Andrew George MP: extracts from the Health Bill debate 2

Posted on: 8th September 2011

Andrew George MP (St Ives) (LD): I merely wish to seek clarity from my hon. Friend on some of the briefings that his Department has been putting out about the duty to provide, to which he has referred already. Those briefings indicate that there was somehow no provision in the National Health Service Act 1946 for a duty on the Secretary of State to provide. I wanted my hon. Friend to acknowledge that section 1(1) states

“and for that purpose to provide or secure the effective provision of services in accordance with the following provisions of this Act.”

Equally, the National Health Service Act 1977 contains the same reference to the

“purpose to provide or secure”.

The requirement to provide or secure is repeated throughout all the Health Acts.

Paul Burstow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. If he listens carefully to what I am saying, he will hear that I am developing an argument that will go towards answering that question. Rather than trying to answer it in a very small way now, I would rather answer it in a comprehensive way through reference to what I had planned to say to the House.

As I was saying, hon. Members should ask themselves how the Secretary of State would be able to wash their hands of the NHS while simultaneously being legally required to deliver on all the duties I have just outlined. Crucially, the Secretary of State also retains the duty to promote a comprehensive health service, which dates from the Act that founded the NHS in 1946 and has been unchanged by this Bill. The Secretary of State will also have the duty to secure that services are provided for that comprehensive health service and he will have failed in that duty if they are not.

The Secretary of State also has the ability—the obligation, in fact—to set goals and priorities for the NHS through the mandate. That will set out what the Secretary of State wants the NHS to deliver, which will be updated every year. It will be widely consulted on and Parliament will scrutinise it, giving Parliament a detailed say in what the NHS is tasked to deliver for the first time ever.

The Secretary of State has further powers in addition to the mandate to impose standing rules by which the NHS commissioning board and the clinical commissioning groups must operate, which will be subject to scrutiny and control by Parliament—a power Parliament does not currently have. What is changing, however, is the Secretary of State’s relationship with the NHS in terms of the role of Ministers in the commissioning and provision of services to the NHS. The Government believe that it should not be the job of Ministers to provide directly or commission NHS services, either. It should be the role of front-line professionals, who should have the freedom to focus on driving up quality of care, free from interference by Ministers in operational decisions—something that all parties in this House have said that they want to see.

We understand that all Government legislation has a responsibility to foresee the unforeseeable, to ask questions about the worst-case scenario and to ensure that the answers stand up to scrutiny. That is why this Bill contains a number of back-stop provisions to make it absolutely certain that any future Secretary of State will not be able to turn a blind eye to failings of service provision, so we have ensured that the Secretary of State has the power to step in if the board, or Monitor, are failing to deliver on their duties, including any duties imposed on the board through the mandate.

Finally, in the event of a significant emergency such as a pandemic, the Secretary of State will have powers to direct any commissioner or provider of NHS services.

Andrew George: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for his appreciation of the efforts I am making. I, too, appreciate his comments on the Government’s intentions. It has not been my argument at any stage to suggest that the Government’s intentions are dishonourable. He has mentioned the possibility of tabling amendments, but may I have some reassurance that this is a genuine and serious issue—that we need to have policy, but also, clearly, the restraint of the Secretary of State at the same time?

Health Minister, Paul Burstow: I am grateful for your protection, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will take that as advice in relation to further interventions.

I have heard my hon. Friend’s comments and I think he needs to look again at what I have said. I have been very clear that we are listening and that, if necessary, we will offer clarifications or further amendments, and I am very happy, as is the Secretary of State, to carry on those discussions.

There are a number of amendments regarding other duties on the Secretary of State that I believe would not improve the drafting of the Bill. Amendments 1240, 1241, 1169 and 1183 seek to revise the duties of quality and inequality. I know that the amendments are well meant, but they would make the duties undeliverable. The Secretary of State cannot improve quality and reduce inequalities in isolation, and the duties have to reflect that. Amendment 1194 is unnecessary as the Bill already recognises the need to promote research and the use of research evidence, and creates, for the first time, responsibilities for taking a whole-system approach to achieving this. Amendments 1184 to 1193, 1195, 1196 and 1198 seek to change the extent of similar duties on the board and the clinical commissioning groups. Each of the board’s and clinical groups’ duties has been drafted to ensure that the duty is suitably strong, realistic and appropriate.

Let me address the role of the Secretary of State in relation to another issue that has been misunderstood—charging. I want to be very clear that nothing in the Bill enables the board or clinical commissioning groups to charge for services provided as part of the comprehensive health service. Services will remain free at the point of need, except where legislation specifically allows for charges to be made—for example, prescription charges and charges for dentistry. The Government have also committed not to introduce any new charges.

Amendment 48, tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is not in her place at the moment, would prevent charges from being imposed for any service provided by the NHS. It has always been possible for Ministers to provide for charges for certain health services. There are limited provisions for charging even in the original NHS legislation introduced by Nye Bevan and the Labour Government of 1946. Under the current system, there are extensive exemptions: about 60% of the English population do not pay prescription charges, but—it is an important but—NHS charging raises over £1 billion a year of revenue that is ploughed back into services for patient and it does make an important contribution to the overall affordability of the NHS. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.

On direct payments, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion also tabled several amendments on direct payments. The amendments are unnecessary and too restrictive. Amendment 1247 would restrict direct payments to being spent on services approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. The great opportunity of personal budgets is that they allow people in areas where less medicalised services are provided to have much greater control over aspects of their care—those community-based services that are so important in maintaining the quality of life for many people with long-term conditions.

Finally, amendment 1248 would remove the power to extend direct payments nationally following the pilots, which are continuing. The Health Act 2009 provided that direct payments could be extended with the active agreement of Parliament using the affirmative procedure, and that seems a perfectly reasonable way of having a parliamentary check over the outcomes of the pilots that will be reported to the House next year. Amendment 1247 would prevent direct payments from being used for private health care or health insurance. The amendment is unnecessary. NHS funds could never be used to pay people’s private health insurance premiums.

I shall now turn to education and training. We have already committed to introduce at a later stage in the Bill’s proceedings an explicit duty for the Secretary of State to maintain a system for professional education and training. Work is ongoing and an amendment will be tabled in the House of Lords. That will be more effective and more precise than the long-term measure of simply blocking the abolition of strategic health authorities, so amendments 7 and 47 will not do.

Our vision of a modern NHS has clinical commissioning at its very heart. We want clinicians, GPs, nurses and other health care professionals to have the autonomy to commission innovative new services, and to have the true responsibility that the previous Government denied them. That involves striking the right balance between freedoms for clinical commissioning groups and their essential responsibilities to other parts of the health care service.

We made many changes in response to the recommendations of the NHS Future Forum report. We always wanted clinical commissioning groups to have a robust set of governance arrangements, to involve a wide range of other professionals and to be transparent in how they conducted their business, and we have now further strengthened those parts of the Bill so that they are very much improved.

As I said at the start of my remarks, I should like to speak briefly to a number of amendments, as I am conscious that many other hon. Members wish to speak. First, I will address some amendments that are very similar, if not identical, to those that we had the opportunity to debate at least once, and possibly twice, during the first stage of the Committee and in the re-committed Committee.

Amendment 1181, which is like amendments 45 and 46, seeks to restrict clinical commissioning groups’ powers to raise additional income. As was explained in Committee, those amendments are unnecessary. The Secretary of State has already published guidance, which can be easily updated, specifically on the powers to generate income, which applies to current NHS bodies, including primary care trusts.

Amendments 37 and 38 are on conflicts of interest. We have listened to the concerns that were expressed in the listening exercise and made changes, so the Bill already requires clinical commissioning groups to make provision for dealing with conflicts of interest.

Amendments 31 and 32 would prevent any property currently held by PCTs or strategic health authorities from being transferred to any provider that is not a public authority. As we said in Committee, we have no intention of giving away NHS property to private companies. That will not be the case and, given the safeguards that are in place, it cannot happen.

Several amendments have sought to probe accountability within clinical commissioning groups. I repeat what we said in Committee. A clinical commissioning group is not able to delegate its statutory responsibilities for carrying out its functions. It cannot palm them off or pass them on to others. Amendment 1245 would limit representation on CCG committees and sub-committees, preventing those clinical commissioning groups from inviting other professionals and experts to participate—something that we were told during the listening exercise was widely welcomed and wanted.

Amendment 1249 restricts the use of sub-committees—an essential part of any organisation with a wide range of functions. Similarly, amendment 1234 would prevent GPs or their employees from working on behalf of a clinical commissioning group, which would be a severe constraint on those groups’ ability to function. Amendment 1244 would prevent a clinical commissioning group from delegating its functions to anyone other than its employees. That would make it very difficult for those groups to carry out their statutory functions effectively.

New clause 20, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, similarly would restrict the support that clinical commissioning groups can draw on. We want to allow those groups to access the best support and advice available—to be able to work with local authorities, third sector organisations and charities, research organisations and the independent sector. I mentioned in Committee several times, and it is worth repeating, that the support organisation established by the Neurological Alliance is proving of invaluable assistance to commissioners, and amendments such as new clause 20 would prevent it from doing the work it does for the clinical commissioning groups. I can follow the intention behind the amendments, but I hope my reassurances about the final responsibility—the statutory responsibility—for decision making in clinical commissioning groups resting with their members and the governing body are clear.

There is a raft of amendments dealing with the relationship between local authorities and commissioning groups. We want that to be a dynamic relationship, with constant dialogue and collaboration, which is precisely why the Bill proposes the establishment of health and well-being boards. Amendments 1202, 1171 and 1250 would introduce a new, centrally imposed procedural requirement on health and well-being boards and clinical commissioning groups. Clinical commissioning groups will have a duty to have regard to the relevant joint health and well-being strategy.

Where commissioning plans vary significantly from the joint strategy, the group will need to justify or consider amending its plans. Health and well-being boards also have the power to refer their views and concerns to the NHS commissioning board when they feel that the plans have not had proper regard to the joint health and well-being strategy. That indicates to the NHS commissioning board that the health and well-being board believes the CCG is actively failing to fulfil its duties. Anything further would undermine the important balance that needs to be struck in what is fundamentally a partnership relationship between two organisations that have separate sets of sovereignties and responsibilities.

The importance of that partnership approach highlights why it would be impossible to create an obligation on clinical commissioning groups to act alone to secure integration of services. How can one body decide to integrate with another against the wishes of the other? So a duty cannot be imposed on one side unless the relationships exist that will allow that to take place. That can be achieved only by both parties working together, and for that reason amendments 1230 and 1231 do not contribute to that relationship’s working well.

Amendment 1211 seeks to make the clinical commissioning groups coterminous with local authorities. We have accepted the NHS Future Forum’s recommendation that the boundaries of local clinical commissioning groups should not normally cross those of local authorities, with any departure needing to be clearly justified as part of the establishment process set out in the Bill.

Amendment 1213 would prevent a clinical commissioning group that had received a reward under the quality premium from using that money without first securing the agreement of the local health and well-being boards. That would severely limit the CCG’s freedom to spend its quality payment as it saw fit. Health and well-being boards will shape commissioning priorities through the joint health and well-being strategy, by being consulted by the CCG on their commissioning plans. Under the duties set out in proposed new section 14Z14 of the National Health Service Act 2006, the NHS commissioning board must also consult each relevant health and well-being board in making its annual performance assessment of those CCGs.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me, as he is referring to my amendment. I think that I understand what the Government are trying to achieve here, but in order to assess properly what quality and outcomes are, that assessment must not be pre-empted. The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that good quality and outcomes are not rewarded too early after treatment, before people can make a proper assessment and know the long-term impact of a new procedure.

Paul Burstow: My hon. Friend makes a fair point—one that, I think, we would agree with entirely. That is why the Government published, for the first time ever, an outcomes framework for the NHS that is all about considering how clinical care leads to the sort of longer-term outcomes that he seeks, so I hope that that addresses his comments. That will be built into the way in which we go forward with drafting the regulations to reinforce that approach.

On the stability of services, my hon. Friend has tabled amendments 1203 and 1204 and new clause 18, which link very closely to Opposition amendments 42 and 43 on the interdependency of services. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to two similar amendments that my hon. Friend moved yesterday. We agree with hon. Members about the need to secure continued access to services for patients. We have introduced substantial new proposals to improve on our previous plans. However, I repeat what my right hon. Friend said yesterday: this is not about securing access to the same services in perpetuity. That has never been the case, and it should not be the case. Services evolve, and we must allow new providers—whether NHS, social enterprise or private sector—to come in where they can deliver high-quality care for patients.

I shall turn now to excessive prescription and a number of issues that arise from several amendments, which would tilt the balance in a way that would turn the system much more into a command-and-control one than many hon. Members have argued that we should have for many a year. Amendment 1218 would break a fundamental principle at the heart of our proposals: that the membership of CCGs should consist solely of GPs, and that we should encourage, rather than prescribe, how they involve other professionals.

Amendments 1237 and 1238 would remove the Secretary of State’s power to make transfer schemes for property, staff, rights and liabilities, thus making it less flexible to make transfers from, for example, a PCT to a CCG. I am well aware that many people feel that the ability to transfer staff in that way is an essential part of managing a smooth transition. Therefore, to deny the Secretary of State the ability to do that seems very odd. Amendment 1167 is unnecessary for the same reason. CCGs are different entities to PCTs, with different structures, duties and functions. It does not make sense to set a limit on the number of CCGs by comparison with PCTs.

Opposition amendment 5 would delete clause 10, but Opposition new clause 14 would reinstate it. So it is a sort of hokey-cokey set of proposals, whereby a provision would be taken out and then put back in again. As the Bill includes a power to make regulations to take account of people in specific circumstances, new clause 14 and amendment 1178, which is consequential on it, are unnecessary.

New clause 11 would require the NHS commissioning board to limit the administration spend of CCGs individually and collectively by comparison to 2009-10. In other words, it would set an arbitrary starting line and effectively lock the budgets that way. An absurd shackling of the NHS commissioning board or CCGs in that way belies common sense and sound financial governance.

Amendment 1206 runs the inherent risks, as discussed in Committee, of trying to prescribe the setting allocations in legislation. I understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), and the White Paper made it clear that we want to ensure that access in every part of the country is fair and equitable. We will want to ensure that that is achieved, and I am happy to continue to discuss those issues with my hon. Friends.

Amendment 1167 is unnecessary for the same reason. CCGs are different entities from PCTs, with different structures, duties and functions, and it would not make sense to set limits in such a way. The additional statutory provisions set out in new clause 10 are also unnecessary. Imposition of a minimum waiting time would not take account of the clinical needs of individual patients, and it is for clinicians to plan care on the basis of the clinical needs of patients and their right to access the best service.

We are considering how best to prevent PCTs from imposing clinically inappropriate blanket minimum waiting times, but there are already sufficient powers in the Bill to address the issue when it comes to CCGs.

Amendment 41 is also about consultation and transparency. We have already changed the Bill to enhance the duty on CCGs to involve and consult the public, but the commissioners must have sufficient flexibility to be proportionate in how they involve patients and service users. CCGs will not be able to use that flexibility to underplay their duty to involve the public.

I want to discuss a section of the Bill that I know concerns some of my hon. Friends and which perhaps was not much discussed in Committee—public health. A number of amendments are relevant here. New clause 23 would create the role of a chief environmental health officer. The chief medical officer, however, is already able to provide the very advice that the new clause would establish a new role to provide. The chief medical officer can provide independent advice on environmental health issues. At a time of financial stringency, the new clause would create a layer of wasteful bureaucracy.

Amendments 1253 to 1260 relate to the role of directors of public health. Our position is that they should be employed by the local authority to support local government in the new role that the Bill confers on local authorities in respect of public health.

Andrew George: I have to say that I entirely respect my hon. Friend the Minister. The hon. Gentleman’s point echoes what I said earlier in contradicting the Department of Health’s claim that the original 1946 Act did not have a requirement to provide or secure services. My quote provided evidence that that requirement has always been there. The Department also claims that because of the changes it is no longer legally acceptable for the Secretary of State to have that responsibility, but that issue has not been properly addressed. Would the hon. Gentleman care to deal with the point that it may no longer be legally acceptable for the Secretary of State to have that duty?

Owen Smith: As I said earlier, or rather as somebody said on my behalf, I am not a lawyer—I am a historian. As a historian, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the 1946 Act does indeed say:

“provide or secure the effective provision of services”.

He was entirely right in that, and I could not understand the response from the Minister.

The key thing is that eight months, two Bills and 1,500 amendments later, we are still debating clause 1 and its legal interpretation. That is testament to just how badly botched this Bill has been and just how alarming it is for many people—patients and NHS staff—that we, the legislature, do not understand, or have divided views about, our understanding of the critical responsibility of the Secretary of State.

Andrew George: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), who addressed the issue of political accountability in a considered way. I shall return to that and relate it to a number of amendments in my name and those of some of my hon. Friends. I shall refer to a number of amendments that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) covered in his opening remarks and dealt with in a fair and balanced manner, although not entirely to my satisfaction in every case. I shall also raise further questions.

I have enormous respect for all that my hon. Friend has done. His contribution to the debate on social care is second to none. That expertise is especially beneficial to the Government at present and some important advances have been made, for which we are all grateful. I acknowledge that he approaches all aspects of his work with the best of intentions, and I do not question those. The amendments that I have tabled indicate that I believe we may need to reconsider some of these issues. I should also mention at this stage that I may seek to push one or two of them to a vote.

On Second Reading, I made a speech that was critical of the Bill and refused to support the Government by abstaining at that stage, and of course the Bill has gone through a number of significant changes since then and concessions have been made. I have been criticised by some for making that speech and refusing to support the Government, but I feel vindicated as a result of the pause and the listening exercise. I might be criticised and accused of disloyalty, but that is how Back Benchers exercise our role of holding the Government to account. It is reasonable for us to use our powers to bring forward amendments and, in so doing, probe the Government and ask them to be accountable for the policies that they are bringing forward. I hope that in the weeks and months ahead, I will be vindicated for having done so, but I do not necessarily expect that acknowledgment to be provided now.

I was relatively content with the original coalition agreement. I am no great defender of primary care trusts, but I think that using the existing institutional infrastructure, grafting in accountability to the patients and communities that the commissioning bodies will serve and ensuring clinician involvement in those commissioning decisions, would strike entirely the right balance. That would provide a way of going forward without scuppering, dismantling or exploding the whole system in the way the Bill is doing.

There was no mention in the coalition agreement of changing the duties of the Secretary of State, and I have read a number of legal opinions on that issue. I also believe, as I have indicated in several interventions so far, that some of us have been misled on that point. Some of the legal advice that I have been given by colleagues suggests that the Secretary of State in fact never had a duty to provide in the 1946 Act. That is fundamentally wrong. Perhaps I will discuss this with the Minister after the debate and show him the documents that I have been given and some of the comments that have been made. As some of my colleagues who were there at the time and heard the advice will know, I hasten to add that they were not there in 1946—I know that I have aged in my time in Parliament, but I cannot recollect that time. My colleagues know that we have been briefed that there was never any duty to provide in the 1946 Act, but there is evidence—I do not need to give the quote a third time—that there was clearly a requirement in the 1946 Act to provide and secure effective provision. That requirement has always been there in successive health Acts in this country. I want to relate that to a point the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) made in a more tribal manner.

Paul Burstow: May I just make it clear that I do not think that I or any other Minister at any point, either at the Dispatch Box or in other discussions, ever suggested that the 1946 Act or any subsequent Act did not have the duty to provide? What we have said is that the duty to provide has progressively, particularly over the past 20 to 30 years, become a duty that is not exercised. It has been delegated and is increasingly exercised instead by separate bodies, such as NHS trusts and foundation trusts, using their own independent power to provide service

Andrew George: Yes, and my new clause 16 proposes to address that issue through an opportunity for the Secretary of State to intervene as necessary.

The Secretary of State in his intervention on the hon. Member for Pontypridd made it clear that in any case Secretaries of State tend not to micro-manage by intervening or by providing on every whip and flip, and there is no suggestion of that, but as a backstop we require the guarantee that, if all else fails and the whole system does not provide what we believe needs to be put in place to provide for a comprehensive health service, the Secretary of State will be there. There would be no harm in putting that word back in the Bill in one form or another. I do not understand the obstinacy, and in my view there is no legal impediment to the Government doing so.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that, because this is such a totemic issue, the key reason behind the proposed change in the wording is totally to reassure the public that, come what may, and even if delegated powers mean that the Secretary of State has not been involved for a number of years, the buck will stop with the Secretary of State?

Andrew George: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has referred to the issue as being totemic, and although I do not want to detain the House for too long because many others have referred to it, he is absolutely right. Now that it has been raised in such a manner, unless there are good legal reasons not to insert it in the Bill, it should be.

On the comments of the hon. Member for Pontypridd, I make a further point. We are talking about major changes, and the issue is not only totemic but contextual, because, in the context of a major—in fact, the most major—reorganisation of the health service, the reassurance of that backstop being in place would be all the more important.

I do not questions the intentions of the Secretary of State, for whom I have tremendous respect, but, having opposed the creation of the health service in the first place, the Conservatives have a problem, because the context is one of a major change, and whether we like it or not the assumption is that, if the Secretary of State is a Conservative, the hurdle will have to be set higher to reassure the nation that there is no untoward intention behind the legislation.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend knows that I share his views, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) made the point that this is both a political and a legal debate. First, there is certainly a political argument for keeping the definition the same as it has been throughout the history of the NHS, which was created in concert by a Liberal and implemented by Labour. Secondly, there is a legal justification for doing so, because there are specific powers to provide, and therefore there is a generic logic in stating that, as part of the initial definition, there is provision for and security of health services. I am therefore sure that my hon. Friend will be on a winning wicket in the end.

Andrew George: I hope so, but sporting my cricketing injury I hope that that analogy does not apply.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this point and think that he should absolutely stick to his guns. In my constituency, the birthplace of the national health service, 40 people have written to me about the issue in just the past few days, so it is important that he sticks to his guns and we get the message over to the Secretary of State this evening.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I should also say that the Minister acknowledged in his opening remarks that there was an issue that needed further work and clarification. I entirely welcomed that statement and will be happy to be involved in any discussions that might advance the point. However, in spite of the discussions and debates so far, the issue remains unresolved. It might be resolved in another place, but until then it is important to make the totemic point that the matter is of such significant concern that it is worth our while pressing the matter further.

I shall canter through my many amendments as briefly as possible. We are under a time constraint, and I will try to move through them as quickly as I can. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me if I do not take further interventions.

New clauses 16 and 17 would remove the independence of the commissioning groups from the NHS board by restoring the Secretary of State’s power to delegate functions to NHS commissioners

and direct them where appropriate. That allows the restoration of the Secretary of State’s duty to provide or secure provision of the health service as per the 1946 Act, which used those very words. That would restore fully accountable spending in respect of the £80 billion of taxpayers’ money that goes through that route. We cannot provide a duty without providing the power, so the two things are clearly linked.

Amendment 1197 would delete clause 4; it involves the “hands off” issue that has been raised before. Clause 4 would otherwise prevent the Secretary of State from directing clinical commissioning groups and the NHS commissioning board. Amendment 1198 would delete the same duty in respect of the NHS commissioning board, but would not interfere with clinical commissioning group autonomy.

Rather than just asserting the opposite, will the Minister publish the legal advice that appears to contradict the advice that has been obtained? That states that the “hands off” clause is a real barrier to the Secretary of State’s intervention—as, after all, it is designed to be. Members could read the two bits of advice and see which was more convincing. Better still, will the Minister amend the Bill to put the matter beyond doubt?

Paul Burstow: I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Department of Health’s website. Yesterday we published a detailed response to both 38 Degrees opinions. It obviously draws on the legal advice given to Ministers and provides a full exposition of why we believe the points that I set out in my opening remarks.

Andrew George: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. During his remarks, he said that he believed that there was a risk that the Secretary of State might be drawn into micro-managing; that was one of his primary arguments. All I can say is that if there were a risk of the Secretary of State micro-managing, the Secretary of State could decide to do or not to do it. Simply removing the power comes back to my point about at least making sure that the Secretary of State has the ability to direct where appropriate. If the Secretary of State had that duty to provide, it would follow that he must have the powers to intervene as I have described.

Paul Burstow: My hon. Friend is making some important points, which give me the chance to underscore the important points that I have made. The Bill retains for the Secretary of State the capacity to intervene and exercise the functions of all the bodies established by it, and—in extremis, as a last resort—to make sure that services are provided. It is clear that that capacity has remained, not least in regard to the Secretary of State’s ability to establish special health authorities.

My hon. Friend is asking for back-stops, and back-stops have to be real and have effect. That is why we put them into the Bill as we have, so that the Secretary of State does have, in extremis—in the circumstances that concern my hon. Friend and others—the ability to take the steps necessary to secure and ensure that services are provided to ensure a comprehensive health service.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. May I gently remind the Minister of two things? First, he has to address whole House. Secondly, it is not a private conversation between him and his hon. Friend, and his interventions are supposed to be brief. A lot of people are waiting to speak.

Andrew George: On that basis, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will end that part of the conversation and move on, acknowledging that my hon. Friend has made a point that is worth considering.

Amendment 1224 would restore the duty to provide or secure provision of health services. Although that is seen as the headline proposal, it is consequential on new clauses 16 and 17, hence my intention to draw attention to the likelihood of my seeking to divide the House on those issues.

Amendments 1222 and 1223 seek to establish why the Bill has never provided for the Secretary of State to provide or secure a comprehensive health service rather than promote a comprehensive health service. This is an either/or situation, but I draw attention to the possibility that instead of pressing new clause 16, I may, in discussion with others, seek to divide the House on amendment 1222.

Amendment 1183 would beef up a duty of the Secretary of State—a theme that runs through a number of amendments. The purpose of amendments 1183 and 1194 is to address the conflict between having regard to reducing inequalities and placing above that duty the other duties that apply—for example, on choice. Amendment 1183 seeks to ensure that it is the duty of the Secretary of State, in reducing inequalities, to

“act with a view to”

rather than merely “have regard to”. Otherwise, the responsibility, and the duty, on the Secretary of State is rather weak. That applies to amendment 1194 in the same manner.

New clause 18 would impose a new duty on the CQC, the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups not to undermine existing NHS services in an unplanned way through the operation of competition. Rather than extending my description of this issue, it might be worth referring to the debate that we had yesterday about the regulations surrounding the functions and duties of Monitor, as the same question arises. We have to look at the impact that competition is likely to have on the provision of essential services such as major trauma and accident and emergency, where its existence may destabilise emergency services through the loss of, for example, important underpinning elective services provided by the hospital.

New clause 20 would ban the wholesale outsourcing of commissioning work with regard to clinical commissioning groups. That was demanded in a Liberal Democrat conference motion but has still not been delivered. The commissioning process is a public function, not a private function. The amendment therefore seeks to change schedule 2 in different ways to prevent private entities on clinical commissioning group committees and sub-committees from commissioning and making other decisions. This also applies to amendments 1224, 1245, 1244 and 1249.

The Minister said that the work of the Neurological Alliance is important to preserve. I hope he will recognise that new clause 20 talks only about commissioning work being

“predominantly retained as a function by staff directly employed by the clinical commissioning group.”

There is nothing in the Bill that prevents the bulk of the commissioning work—not the decision, but the work—of a clinical commissioning group from being done by a private company and thus, potentially, in secret. I hope he will accept that under the current wording of schedule 2 private entities will be able to sit on clinical commissioning committees and sub-committees and make commissioning decisions.

Amendments 1184 to 1188 and 1195 would demote choice to being a subsidiary duty of commissioners to tackling fair access and tackling inequality of outcomes. They relate to page 17 of the Bill. The priority of choice over inequity and inequality was introduced by the Government after the pause and the NHS Future Forum report as a way of promoting competition in ways other than through the role of Monitor. The amendments would reverse that priority for the NHS commissioning board.

Amendment 1211 provides that clinical commissioning groups should be more coterminous with local authorities than is the case under the Bill. The Minister said that there is no intention that clinical commissioning group boundaries will cross local authority boundaries. However, we all know that district councils do not cross local authority boundaries. In Cornwall, for example, we are likely to move from one PCT to three clinical commissioning groups, which will make the