A draft bill aimed at updating the legal framework for regulators of health professionals has been criticised as a “backward step for public protection”.
The Professional Standards Authority, which is responsible for overseeing health and social care’s professional regulators, claims the Law Commission-drafted bill would take regulation in the opposite direction to that advocated by the Francis Inquiry.
The Law Commission was tasked by the government in 2010 with reviewing the statutory framework governing the nine separate regulators of health and social care professionals, including the General Medical Council and Nursing and Midwifery Council.
These regulators are currently covered by a number of different legal frameworks. After a three year review the Commission today published a report and draft bill aimed at improving consistency and modernising the regulators’ powers and duties.
Among the new powers in the bill – which is strongly backed by the professional regulators – is the ability to discipline or strike off professionals who are not able to communicate clearly in English, and the authority for regulators to make their own rules, following public consultation.
However the body charged with overseeing the regulators has strongly criticised some of the proposals, claiming they would be a “backward step for public protection”.
The PSA say the recommendations will make it harder to protect patients from misconduct, and will allow regulators to settle cases in secret, reduce public involvement in decisions, and limit the PSA’s powers of appeal.
The Commission recommends amending the definition of misconduct in fitness to practice proceedings to “disgraceful misconduct”. The PSA argues this higher threshold will make it harder to prove misconduct.
The draft bill also extends to all regulators the cut-off date that currently prevents the GMC from considering complaints about events that occurred more than five years ago. Under the proposals, exceptions to this rule will only be allowed if the regulator judges them to be in the public interest.
PSA chief executive Harry Cayton said: “We are very disappointed that the Law Commission’s proposals do not appear to simplify or improve public protection.
“Robert Francis called for patients to be put at the centre of care, professionals to be more accountable and for greater openness. The Law Commission’s proposals deliver the opposite.”
However, the proposed legislation has received strong support from the regulators that would be covered by it.
A joint letter signed by the regulators called on the government to support the new plans and asks for “urgent parliamentary consideration” of the Bill.
It said: “The Law Commission was tasked with creating a single, streamlined legal structure covering all nine regulators which would enable us to provide better protection for patients, be more responsive, reduce the burden of regulation and to drive down costs.
“We were, and remain, committed to these aims. Realising them is essential if we are to retain the trust and confidence of the public, healthcare professionals and the health service in which those professionals work.
“The recommendations of Robert Francis QC following events in Mid Staffordshire highlighted the vital importance of effective regulation focused on promoting safe, compassionate patient care rather than, as too often in the past, intervening only after patients have suffered harm.”
New powers proposed would allow regulators to proactively investigate instances of suspected poor conduct and practice whenever they come to their attention. At the moment, some can only investigate once they have received a formal complaint.
The Bill also allows regulators to reconsider cases that have been closed following a mistake or error, as recommended by the inquiry into the scandal at Mid Staffs.
A process of revalidation - where professionals undergo “MOTs” to ensure they are still fit to practise - will be extended from doctors to all health and social care professionals.
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: “Under the current arrangements we have to go through a bureaucratic and legalistic process to change our rules which serves no one - as the Law Commission and the government have recognised there is a better way which will encourage reform and innovation in the interests of improving standards of medicine and patient safety.
‘In addition to this fundamental change in the legal framework, the Bill will also tackle critical issues which require attention now. These include granting us the right to appeal against fitness to practise panel decisions which we believe are too lenient.
“We also want to be able to strike off doctors who have been convicted of serious offences without the need for a panel hearing - there is no place for serious criminals in the profession.”
The nine organisations, including the General Dental Council, General Pharmaceutical Council and Health Professions Council, are responsible for around 1.4 million workers across 32 health and social care roles.
Nicholas Paines QC, the commissioner leading the project for England and Wales, said: “If implemented, they will enhance the autonomy of the regulators, empower them to respond more quickly and effectively to emerging public health concerns and enable them to meet the demands of a modern, devolved health and social care sector.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “The government is committed to legislate on this important issue when parliamentary time allows. We welcome the Law Commission’s report and will respond to their proposals in due course.”