Background

The NHS Executive outlined eight groups of suggested legislative changes in the NHS Long Term Plan and, as promised in the Plan, these have now been set out in further detail in Implementing the NHS Long Term Plan: Proposals for possible changes to legislation [1]. The intention is to make it easier for NHS organisations to work together. Ostensibly these proposals are supposed to help the NHS improve its delivery of services but we see real problems here.

Principal objection

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 was a package promoting a range of checks and balances on the operation of the NHS, designed to support local commissioning; patient choice and competition at the provider level; governed by arm’s length regulators safeguarding quality and the NHS market; and local authority and consumer scrutiny, consent and supervision.

It is not easy to change one part of this without unravelling the whole but this is what is now proposed. There are good arguments for the complete revocation of this Act with its muddled thinking, naive faith in competition and GP-led commissioning, and the notion that politicians could shirk their own responsibility for taking difficult decisions by passing the buck to NHS managers and regulators.

But such a major change should only be done after full discussion, white papers, consultation and time to debate primary legislation in Parliament. These proposals are nothing more than a way of avoiding full Parliamentary discussion. The danger is that ad hoc tinkering rather than fully thought through reform will do more harm than good.

Lack of evidence

The supposedly new ethos promoted in these changes is ‘integration’ of service provision under one body. This may appear a plausible way forward but it is unproven as an operational principle or as a means of delivering improvements in efficiency or quality. The House of Commons Select Committee[2], the National Audit Office[3] and more recently the Nuffield Trust[4] have all produced highly critical reports of the new fashion for so-called integration. As yet these criticisms have not been answered.

A recent perplexed quote relating to the Greater Manchester (GM) experience sums matters up, “Everyone I’ve spoken to is at a loss to explain why GM’s performance has been so poor, given the progress that’s been made on integration and the transformation investment that’s gone in”, HSJ 25th February. The true lesson here is that integration does not guarantee success. But this is a lesson that NHS bosses do not want to hear.

We have closely monitored projects in various parts of the country that have been forced to pursue this transformation and integration agenda and, in for example Manchester where massive investment has taken place, there is precious little to show for it. The latest reports from the Nuffield Trust show that integration is a more costly model[5]. These proposals therefore lack evidence that the new policy response will succeed.

The downside of the proposals

All new proposals must demonstrate that they will do no harm. But, by making it easier to force mergers and close down acute hospitals in the name of ‘integrating’ services, the NHS is seeking to institutionalise a model that seeks to cut local services for patients without adequate consultation, and push back onto the patient the costs and delays of the failures of care that will result. At least checks and balances were built into the Health and Social Care Act 2012 requiring proper presentation of detailed plans, independent regulator support, widespread local stakeholder support and the right to challenge decisions; these would now be scrapped in favour of a centrally-led structure with NHS England at its heart, leading a purge of NHS capacity as it strives to meet government-imposed arbitrary financial targets.

These proposals are nothing more than a power grab by NHS England to enable its own transformation and integration policies to be imposed on unwilling communities. This is to be achieved by reducing the role of the independent regulators to mere ‘yes men’ as NHS England becomes the only source of power; by elevating the achievement of financial results to the overriding objective (best value); by being unaccountable to local people by removing the link to local accountability which however faulty was the basis for major decisions; and, by promoting a vague and meaningless slogan (integration) as the main principle justifying its activities.

Concluding remarks

This is a power grab by NHS England under cover of the distraction of Brexit to achieve for itself untrammelled power over the future of the NHS. It will then act quickly: a wave of mergers, closures and sub-contracting of new models of care would be unleashed. These changes would be enacted quickly and with very limited means for local people to challenge decisions.

MPs will find themselves and their constituents faced by a fait accompli with little that can be done. Voters in upcoming general and local elections will express their feelings for local hospitals in the traditional way (by voting against politicians who allowed this to happen). But it will be too late. Hospitals and A&E departments once closed rarely re-open. Services sub-contracted for 10-15 years or more will be difficult to restore. Huge integrated care organisations will be monopolistic in attitude and operation, and impossible to be held accountable effectively.

Local authorities will be either incorporated into this mess in return for crumbs off the NHS table, or left out in the cold while decisions take place around them that will push the costs and implications of changes onto patients and communities.

Oppose these changes to legislation. Integration is a smokescreen for NHS England to overrule local objections to service closures.

 

Roger Steer

14.3.2019

[1]

Implementing the NHS Long Term Plan: Proposals for possible changes to legislation

Engagement Document  February 2019 Prepared by: NHS England Strategy & Innovation Directorate and NHS Improvement Strategy Directorate

https://www.engage.england.nhs.uk/survey/nhs-long-term-plan-legislation/consult_view/

[2]

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhealth/650/650.pdf

[3]

Health and social care integration NAO February 2017

[4]

Shifting the balance of care Great expectations Nuffield Trust March 2017; and

Doomed to repeat? Lessons from the history of NHS reform  Nuffield Trust October 2018

[5]

https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/research/age-uk-s-personalised-integrated-care-programme-evaluation-of-impact-on-hospital-activity

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4 Comments

  1. Will Warren says:

    What exactly is the local accountability that you want to preserve?

    1. Roger Steer says:

      The focus of the Health and Social Care Act was local accountability for purchasing to local CCGs and for overall health and social care strategy to Health and Well being Boards. No significant change could take place without local authority scrutiny and consent. There was a right to referral to the Secretary of State if not satisfied.
      The proposal to shift accountability to joint bodies (STPs) ; facilitate executive decision making and to deny effective scrutiny and accountability to local authorities by placing NHS England in a position to agree major changes will dilute the accountability in the current system.
      it is not perfect now but it will be made worse by these proposed changes.

  2. michael odriscoll says:

    well one aspect would be removal of local authority accountability re social acre

  3. michael odriscoll says:

    care that is..

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