Peace, harmony and consensus break out on Health Secretary’s role, but does the Government really have an open mind

Eight days ago, the House of Lords adjourned in mid-debate on an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill which would have restored the role of the Secretary of State for Health to “provide or secure the provision” of health services (which the Government’s Bill would have taken away).

Adjourning in mid-debate is a pretty rare (if not unique) procedure, but it has allowed for all sorts of last minute discussions to take place behind the scenes before the debate resumed this afternoon.

The original amendment was moved by Baroness Williams of Crosby (Shirley Williams as was) and was signed by Lord Patel (former President of the Royal College of Obstetricians), Baroness Glenys Thornton (Labour spokesperson on health in the Lords) and Baroness Margaret Jay (former Leader of the House).  Also debated at the same time was an amendment from Lord Mackay of Clashfern which talked more vaguely about the Secretary of State having “ultimate responsibility to Parliament for the provision of the health service”. 

In last week’s debate, I commented:

“I rise to speak to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, because this is an issue that requires greater clarity, and the debate and discussion that has already taken place in Committee this evening demonstrates why that is so. As my noble friend Lord Warner has reminded us, Professor Malcolm Grant, the newly appointed chair of the national NHS Commissioning Board, has made clear what appears to be the Government’s intention with regard to the role of the Secretary of State. I assume that he did so under advice, because you do not take on a role like the chair of the NHS Commissioning Board without extensive discussions with Ministers and civil servants. He must have been briefed on the matter and quite clearly the intention is to separate out the day-to-day responsibility and answerability of the Secretary of State. There has to be some clarity on this point. …

 I have some reservations about the wording used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, in that he talks about ultimate responsibility. We may have an inkling about what ultimate responsibility means, but I wonder where else in legislation a phrase such as this is used. I defer of course to the noble and learned Lord’s far superior knowledge of the law. However, in my limited experience in this House, I have never before come across the words “holds ultimate responsibility to Parliament”. It seems a very strange usage and I think that there needs to be greater clarity and understanding about what it means. That is why it might be better to revert to the wording chosen by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. It is tried and tested and at least we understand it.  …

The final test that your Lordships need to consider is: what do the public expect? The public’s expectation is that government is responsible for what happens in our health service; and unless there are locally elected officials who are responsible for what happens at a local level, they will expect their elected Government to be responsible, and that means the Secretary of State.”

The Government had indicated that they were prepared to accept the Mackay amendment – indeed eight days ago they announced that the amendment had been agreed, even though the debate had not been finished.  And Baroness Williams had also hinted in her speech that she might accept the “compromise” offered by Lord Mackay.

Labour Peers, however, were standing firm and had indicated that they would divide the House on the Williams amendment even if she tried to withdraw it in favour of the Mackay version.

The Government was clearly running scared and at the last minute – just as the debate resumed this afternoon – indicated that if both amendments were withdrawn they would consult all sections of the House to try and find a form of words that would be acceptable to everybody.

There followed forty-five minutes of debate when all sides of the House indulged in an orgy of mutual admiration on reaching a sensible way forward.

This orgy, however, began to go rather flat (if that is not an inappropriate metaphor) when the Minister, Earl Howe,  having promised further discussions then began to explain in some detail why the Government disapproved of the Williams amendment, saying:

“In future, all NHS services will be provided by NHS trusts or foundation trusts, both of which have their own self-standing powers to provide services and do not rely on the Secretary of State’s duty to provide under Section 1(2), or by independent providers. The Secretary of State will have no powers to provide NHS services. That is the reality.  …

There is another reason why it would be wrong to reinstate the duty on the Secretary of State to provide. Under the legal framework of the Bill, the Secretary of State no longer possesses powers to direct others to provide services. Therefore, unless we were to re-impose a system of regulations or directions by which the Secretary of State could delegate his duty to provide and control its exercise, which would risk replicating the micromanagement of the status quo, it is hard to see how this legal obligation to provide services could be fulfilled. For obvious reasons, it would be undesirable to create a situation in which the Secretary of State provided services himself. Also, in practice he would lack the capacity to do so, for example in terms of staff and facilities.”

At which point, the House began to become rather restive – the Minister seemed to be saying that there could only be more discussions provided the eventual wording still restricted the role of the Secretary fo State and the right of Parliament to scrutinise what was happening in the NHS.

So, Baroness Patricia Scotland interrupted:

“My Lords, I hesitate to intervene on the noble Earl, who knows I hold him in the highest possible esteem, but I think he is now treading on some contentious legal issues. Bearing in mind the wonderful consensus that we have now reached, I would just ask him to consider whether, at this stage, some of those issues are really helpful because the noble Earl will know that the Secretary of State does, by his servants, agents or otherwise, provide services and, indeed, there have been times when there has been a pandemic when the Secretary of State has had to make such provision. These are contentious issues which I am sure could intrigue us for many hours, but since we have happily come to the conclusion that we have had a surfeit of such happiness and wish to go forward, I gently say to the noble Earl that this might be a moment when we could swiftly do that.”

Then Baroness Glenys Thornton had a go:

“I respectfully say to the Minister that we could start the whole debate all over again if he continues telling us what the Government do or do not believe on this because that is presupposing, and possibly pre-empting, the discussions that we are about to have. The noble Lord may find it useful, but we have had a lot of this discussion. We have now, I thought, agreed to move into discussions outside the Chamber.”

The Minister kept reiterating that he thought it would be helpful to put on the record the Government’s position.

As he seemed to be preempting future discussions, I tried to get some clarity which elicited the following exchange:

Lord Harris of Haringey: I appreciate that the noble Earl is moving to a position of not addressing those questions, but it is important that he tells the Committee whether the Government have a fixed mind on these matters or whether they are going to approach with an open mind the discussions that we, in an outbreak of consensus, have agreed should happen and try to build on that consensus. If the views are closed, it raises some very difficult issues for the Committee.

Earl Howe: No, my Lords, there are no closed views. That is the reason why I suggested earlier that it was time to reflect and engage in discussions in the spirit of co-operation. I would not have said that if I had had a closed mind to them. There would not have been any point in the discussions. I simply wished to do noble Lords the courtesy of answering their questions and addressing the points that they had made. If noble Lords would rather that I did not do that, then we can make life easier for ourselves. I will certainly write to noble Lords if they would like to inform me afterwards that they wish to receive a letter. If they do not, I will not write. It is entirely up to them. I do not wish to make work for myself unnecessarily.

I have said that I believe the balance of advantage for this Committee lies in our agreeing collectively not to amend the Bill at this stage and I am pleased that there seems to be consensus around that view. I believe instead that it would be profitable for me to engage with noble Lords in all parts of the House, both personally and with the help of my officials, between now and Report to try to reach consensus on these important matters. I would just say to my noble friend Lord Marks that that includes the issues that he has helpfully raised this afternoon. I believe that he is right to associate Clause 4 in particular with the matters that we have been considering. Those discussions can be carried out in an informal way with interested Peers or in individual meetings in the House or my department. There is a place for either type of discussion. My concern is only that it is an inclusive process involving Peers from all sides of the House, and that will include listening to the views of the Constitution Committee should it choose to continue its valuable role.

With that, I hope that no noble Lord will feel cheated by the brevity of my contribution and I shall sit down.”

So we’ve been promised discussions and a Government with an open mind.

We’ll just have to wait and see what transpires.



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