Public health minister Anna Soubry has defended the government’s decision not to allow councillors to sit on the boards of clinical commissioning groups, arguing that politics should be removed from the health service.
Asked about the issue by MPs on the communities and local government select committee, Ms Soubry said it would be a “bad idea” to have elected members on the boards, although she welcomed their role on health and wellbeing boards, which do not directly commission services.
“The thrust of the [Health Act 2012] was to take politics out of the health service”, she said. “Why do you need a councillor to tell a group of doctors what to [commission]?”
She added that “to have politics involved in CCGs would be a bad idea”, claiming that some councillors might argue that “you shouldn’t be commissioning services for people with HIV, because they have a particular view of HIV sufferers”. However, the committee’s chair Clive Betts (Lab) said her comment suggested she did “not have the highest regard for councillors”.
Also at the hearing, the deputy director of the Department of Health public health development unit Tim Baxter said he was keen to pursue sector-led improvement with councils’ new health responsibilities, rather than imposing top-down control.
Asked what would happen if a council was failing to improve its population’s health, Mr Baxter said: “If you rush into central intervention you have to own the problem at the centre, which is not a very comfortable place to be… In the final analysis central government can intervene but it’s a very heavy stick that’s rarely used.”
He said sector-led improvement was working well in children’s services and adult social care, adding that it was “a very powerful way of improving”.
Baroness Hanham, a junior minister at the Department of Communities and Local Government, told MPs at the hearing that she hoped councils would give public health directors senior status.
“The director of public health needs to be answerable to chief executive if possible”, she said. “He has got to be at the top of the tree, able to advise all other aspects of local government.”
Baroness Hanham also said she hoped that councils’ budgets for public health would become unringfenced “in due course”.