HL Deb 27 January 1999 vol 596 cc1013-6

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many positions for non-executive directors of NHS trusts are currently vacant and what number have been unfilled for three months or more from the date of vacancy since the general election on 1st May 1997.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there are currently 165 vacancies for non-executive board members of National Health Service trusts. Of those, 118 are ad hoc vacancies arising predominantly from unplanned events during the year, such as resignations. During 1998 there were 555 planned vacancies as terms of appointment expired. Of those, only 15 have been vacant for more than three months. The equivalent figure for the 1997 appointments round is estimated to have been 108.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that there are increasing demands all the time on the non-executive directors of national health trusts? For that reason vacancies are much more damaging than they may have been in the past. Can she tell us whether any vacancies have remained unfilled for as long as 12 months since the general election? Also, is there now a better balance between the political appointments? Immediately after the general election we had a great wave of Labour councillors appointed.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I fully accept that we make great demands on non-executive directors and chairs of trusts and I pay tribute to the work that they do for the National Health Service. I can reassure the noble Baroness that only 14 posts have been vacant for more than a year, and those were left open deliberately and for legitimate reasons; for example, when a merger of trusts is anticipated, it would be inappropriate to appoint people to a new job for them to have to fall out of that job soon afterwards.

Political balance ought to be put into proportion. We have improved the balance on boards. We now have 51 per cent. of women on boards as against 42 per cent. before the election; 10.5 per cent. of appointees are drawn from ethnic minorities as compared with 5 per cent. before. That has been a great improvement in balance. There are still more people declaring a political activity on behalf of the Labour Party than on behalf of the Conservative Party. However, of all board members who declared any political activity, that forms less than 20 per cent. Four out of five board members declare no political activity at all.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the position in relation to vacancies for chairs of NHS trusts is equally concerning, perhaps for some of the same reasons? The north-west region has a specific problem in so far as it has six vacancies of chairs. Is urgent action being taken by the department to fill those vacancies?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, obviously unnecessary delay gives cause for concern. My original Answer ought to reassure noble Lords that we have made a great deal of progress since last year when there were unacceptable delays. I recognise that some appointments in the north west have been more difficult than others. But there is a balance to be struck. We want to do everything we can to have timely and quick appointments, but it is most important to get the right person for the job. If that takes a little longer, then we must wait.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how many members of the non-executive committee are independent of any political party whatever?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, slightly over four out of five.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the appointments that have so far been made indicate a better balance now than when the last government left office? I am talking in political terms.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we have managed to put a greater focus on local involvement and look for people who have demonstrated commitment to their own communities. We have drawn on a wider range of people than perhaps had been drawn on in the past. We have not significantly changed the balance in your Lordships' House, where I understand seven noble Lords currently serve on NHS boards, five of whom declared political activity for the Conservative Party, one for Labour and I believe one is a Cross-Bencher.

Earl Howe

My Lords, will the Government ensure that when local authorities are asked by the Department of Health to submit nominations for NHS trusts boards the approach is made to the local authority chief executive? That will give representatives of all political parties an opportunity to put names forward. Does the Minister agree that it is not acceptable for the department to contact only the leader of the local authority, as happened, for example, in 1997, thereby making it all too easy for opposition or minority parties to he bypassed in the nomination process?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Earl that in 1998 and 1999 the department wrote to council chief executives. He is right to pinpoint that a mistake was made in 1997 when officials wrote to council leaders rather than chief executives. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State acknowledged that mistake and took action to make sure that it was not repeated.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that one of the problems that existed prior to the general election was the concern by many local communities that many non-executive directors of National Health Service trust boards were living outside the local areas? Can she also confirm that all appointments since the general election have been filled by people living in the area of the trust?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I can confirm that there was some concern about imbalance on boards in the past. There was perhaps over-representation of business and professional people and under-representation of patient groups and those involved with their community. There was also concern about people living outside the area. We have made it clear that we expect, except for the rarest exceptions, non-executives to live in the area served by the NHS body involved.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I am pleased that there is now a better balance of the sexes and ethnic minorities on these boards? However bearing in mind the reports of bad treatment of older people, about which we have heard recently, and that people over 65 now represent between 15 per cent. and 16 per cent. of the population, can my noble friend assure me that they too will be represented on these national health boards?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I can certainly assure my noble friend that there is no cut-off date or age bar on membership of the boards. We need a balance. He is right to articulate the needs of people who can identify with those of an older generation. But we all have a responsibility, whatever our age, to make sure that services for older people are appropriate to their needs.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, the Minister said that we now have a better balance of more local people and less business or similar professional people. Is she aware that some trusts which have had very successful solicitors willing to give up their time for this small honorarium, and now no longer have them, are obliged to invite them back in a voluntary capacity as observers because their expertise is so badly missed?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I should not like to denigrate, in any way, the contribution that can be made by individuals and individual professional groups. However, it is important that we have a balance here and that all sections of the communities that are served are well represented. I believe that we have made great progress in doing that.