circumstances be used in a vexatious way, perhaps at a personal level or in the media’s response to what has happened—a so-called trial by media. If the actions of a doctor appear likely to reduce confidence in the medical profession and influence the decision of individuals as to whether to seek medical help at all, it may be right to take action. However, panels and tribunals will be asked to reach their own objective judgment as to whether particular acts or omissions would affect public confidence if no action were taken. A subjective view, uncritically influenced by public opinion or the media, would be an unacceptable basis for a decision. The question of whether GMC staff will be able to sit on the MPTS was raised. The answer is no, they will not. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked about the guidance. The GMC is consulting on its rules, and the department, I can assure her, will work closely with the GMC in drafting the guidance.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about the issue of legal support for a medical practitioner tribunal. The MPTS will be best placed to assess what kind of legal support a tribunal will need and therefore what criteria legal assessors should meet. It is important that medical practitioner tribunals have appropriate support to make decisions based on strong legal knowledge. Where the MPTS has appointed a legally qualified case manager to also act as a chair of a medical practitioner tribunal, the MPTS may consider that there is not also a need for a separate legal assessor.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, asked about the right of appeal for the GMC. As I explained, the order would enable the GMC to appeal decisions made by the MPTS in cases where it believes that the decision does not protect the public. Currently a respondent doctor has a right of appeal against panel determinations, although the GMC has no such right. Once greater separation is introduced through this order, the Government believe that it would be appropriate for the GMC to also have a right of appeal. This will reflect and underline the separation of investigation and adjudication. It will also provide a transparent mechanism for challenging decisions where the GMC, as a party to the proceedings, disagrees with a decision made by a medical practitioner tribunal. I hope that that explanation is helpful.

I would like to briefly return to the issue of guidance. I was not completely convinced by the noble Earl’s reply. Does he agree with me that there is a danger for a doctor, when there has been a lot of media coverage of the accusation—whatever that is—that the panel hearing the case may have been subject to a barrage by the media, which can be compared to baying hounds, and it can be very difficult for the doctor who is before the panel to be confident of a fair and balanced hearing?

For that reason the guidance becomes critical. It is incredibly stressful for a doctor to be reported to the GMC. The rates of suicide and mental health problems among such doctors are extremely high—higher, in any case, than the baseline population in normal circumstances, but there have been some notable cases of suicide. Does the Minister agree with me that the guidance for panels, particularly about the way they receive reports through the media, will be really important in ensuring that it is a balanced and fair hearing and not excessively influenced by press reports?

I completely understand the point that the noble Baroness has made. I hope that I can reassure her that the GMC is mindful of that issue. It would be the last organisation to wish for anything other than a fair and just approach to every fitness to practise case. I suggest that one of the safeguards here is that the legal representative and the legal assessor would advise the MPT on what is acceptable in law and proceed on that basis, so the tribunal would be governed by legal considerations and the guidance will make that clear. However, if I can add to those remarks in writing after this debate, I will be very happy to do so.

Motion agreed.