After the excitement of the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon by a margin of four votes (with the Convenor of the Liberal Democrat Peers, Lord Alderdice,voting against an amendment he had both signed and spoken in favour of) on the principle of mental health issues being given greater priority within the NHS, the rest of the days proceedings might have been a bit of a damp squib.
However,the later debates illuminated what a dog’s breakfast the whole Health and Social Care Bill has now become.
For example, at one point I tried to elucidate what would be the mechanisms to drive up quality in local healthcare provision and how would health inequalities between commissioning group areas be addressed, saying:
“My Lords, I support the amendments in this group because I believe that it is important that we look at the mechanisms that will be embedded in the Bill, assuming that it eventually receives Royal Assent in some form, and that will in practice drive change in the direction that we all want. That includes improving the quality of the care offered, and it means addressing the issues of health inequality to which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, referred.
One of the omissions from the Bill is that, apart from placing some general duties on the various bits of the NHS, there is very little about demonstrating how those duties will then be exercised or creating a mechanism for assessing that. The amendment, which talks about reporting annually to Parliament on the progress made, seems an essential first step in making sure that that happens.
The reports on inequalities will be increasingly important in this area. However, Amendment 112, dealing with CCGs’ annual reports on how they have discharged their duty to reduce inequalities, raises another question, and this comes back to the issue of what will be the catchment areas of individual CCGs. Unless there is far more central direction than I have understood—and perhaps the Minister can reassure us on that—it seems likely that there will be, to use an unpleasant term, ghettoisation in some CCGs.
In some local authority areas, the easier bits of the patch will have one CCG and another will cover the others. That is likely to mean that the areas covered by those two different CCGs are rather more homogeneous than might otherwise be the case. If one CCG covered that area, the duty to make progress on health inequality would be clearer. If we are talking about smaller populations served, it is more likely that they will be homogeneous and that there will therefore be less inequality to address. The question will be whether there will be enough pressure within the system to ensure that the inequalities in health outcome between different CCG areas will be addressed. It is all very well to place a duty on a CCG which covers, say, the people of Tottenham in north London, where there are tremendous problems of health status, life expectancy and so on, to report on what it is doing to eliminate health inequality in its patch, but if the nature of that patch is such that it is already deprived in terms of both economic indicators and health outcomes, what will be the driver to ensure that the inequality of that area compared with others is addressed?
Who will own the strategy within regions and parts of the country to address issues such as health inequality and clinical standards? If the answer is that that this will all be done by the NHS Commissioning Board, that is a wonderful answer and tells us what an important body the NHS Commissioning Board will be. How will that be operationalised? What mechanism will drive that? Before you know it, you are talking about a regional and area infrastructure no less baroque than anything we have seen in the past. Otherwise, it cannot happen. What will be done to operationalise the drivers to make the improvements happen? It will not be sufficient to place a duty on everyone to report on what they have done, although that is valuable and worth while in itself. What will be the duty to address issues between localities? You can address all the inequality you want within those areas, but if the outcomes are already much lower in those areas, will there be enough infrastructure around the NHS Commissioning Board to address the problem of the inequalities between the different areas?”
In reply, the Minister, Earl Howe said:
“The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked me about clinical commissioning groups and referred to their geographic coverage. He will know that each CCG will be accountable for the outcomes that it achieves against the commissioning outcomes framework, which is under development. The CCGs will be supported in their efforts to improve quality by the NHS Commissioning Board, whose job it will be to issue commissioning guidance, informed, among other things, by NICE quality standards.
I do not agree with the noble Lord that CCGs are likely to be ghettoes. Across many clinical areas, they will collaborate to serve the needs of patients over an area wider than that of just a single CCG. What is not stated in the Bill but I hope is implicit in all that the Government have said is that there will be transparency in all this. Once you measure results, there is, ipso facto, an incentive to improve those results.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, asked me how a CCG can influence improvement in primary care when it is the board that is commissioning the primary care. I simply remind him that CCGs have a duty under the Bill to support the NHS Commissioning Board in its quality improvement functions with respect to primary care. Indeed, one of the key benefits of CCGs as we see it—and we know this from a practice-based commissioning which has been in place for a number of years—is the ability for peer review and peer pressure to drive up quality.
The noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Hunt, asked me who will lead the local strategies. Health and well-being boards will be the bodies that will produce a joint health and well-being strategy, and that will be designed precisely to address issues such as health inequalities, which involve different services working together. CCGs must have regard to these strategies in addition to reporting annually on health inequalities, as through the amendments in this group.”
Shortly afterwards, I intervened to try and clarify the point and this was the exchange:
“Lord Harris of Haringey: I just want to make sure that I understand the point that the Minister is making. Let us compare two localities in London. I mentioned Tottenham, so compare that with, say, the residents of Totteridge. They are very different socioeconomic groupings with very different health outcomes. What is the mechanism for addressing health inequalities between Tottenham and Totteridge? Who will be responsible for addressing inequalities between areas that are just a few miles apart but which have very different characteristics and very different social outcomes? The health and well-being boards are borough-based. Tottenham is in the London Borough of Haringey and Totteridge is in the London Borough of Barnet—neighbouring boroughs that are very different in composition. What will be the overarching structure that addresses those inequalities?
Earl Howe: Localism lies at the heart of our approach to these issues. Although I have no doubt that conversations and comparative analyses will take place between different health and well-being boards and different local authorities, in the end it is the responsibility of health and well-being boards to look to their catchments. As I said, the outcomes that are published, both in terms of the NHS performance and public health and social care, will in themselves incentivise improvement, if the local authority and the health and well-being board work together as they should. This is a joint enterprise between public health, social care and the NHS.
We shall no doubt experience the effect of comparative work between local authorities once the early implementer groups have bedded down and begun their work. Both the board, however, and the Secretary of State will have duties in relation to inequalities. They overarch everything that happens and I suggest that that will ensure that a system-wide and strategic approach is taken, for example, through setting objectives in the board’s mandate in relation to inequalities. These could feed down very easily to CCGs through commissioning guidance issued by the board. I hope that that gives the noble Lord a summary, or at least a flavour, of how we envisage this working.
Lord Harris of Haringey: May I just clarify? Will there be nothing between the board at national level? Will it look right across the country and say, “We will address these inequalities”? Will there be nothing, for example, at the London level, to address inequalities between different parts of London or will it simply be driven nationally? That is a recipe for not necessarily making the best decisions in particular areas.
Earl Howe: The noble Lord will know, because the NHS Commissioning Board authority has published its proposals, that the board will be represented sectorally. There will be field forces in all parts of the country. My vision of this, and that of Sir David Nicholson is that in the areas in which the board operates it will take a view across a region and look at how outcomes vary between local authority areas. The board will be very powerfully placed to influence the kinds of inequalities that the noble Lord has spoken of. It is important for noble Lords to understand that the board will not be a collection of people sitting in Leeds. The majority of its staff will be a field force. I hope that that is helpful.”
So the NHS Commissioning Board will have an army of staff, active in every region and locality “influencing” local Commissioning Groups. (This army will, of course, be anonymous and unaccountable – except at national level through the NHS Commissioning Board and the Secretary of State will try to imply that none of what happens is anything to do with him.)
A later exchange on another amendment amplified the point:
“Baroness Jolly: Before the Minister sits down, will he clarify whether the same processes that he has just outlined would apply to people in receipt of specialist services that are commissioned by the NHS Commissioning Board, not by local CCGs?
Earl Howe: My Lords, where a service is commissioned by the NHS Commissioning Board—and let us imagine that it is a specialised service—the patient’s recourse should be to the board. However, of course, the board will be represented at a local level rather than only centrally, and we expect that the board will be represented in health and well-being boards and in the discussions that take place there. It would therefore be possible for a patient to address their concerns, in the first instance, to the health and well-being board, which would have the ability and power to communicate directly with the NHS Commissioning Board, if that was felt to be appropriate. However, as I said, the patient would be able to go straight to the board in those circumstances.
Lord Harris of Haringey: I appreciate that this is very bad manners, given that I missed most of the debate. The Minister has just said—although perhaps I misinterpreted him—that the NHS Commissioning Board will have a representative on every local health and well-being board. If so, how will those individuals be known or accountable? Is that not the most extraordinary bureaucracy? He seems to have made a most extraordinary statement.
Earl Howe: My Lords, we are at Report stage and I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not reply at length. The point I was seeking to make was not about representation on the board but involvement in the health and well-being board’s wider deliberations. It is entirely open to a health and well-being board to invite a member of the Commissioning Board to be a permanent member, but I am not saying that we are prescribing that.’
So there will be – or at least can be – NHS Commissioning Board staff “influencing” or even sitting on local Health and Wellbeing Boards.
By now I was becoming even more curious about the extraordinary reach of the NHS Commissioning Board and in a debate on the proposed duty to encourage “autonomy” for local NHS bodies I pursued the topic again:
“My Lords, every time I look at Clause 4—[Laughter.
] I cannot understand what my noble friends find so amusing, but every time I look at this particular clause—if that makes it easier for them—and particularly listening to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, I have been confused as to what problem the Government think they are solving by the clauses on autonomy.There is apparently a concern about micromanagement. There is a desire to have local innovation, flexibility and local responsiveness. What is it about the current arrangements in the NHS that necessarily prevents local innovation, flexibility and local responsiveness? Why are we having these discussions? If there is a concern from the Government that they are micromanaging, they have a solution—they stop micromanaging. Again, what are we trying to do here?However, once you include,
“the desirability of securing, so far as consistent with the interests of the health service”—
or whatever form of words you choose to have—this principle of autonomy, you are setting up an automatic conflict. If the form of words that the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, have put their names to was in the Bill, does this mean that the Secretary of State will be intervening when there are clear cases of postcode lottery? That presumably is the implication. Or is the Secretary of State now going to say that in fact a postcode lottery is what this legislation is designed to create? We should be clear what these clauses are trying to prevent. What is the problem that they are trying to solve?
The noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, was moving in his description of how the Secretary of State would weigh these difficult issues of the possible conflict between,
“the desirability of securing, so far as consistent with the interests of the health service”,
autonomy and the priorities of the fundamental role of the NHS. This is a balance that has to be weighed. He talked about this line of accountability that will exist between the NHS Commissioning Board and the CCGs—these tentacles that the NHS Commissioning Board will put throughout the NHS. They will be unaccountable and anonymous, and individuals will be operating at regional or at local level.
There will be an army of people operating as the tentacles of the NHS Commissioning Board. They will be informing the Secretary of State so that he can exercise his judgments about the balance between autonomy and meeting the principles of the NHS. I wonder whether the Secretary of State is creating the most extraordinary bureaucratic monster to solve a problem that could be easily solved simply by resisting his tendency to micromanage.”
And this prompted further exchanges:
“Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has spoken to Amendments 10 and 52, which, as she has said, would remove altogether the autonomy duties on the Secretary of State and the board. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked me what the problem is that the Bill is trying to solve in this regard. The duty is intended to promote a culture of fostering local autonomy rather than to outlaw specific practices; but without a focus on autonomy, it is possible that the mandate from the Secretary of State to the board or the framework document from the board to CCGs could impose disproportionately burdensome requirements on the system. The Government believe that local operational autonomy is essential to enable the health service to improve the outcomes of care for patients, provided that autonomy is within the framework of clear ministerial accountability.
The noble Baroness will be aware, because I have said it before, that we are aiming to free those closest to services to take decisions that are right for patients, free from central micromanagement by either the Department of Health or the NHS Commissioning Board. The amended duties, with the caveat that the interests of the health service take priority, achieve the right balance between autonomy and accountability. Without the clause, a future Secretary of State could choose to ignore one of the fundamental principles of the Bill, which is that those closest to patients are best placed to take clinical decisions. Without the clause, a future Secretary of State would be free to use his extensive powers to micromanage the NHS. The autonomy duty is a necessary part of the Bill, placing a duty on the Secretary of State to consider the expertise of those in the health service while recognising that there will be circumstances—
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Earl seems to be saying that you cannot trust your own Secretary of State not to micromanage unless they are effectively forbidden from doing so. We have all talked of the Secretary of State’s accountability to Parliament. Surely the principle is that an accountable Secretary of State will be under enormous pressure from Parliament not to micromanage. If it is such a central issue of policy, Secretaries of State should simply be told not to do it, rather than requiring an Act of Parliament.
Earl Howe: I challenge the noble Lord to think of one Secretary of State, with the distinguished exception of my right honourable friend Mr Lansley, who has not succumbed to the temptation of micromanaging the NHS. No Secretary of State has been able to resist that temptation because, frankly, Parliament expects them to do it. That is what the system has expected of the Secretary of State. This is a burden on commissioners and clinicians, and, in the end, it does not well serve the interests of patients. It is all very well for the noble Lord to say, “Well, just stop”, but the system encourages it and the duties on the Secretary of State are there to encourage it.
Baroness Thornton: I cannot resist saying that the noble Earl’s right honourable friend Mr Lansley has dabbled and intervened on at least 12 occasions since the Bill started. He is on the record as saying on one of those occasions that certain managers should be sacked. Is the noble Earl saying that that will cease when this Bill is on the statute book?
Earl Howe: I am saying that the Secretary of State will not have the ability to micromanage the health service as he does at the moment. Whether the examples cited by the noble Baroness constitute micromanagement, if my right honourable friend is just expressing a view, I rather question.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: The noble Lord may be surprised to hear me ask this question because, as he kindly said, I have been very determined that the provisions on accountability and parliamentary responsibility et cetera should be strengthened in the Bill. However, I listened to what my noble friend Lord Harris said about what he described as the “increasing tentacles” of these links between the various providers and the Secretary of State. Is the Minister not becoming concerned—as I would in his position—that all this new accountability and these links undermine the basic policy positions of the Bill? That is why, for example, my noble friend Lady Thornton suggested that it would be cleaner—if that is the word—to remove the whole of Clause 4 from the Bill. The complexities that are being set up and strengthened, as the Minister has agreed, make the whole thing so incredibly complicated and bureaucratic that the underlying policy positions are being totally distorted.
Earl Howe: I do not share that view at all. I do not think that the autonomy and accountability arrangements are as complex as the noble Baroness seems to suggest. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin; one confers autonomy in exchange for accountability. That is the model that we have adopted and the one that I would hope that Parliament would wish us to adopt, given that substantial sums of public money will be at the disposal of commissioners throughout the NHS. I therefore do not see that the metaphor of tentacles employed by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is actually very appropriate. It implies that there is an organisation holding those in the health service in a grip. That will not be the case. The role of the board is to support local commissioners; it is to be there as a resource to promote guidance, supported by the quality standards that we were debating earlier. It is not—I repeat not—a replica of the kind of line management that the NHS has seen to date.”
The reality is that the mechanism to micro-manage will be there – through the personnel (tentacles) of the NHS Commissioning Board – but presumably the micro-management will be deniable by the Secretary of State.
What a way to run a Health Service.