Skip to main content

Times Health Commission

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the establishment by the Times of the Times Health Commission on 15 January.

I thank noble Lords. It is not quite the same as scoring a hat trick in football, but I will take the Order Paper home with pleasure.

We welcome the Times Health Commission’s contribution on how we can improve health and social care. We are always looking to build on good ideas, knowledge and experience, which this commission offers in bucketloads. I look forward to working with the commission and building on the best ideas.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that quite positive reply but, first, given our long history of political failure to tackle the increasingly serious care and health problems facing the country, will the Government set out in more detail what support they will give to this initiative? Secondly—this is perhaps more difficult for the Minister—will he seek support from his colleagues to enter into discussions with the opposition parties about the way in which we may create a new and entirely separate joint political mechanism whereby the recommendations that come forward from this commission may be amended or revised but in fact, on a joint basis, would then be implemented regardless of the political power held by any of the parties?

I thank the noble Lord and firmly agree that we should look to implement anything that is a good idea. I know that there are many things we can learn and that I am still to set up the meeting I talked to him about. I apologise that it has taken a while but we have had a few things on. In a word, yes, I will always look to work on a cross-party basis. One thing that I want to bring to Parliament soon is the new hospital programme I am working on, which I believe needs to go on for ever in terms of the way we are going to build new hospitals. It is something I would like to take forward as a cross-party action. Most of the things in this space are not political; they are all about getting good and effective treatment to our population, so I am very happy to work in a collaborative fashion.

Should not the Minister go a little further than what he has said? Should not the Government follow the example of the Times and set up a full-scale royal commission, with adequate financial support and powers of investigation, so that it can take through an independent look at the state of the health service today? Surely the Minister will agree that no one can be happy with where we are at the moment.

No, we are working very intensively. We have some very good minds involved in this. I know from my work with my colleagues that we work hard on developing our own plans, some of which were announced just last week. We are facing a challenge, as we all know, from the setbacks around Covid but we are tackling it. What I am saying is that there is an absolute openness to new ideas, which is why I welcome any ideas that come to the table—but, believe me, we are working on a lot of our own ideas.

My Lords, if the Government or the editor of the Times want to find out what we need to do about social care or look at what has been agreed on an all-party basis, all they have to do is to read the report from the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the Select Committee that was set up by this House, which sets it out clearly—or even the report that was done by the Economic Affairs Committee three years ago, which predicted the mess that we are now in. We do not need journalists doing reports; we need the Government to respond to what Parliament has demanded.

I think we have responded and are responding. That is very evident in the plans and funding that we have recently put in place and from the work that we are doing, which the House will see far more about as we announce it over the coming weeks and months.

My Lords, when confronted with evidence of problems in our health system, the tendency of government is to play it down or to blame anyone but themselves while, candidly, the instinct of opposition is to say that everything is a catastrophe entirely of the Government’s own making, even when the facts are more complex. Does the Minister agree that it is essential to have the data for us, the Times and others to come to firm conclusions? The critical piece of data that we are still missing is the workforce strategy for health, social care and public health. When are we going to see that data in order to be able to have a better informed debate?

I agree with the noble Lord that data has to be the basis of any decision-making. I know that early drafts of the workforce strategy have already been formed so he and the House will see that before too long.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, suggested a royal commission; the Minister did not respond to that. What is the Government’s view about a royal commission?

My experience of royal commissions is that they take a couple of years to report. I do not want to wait a couple of years. I want to get on with it now. We have some very good minds in the department working on it, with access to all of this. I am always willing to take on new ideas from new minds but we do not need a two-year report; we need action now.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in any investigation of health and social care, the voices of patients and users must be loud and strong? How are the Government going to ensure that this happens?

Clearly, the patient has to be at the centre of everything. That is what the plan for patients is about. It is also what patient choice is about; we are using other ways to make sure that people can get treatment quickly when they need to. It involves using the independent sector, as pioneered by colleagues in this House, and learning lessons from that so that we can get on top of waiting lists, which we all agree we need to do.

My Lords, on the day when the Joint Committee on the draft Mental Health Bill has published its report, can my noble friend the Minister assure us that, while we hear a lot of talk about health, when the ideas are in the department, mental health and the situation in secure units are taken into account—we have the same problems of delay and discharge in those units—so that mental health is given the parity with physical health it deserves?

Yes. Unfortunately, one of the results of Covid was our understanding a lot more about the cases of mental health caused by it. We have put more investment into that as a result; it will be key to this issue as well.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned different reports and said that the Government will be willing to implement good advice. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS also published a report, with clear recommendations. Will the Government implement some of those recommendations, even now?

As I mentioned, we are working on and taking good ideas from there. I know that it is one of the inputs being considered in all this.

My Lords, the Government do not need a Times Health Commission to know that there are 165,000 social care staff vacancies and a 29% turnover of staff in that sector, while 542,000 people are waiting in the community for an assessment of their social care needs. Short-term funding as a sticking plaster is not going to work, so when are the Government going to bring forward a strategic plan, with funding, for social care?

As I said, we have already announced big increases in funding, with more than 20% over the next two years. Two years is not the short term. Minister Whately is working very hard on this because we know that the flow in social care is a key element of the whole solution.

My Lords, I welcome the Times setting up the commission. So far, it seems to have a clear and coherent view on the scale of the crisis facing the NHS and what needs to be done, which seems to be sadly lacking from the Government. In the light of all the Times research in articles this week on the resuscitation that the NHS needs, the waning faith people have that they will be cared for and the rising billions that levels of ill health are costing the country, does the Minister agree that the Government’s ABCD policy for addressing the crisis needs a complete rethink?

No, not at all. In fact, the things I have read in the Times are about what we are implementing. The House has heard me talk about virtual wards; I saw an article on how important those are in helping with the step-down care that is needed in some social care. I have seen that in many places already and it is a way forward. It has also talked about the need for AI and robotic surgery; again, I have seen examples of that in different hospitals. The commission is taking a lot of the good ideas that are already in place throughout the health service and, as I want to do, looking at the ways in which we implement that across the board.