Hancock Clashes With MPs Over NHS Reform, Nurses' Pay, and NHS Budget

Peter Russell

March 16, 2021

The Government's plans to reform health and social care in England would strengthen integration, reduce bureaucracy, and tighten accountability within the NHS, Matt Hancock insisted today.

He told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee that the advantages of integration had been illustrated by the current pandemic "where systems working across not just the NHS but also local government and others working together has been critical".

The success of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was perhaps the "best example" of a joined-up system, he told MPs, and "the new approach to the NHS builds explicitly on the success of the vaccine programme".

White Paper

Mr Hancock was the final witness to the committee's inquiry into proposed legislation that will also hand more control of the running of the NHS in England to the Secretary of State.

Its report is expected to land on Mr Hancock's desk before parliament considers the plans.

However, MPs were also keen to question Mr Hancock about the timing of reform and some of the issues not contained in the plans.

Neale Hanvey (SNP, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) said he could not understand "why you would expect people who have been working their socks off to deal with the pandemic" to cope with major reform without an overhaul of an underfunded social care system.

"I'll tell you," Mr Hancock replied. "The reason is because these reforms will help the NHS. They will help the NHS to deliver the services that it needs to, they will help to improve the health of the population, they will help to ensure that we can recover the backlog in the elective waiting list, they will help to make sure that we have proper and full accountability."

Reform of Social Care

In a series of bad-tempered exchanges between Mr Hancock and some committee members, Mr Hanvey's assertion that "the most recent budget failed to make any contribution to social care" was dismissed as "political posturing" by the Secretary of State.

The Government remained committed to a manifesto commitment to publish plans for reform of social care this year, he promised.

A few minutes earlier, there were more tetchy exchanges, this time over the issue of planning for future healthcare staff numbers.

Committee chair, Jeremy Hunt (Con, South West Surrey), and Mr Hancock's predecessor at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), argued that accountability would improve if there was transparency that the Government was meeting targets for the number of healthcare workers needed.

"I think the problem for us is that there can't be accountability on that issue, which we've so often got wrong over the years, unless we know as Parliament and the public what the long-term projections are, and if those aren't in the public domain, it's impossible to know that the number of nurses that we are training for example, isn't the outcome of haggling in a spending review, rather than something that the NHS actually needs," he asserted.

Mr Hancock replied: "Even if it may sound easy to say, let's have an independent target for this, let's have some independent people set out the numbers on a spreadsheet, that doesn't make it any more true than the best judgement of a minister."

After Sarah Owen (Lab, Luton North) asked "why do you think that you should be trusted on the issue of workforce planning?", Mr Hancock's complaint against being interrupted was met by Ms Owen's response, "The way you just spoke to me is beneath your office."

NHS Budget

The Secretary of State faced questions about the 2021-22 financial settlement for the health service that has yet to be published. Mr Hunt said the NHS needed "budgetary certainty" during the current pandemic.

He said: "The next financial year starts in just 16 days, but the extra £7 billion or so that the NHS is asking for, for COVID-related costs in the first half of the next financial year from April to September, hasn't yet been agreed. Why is it taking so long?"

Mr Hancock replied: "We have been clear that we will fund the COVID costs", adding that the settlement would be agreed "very shortly".

Mr Hunt also took issue with the thinking behind the nurses' pay award, asking how the DHSC recommended a 1% pay increase when "the NHS 10-year plan made 2.1% provision for NHS workers".

Mr Hancock said the Government would study the recommendation of the pay review body but that "a proposed 1% pay rise is indeed a pay rise, and that's simply a matter of fact".

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