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22 Jun 2010 : Column 46WH—continued

The hon. Member for St Ives made a strong case for his constituents. I am grateful for his acknowledgment of the work of the Labour Government to deal with the problem; it may not have gone as far as he would have liked, but an attempt was made to deal with it. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on NHS funding in this context. I wonder whether he will also discuss the issue of capital spending, which is preying on the minds of many hon. Members.

3.26 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): I congratulate my colleague, the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), on securing this debate on NHS funding allocations. I also congratulate the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson), on her appointment to the Health Front Bench. In Government she was a Minister with other responsibilities, and a Whip, and I assure her that she will find serving as a shadow Health Minister tremendously rewarding, because of the important role of such matters in our lives and those of our constituents. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on her almost but not quite maiden speech.

I pay tribute to the NHS in Cornwall, which provides an excellent level of care to the constituents of my hon. Friend and those of my honourable colleague; he has long campaigned on how best to distribute resources and has argued that PCTs should be moved to their
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target allocations. Before I respond in detail to his points, perhaps I might set out the general principles of the system of funding allocation; that may help the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North.

The Government believe in an NHS that is free to all, irrespective of need or ability to pay; in which professionals are freed from the shackles of centralised targets and empowered to take responsibility for their patients; where better access to services is matched by improved quality and greater efficiency; and which provides value for money and health outcomes that are second to none. That is our vision for the national health service, and the coalition's programme for government sets out how we will achieve it.

First, the Government will increase spending on the NHS in real terms for each year of this Parliament, as the shadow Minister acknowledged. It is a commitment that reflects a deeper belief: that the NHS must be protected and properly resourced to continue its vital work. We must focus our resources where they are needed most. That means stopping the flow of resources from the front line to the back office, giving front-line staff the responsibility and resources to improve outcomes for patients, and entrusting local professionals-and local people-with the means to improve local health. By committing to cut the costs of health bureaucracy by a third, we will release resources that can be reinvested in front-line services; by giving GPs the power to commission services based on need, we will push decisions about health care provision close to patients; and by giving local communities more responsibility for public health, we will create a more flexible national health system-one that is responsive to local demand for health services, and is able to react to changing health needs and to direct funds towards emerging priorities.

Secondly, we will establish an independent NHS board to allocate resources and provide commissioning guidelines. The board will ensure access to health services that are designed around the needs of the patient, not the needs of the bureaucracy. It will set standards based on clinical evidence, not political micro-management. The aim is to achieve the best outcomes for patients, instead of simply ticking boxes and meeting targets.

Mr Iain Wright: I congratulate the Minister on securing his post. I know that he is passionate about health, and I wish him all the best as a Minister in the Department of Health. He mentioned the establishment of an independent NHS board whose focus will be on clinical standards as opposed to political micro-management. Bearing in mind health services north of the Tees, a clinically led, independent reconfiguration panel recommended that a new hospital should be built. Is that not something that the Government should be doing?

Mr Burns: I have to congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I remember that as a Minister he was extremely helpful, within the confines and straitjacket of his remit. He was tenacious both in that job and this afternoon, and is using his skills to try to tease out an answer beyond the one that was given to him in my letter to him last Thursday explaining why that capital project was cancelled as part of the public spending review. However, to be
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helpful, and if he would like it, I will repeat basically what the letter said. Facts are facts, and I am afraid that the situation has not changed since I wrote to him.

When this Government came into power in May, we were faced with the largest deficit and debt that any Government had ever inherited from an outgoing Government. The debt is a financial problem that must be addressed urgently. Therefore, the incoming Government announced a review of spending commitments that were made by the previous Government after 1 January 2010-that is, in the run-up to the general election. As a result of the review, which has been carried out over the past seven weeks or so, an announcement was made on 17 June in which the coalition Government announced the go-ahead of four major hospital programmes, ranging from the Pennines to Liverpool and to St Helier in south-west London. Unfortunately, the North Tees and Hartlepool project did not get permission to go ahead. I am afraid that that is the answer. It is because of the economic situation and debt in which we find ourselves.

Mr Wright: The Minister is gracious in giving way a second time. On that basis, and given what the Prime Minister said about NHS funding increasing in real terms despite the financial problems that we find ourselves in, capital spends will be provided elsewhere in the country, but seemingly not in my constituency. Are my constituents' health outcomes not to be thought of because of financial considerations?

Mr Burns: The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question. That is not why the hospital was not given the go-ahead last week. I can appreciate his frustration. As a constituency MP myself, I too would be frustrated, but the hon. Gentleman, who is a generous man, must not try to reinterpret the decision for other reasons. Sadly, the decision was taken simply because of the urgent need of this Government to take decisions to start curbing the ballooning debt problem, which needs to be addressed. That is the reason, I am afraid. It has nothing to do with our commitment to reducing health inequalities and spending more money on providing health care and services for people throughout the country.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with that. If he is not, and if it would be of any help to him, I would be more than happy to meet with him and, if he wants to bring them along, his colleagues from the Hartlepool area and the surrounding constituencies. They can discuss the matter with me-my door is always open. I would be more than happy to do that, if we can arrange a meeting, and if he thinks that it would be helpful.

Let me return to Cornwall and the general position on health funding allocations. I was saying, before discussing Hartlepool again, that we will establish an independent NHS board.

Andrew George: On that point, I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify whether the board will replace the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation.

Mr Burns: I can reassure my hon. colleague that it will not. It will be something completely different. It will be a stand-alone body that will be the driving engine of the NHS, in its required field.

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By strengthening the link between investment and outcomes, the board will enable the NHS to deliver improved quality, higher productivity and better value for money. I am sure that my hon. colleague will appreciate that I cannot yet discuss the precise functions of the board, nor its composition, but our proposals underline our central belief that resources should be allocated according to need, without ministerial interference.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): Perhaps the Minister can touch on another hospital situation. I understand that the Secretary of State visited Bury on Friday and overrode a clinically reached decision on maternity units. He said that, in his judgment, Fairfield General hospital's maternity unit could remain open, against a clinical decision made in the "Making things better" reorganisation in Greater Manchester.

Mr Burns: I hope that the hon. Lady is aware of the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made shortly after he assumed his current position, in which he laid down new criteria for determining the reconfiguration of hospital services. Prior to the general election, when he was the shadow Secretary of State for Health, he made it a priority that, in particular, maternity units and accident and emergency units would be looked at far more closely than they had been looked at. That is why, on assuming office, he strengthened the criteria for carrying out consultations on proposed reconfigurations, and brought in four new criteria that will apply to any future reconfigurations, and current ones that are still in the process. They will have to abide by the new strengthened criteria, which include ensuring that the wishes and views of GPs, clinicians, local stakeholders and the general public are taken into account. Decisions that affect local communities and people will have the input of local people, rather than simply being imposed on communities which, for a variety of reasons, do not want what is being proposed.

Barbara Keeley: Those of us in Greater Manchester who are affected by the decision and the new process that the Minister is outlining are struggling to understand how to square the clinicians' recommendation, which was based on things such as the number of doctors available, doctor training and the experience that has to be gained in maternity to deliver a safe service-a clinically led decision was made in that case-and the community's wish and desire always to keep maternity and A and E units. It is hard for local people to understand how such things can be squared. Most constituency MPs understand that no one ever wants to lose an A and E or maternity unit. Does that really mean that clinically led decisions, such as those in Hartlepool and Manchester, will be overridden if local people do not want them?

Mr Burns: No, it does not mean that. What I said when explaining the criteria that the Secretary of State has laid down is that it will strengthen the consultation process leading to decisions, but obviously there will be a number of processes thereafter. The different processes of assimilation before a final decision must ensure that the Secretary of State's criteria for greater input of clinicians', GPs' and local communities' wishes are taken into account. In the past, reconfigurations have too often left the impression among local communities that
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they have not been consulted or listened to, and that decisions have been made by managers or others based only on their narrow point of view without taking account of other people's views.

Barbara Keeley: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Burns: No. I have been generous, and I want to make progress.

That is the principle for the criteria, but it will not mean automatically that there will never be any changes because there is a block. We are strengthening the process to take account of local wishes and needs. There is a balance to be struck, which will emerge during the reconfiguration process.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that we have a unique arrangement for health, and that a single organisation is responsible for both commissioning and delivery-the local hospital? That works for the Isle of Wight, and it has turned round a deficit of £3 million and broken even in the past three years. Can he assure me that the forthcoming White Paper will allow the success of the island's health services to continue?

Mr Burns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I assure him that the White Paper will be aimed completely at improving and enhancing the provision of health care throughout the country-not just on the Isle of Wight, but on the mainland from Cornwall and the south-west up to Hadrian's wall in the north. That will be based on a principle of putting patients first and at the heart of health care provision so that they drive the national health service and so that it is there for them and their needs, rather than the needs of management bureaucracy or of politicians micro-managing the system from Whitehall down the road. However much affection and respect I have for my hon. Friend, I cannot be tempted to outline in detail now the White Paper's contents, but I assure him that when it is published he will share my enthusiasm for the way in which the Secretary of State will unveil his vision for the national health service, not simply for the next five years, but thereafter. I trust that that satisfies my hon. Friend, if not the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley).

My honourable colleague the Member for St Ives mentioned the current pace of change, and particularly the distance from target measurements used to assess relative progress towards target allocations. His constituency is in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly primary care trust. It received an allocation of £808 million in 2009-10, which increased to £856 million in 2010-11-an increase, as he knows, of 12.4% above the national average of 11.3%. However, under the formula established by the previous Government, and as many contributors to the debate have noted, that is still 6.2% or some £56.3 million below its target allocation for 2010-11.

I hope that my honourable colleague will appreciate that until the spending review is complete, I cannot comment on specific time scales or the future plans for NHS allocations, nor on the financial standing of specific local health services. I trust that he will be reassured that his partners in Government share a common assessment of both the problems facing the NHS and the solutions available to us.
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During the spending review, we will examine rigorously all areas of health spending to identify where we can make savings-for example, by maximising the NHS's buying power, renegotiating contracts and improving financial accountability throughout the system. The picture that I have painted is of an NHS in which decisions on resource allocation centrally are made by an independent NHS board. But although I cannot give the hon. Member for St Ives the commitment and promise that he wants now, the matter will be examined as part of the spending review between now and the autumn. When our reforms become reality, the NHS board will be responsible for the allocation of spending and will consider a whole range of areas.

Andrew George: I want to raise a point for clarification. The Minister described the role of the NHS board and made it clear that it will be remote from political micro-management. He also said that he cannot give me or the PCTs that are a long way below their targets any answer until after the spending review. Will the decision on the pace of change towards achieving targets be made by the spending review, or will that decision be made ultimately by the independent NHS board? If he cannot say which of the two, or which combination of the two, when will I and other hon. Members receive a clear answer on what will happen and who will make the decision on the speed of change?

Mr Burns: I believe that I can help my honourable colleague. The ultimate decisions will be made by the NHS board when it is established, but he will appreciate that primary legislation will be required and that that will take time. In the meantime, the allocation of funding for health care throughout the country will be done initially following the spending review, but when the board is established on a statutory basis and operating, it will take over that function. I hope that has cleared up the matter for my honourable colleague.

Diana R. Johnson: I am wondering about the time scale for the board's establishment. When will the Minister be in a position to provide some dates for when it will come into existence?

Mr Burns: That is a reasonable question, and I shall be reasonable in my response. The date will be determined partly by Parliament because primary legislation will be required, as outlined in the Queen's Speech last month. Speaking as an ex-Whip rather than a Minister for Health, I anticipate that the legislation will make progress through Parliament this Session and receive Royal Assent in July next year, or perhaps September, depending on whether there is a spillover in September or October next year, which I do not know at the moment. That is my guess as an ex-Whip for the timetable for the primary legislation. We will then have to wait to see at what point after that it will be up and running, but my guess is that it will be as soon as is feasible.

Andrew George: Given the state of flux and the uncertainty of the spending review, which will be followed by the creation of the independent NHS board, there will be a vacuum because decisions have yet to be made
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in this two-stage process. Will the Minister agree to meet colleagues from Cornwall and me to discuss the progress of that review, either at the time of the review itself or immediately afterwards? We would find that very helpful, because we know that the NHS budget in Cornwall is under tremendous pressure at the moment.

Mr Burns: I reassure my honourable colleague that there is not a state of flux. There is a state of potential change, yes, because there is a new Government with an important vision for the future of the health service. That is a difference, but there is not a state of flux because there is stability there. I am not criticising him, but I wanted to reassure him, so that he did not get the impression that there was a state of flux, with the connotations that that has. There is no state of flux. We have a vision, which will be unveiled shortly, but we have things in place to make sure that the system is running properly.

The other thing I would like to repeat-it is so important that it does not matter if it is repeated again, because the issue has featured frequently during today's debate-is that the Department of Health budget is, of course, protected, which means that in every year of this Parliament, it will increase in real terms. There will be pressures on the Department of Health budget but, under the coalition agreement and the commitment that my party gave prior to the general election, which has been upheld by the coalition agreement, there will be a real-terms increase in that budget. That gives a degree of stability to the health service because it knows that, in every year of this Parliament, it will receive that money.

I thank my honourable colleague for his earnest and informed contribution to today's debate. As a constituency MP myself, I respect and appreciate the tremendous battle that he has fought over a number of years for Cornwall. I am thrilled to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth is also joining in fighting for her constituents to ensure that they, too, get the best health care possible. That is something that all hon. Members want and fight for on behalf of their constituents.

At its most basic level, allocation is a question of measuring need and distributing resources accordingly. To the outsider-and some insiders-funding allocation is a dense and sometimes opaque subject. As the former health editor of The Times wrote,

I can safely say that my honourable colleague falls into the former category. I trust that he is reassured that although it is too early to comment on specific funding allocations, the coalition's programme for government shows that we share the same basic belief in the importance of both independence and local decision making when it comes to setting funding levels for the NHS.

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): As the Minister is not present for the next debate, I suspend the sitting until 4 pm.

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended.

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