The Second Reading debate on the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill has been going on for about thirteen hours with more to come tomorrow. This was my contribution earlier tonight:
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, at this two-thirds point in this debate, I make no apology for focusing my remarks on Part 5 of the Bill, and the quality of the voice for patients that it offers. This Bill is likely to damage irreparably the National Health Service, creating a service that is less accountable and more fragmented; that is increasingly provided by for-profit organisations; and where the relationship of trust between doctors and their patients is undermined. Under such circumstances, an effective structure is essential to support patients in navigating their way through the new arrangements, to ensure that their needs and concerns—both individually and collectively—are not neglected in the brave new world of private suppliers feeding on the remnants of public provision. It is essential to guarantee that, with the democratic deficit that will now open up in health provision in this country, the impact of the changes is catalogued and drawn to the attention of those charged with regulating the new system, of Parliament and ultimately of the public who are paying for it.
I declare a former interest as someone who—for 12 years—was director of the Association of Community Health Councils, then the statutory body representing the interests of the public and the users of the NHS. The Government are now bringing forward another round of proposals to fill the void left by Community Health Councils when they were abolished in 2003. They were succeeded by patient and public involvement forums, which lasted four years before they were replaced by local involvement networks. Again, with a life of four years, LINks are to go, to be replaced by HealthWatch. The sequence of change in consumer organisations is a poor recommendation of the previous Government. I am shocked to see that the current Government are moving forward in a similar vein.
Of course, the Government’s objectives are laudable: “No decision about me without me” is as resonant as previous rhetoric about putting the patient at the heart of the NHS or the mantras about patient empowerment 10 to 15 years ago. Some of your Lordships will even remember John Major’s Patient’s Charter—that daughter of the Citizen’s Charter and that cousin of the Cones Hotline. How does the high-sounding rhetoric match up to the reality of this Bill? How far are patients going to be involved in decisions about managing their own care and treatment? It is simply not clear whether these are adequately safeguarded in the Bill. A duty to promote involvement or a duty to promote choice is not a sufficient guarantee. Who will hold clinical commissioning groups or the NHS Commissioning Board to account for the extent to which they have promoted that involvement or choice? Where will patients go for redress if they find that their family doctor will not refer them for treatment or investigation but insists on managing that treatment or conducting that investigation within the practice, thereby keeping the resource that would otherwise go with that patient? What will be the process for ensuring that key commissioning decisions are in line with the preferences of those affected by them and that those decisions reflect the expertise that patients have in their own conditions and the experience that patients collectively have of their local services?
Presumably we will be told that this is where HealthWatch will come in, but what will HealthWatch mean in practice? The first problem is that it is unclear how local healthwatch groups will be constituted. If individuals are simply going to be self-selected, their views, though valuable, will not necessarily be representative of all service users, and there is a risk that because of that they will not be treated by commissioning groups as having legitimacy. Members of local healthwatch groups need to have their own local accountability and must have the resources to engage with the wider community to be able to assess and represent their views.
Resources will also be necessary to enable local healthwatch groups to provide advice, support and advocacy. This will be an important and potentially substantial role in the brave new world of the NHS that this Bill creates: a world where patients will no longer be clear whether their GPs are acting in their interests or to bolster their practice’s coffers; a world where decisions about what is to be commissioned will be taken with no clear system of public accountability; and a world where for-profit providers will increasingly squeeze out those that are not-for-profit and where profitable treatments will be cherry-picked.
A strong system of patient advocacy and support will be needed, but will it be provided? This will depend on the decisions of hundreds of local councils. The money provided by the Department of Health will not be ring-fenced, and there will be no mandating of local authorities about the nature and quality of HealthWatch services that should be supported. All this is in the name of localism, that same localism that has seen the budgets of LINks drop dramatically this year, in some instances by more than 50 per cent, despite, as the Minister told a number of us last night, the Department of Health saying that it has increased the resources available. The resources went up, but the resources available for local healthwatch went down. It is a localism that means that the Minister can offer us no assurances that those advocacy services that he promises us will be adequate. In future spending rounds who will argue with the Treasury for the moneys for HealthWatch? Will it be the Department of Health, which will have no say in whether the services expected are being delivered, or DCLG, which will have no interest in those services, or will the current commitment be allowed to wither on the vine as no department fights its corner?
Is it even appropriate that local healthwatch groups should be resourced via local authorities which themselves will have responsibilities for social care provision? Is there not a potential or perceived conflict of interest here? How comfortable will a local healthwatch group be in criticising its paymasters about the quality of that provision?
Finally, there is the relationship with national HealthWatch. A national structure is essential for the views and concerns of local healthwatch groups to be captured and articulated at national level, but that national structure must grow from and be a creature of the local groups, not sit above them as a mere sub-committee of a regulator, moreover a regulator to which requests for action and even criticism may need to be directed by that structure.
The new NHS will need a strong and independent user voice. The Government keep citing the proposals on HealthWatch as evidence not only that such a voice will exist but that the patient will indeed be central to the myriad new structures that they are proposing.
Yet the danger is that what we are being offered is no more than a fig-leaf whose own legitimacy will be flimsy, a fig-leaf whose resources will be plundered as local government itself faces a future with rapidly dwindling money, a fig-leaf whose independence is compromised by its relationship with a paymaster whose provision it is supposed to be monitoring, and, above all, a fig-leaf protecting the nakedness and insufficiency of the protestations that no decisions about the patient will be taken without him or her. My Lords, it is just not good enough.”