HL Deb 09 October 2002 vol 639 cc258-60

2.50 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they consider the public safety benefits will be of transferring the national network of Public Health Laboratory Service laboratories into local National Health Service trusts.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the benefit of the transfer of most PHLS laboratories to the NHS will be a strengthened service to combat infectious diseases.

The remaining PHLS laboratories will provide a regional and national specialist microbiology service alongside those of the microbiology research authority in the proposed new health protection agency.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is it not utterly perverse that at; a time when the Government are expressing concern about smallpox and biological warfare they propose to break up the expert network of microbiological laboratories that we have in this country? The US is building one, rather than destroying the network as the Government currently propose. Surely, this can only worsen rather than improve public health and safety protection. Will the Minister undertake to review the matter again, to consult more widely and to make sure that the full network of PHLS laboratory services goes into the new health protection agency?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, my Lords. We have reviewed; we have consulted; and we are basing this decision on the report by the Chief Medical Officer, informed by lessons learned from September 11th. Undeniably there are many strengths in our current system. I pay tribute to those organisations for the work that they have undertaken over the years. But, as the Chief Medical Officer reported, despite those strengths, there is much that needs to be done to modernise these services. There is no integrated approach at the moment to encompass all aspects of health protection, including infectious diseases, chemical and radiation hazards. The new health protection agency will allow us to do that, while the transfer of local PHLS general microbiology services to the NHS will strengthen the public health outputs of the National Health Service.

Lord Turnberg

My Lords, I must express an interest as a former chairman of the Public Health Laboratory Service board. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the network of laboratories at PHLS have done a marvellous job in rapidly detecting outbreaks of infection and in protecting the nation? Does he not also agree with me and with the board, which has repeatedly brought the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State, on the dangers of dismantling this network and handing it over to individual NHS trusts to run; the even greater risks of doing that too hastily—by next April, I believe; and in relying in the future on primary care trusts to fund this function at a time when it is unlikely that PCTs will put this high on their list of priorities?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I do not agree with my noble friend concerning the actual decisions made. I pay tribute to his chairmanship of PHLS and to its work over the years.

So far as concerns the question of speed, we have considered that. We consider that there is a risk that delay in transferring the laboratories would perpetuate a great deal of uncertainty among the staff of those laboratories. It is better to get on with the job.

With regard to funding, the laboratories are being transferred with budgets and resources. Additionally, there will be transitional funding to protect the infrastructures as they are transferred. As to PCT performance and funding in the future, I give the assurance to the House that we shall vigorously performance-manage primary care trusts in this and their other public health functions.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, can the Minister say whether he is considering extra staff for the NHS trusts to deal with the matter? If so, will they not need particular expertise? And how will that problem be tackled?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I expect the laboratory staff to transfer with the laboratories to a designated NHS trust.

Lord Chan

My Lords, in view of present national and international concerns about biological weapons and unusual agents that are not routinely investigated by laboratories, does the Minister agree that this is not the time to transfer such important functions? Can he say what arrangements are in place in order to ensure that unusual microbiological agents can be detected rapidly?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is the very purpose of establishing a new health protection agency, which can provide an integrated service and build on the work of the existing three agencies concerned. So far as concerns the question of the transfer of most PHLS general microbiology services to the NHS, essentially the transfer will allow the proposed new agency to concentrate on public health rather than on general clinical diagnostic services.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the HPA will continue to run nine regional laboratories which can undertake much of the work referred to by the noble Lord.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that there are already a large number of organisations that are busy with health which have more power than common sense. I make no judgment about what he does in this particular case, but will he do what he can to reduce the number of these infernal busybodies who do far more harm than good?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is always urging me to cut down the number of committees in the health service. Here is an example where we intend to merge three organisations into one. I believe that the arrangements will be much more effective. They will build on the strength of the current organisations; but they will also tie an integrated service much more into the National Health Service. That will be a major advance.

Lord Winston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that matters of bacteriology, in particular, and epidemiology are national rather than local and that, therefore, a central, integrated service is vitally important? Is not one of the problems of the old PHLS that it has been consistently underfunded, not only perhaps by the present Government but by previous governments and the fact that funding has not been corrected for inflation has led to some of its difficulties?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we need a fully integrated approach. The new arrangements will enable us to do that both by integration at national level and by fuller integration between the HPA and the National Health Service locally.

So far as concerns resources, additional funds have been put into the PHLS. But of course there will be management savings from the merger and the integration of the three organisations into one. We shall certainly keep the budget of the new agency under close review.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we are in a very complex field at the moment, with the problem of CJD and the import of safe blood products and blood plasma for transfusions? Can he assure the House that there will not be fragmentation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I can, my Lords.