Leading public health experts have called for Public Health England to be independent of the Department of Health in order to maintain public confidence.
The flagship policy, as set out in the public health white paper Healthy Lives, Healthy People, will see the functions of the Health Protection Agency, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse and public health observatories pulled together into Public Health England (PHE) which will sit within the department of health.
However, in evidence to the Health Select Committee, leading figures from all three organisations as well as the NHS Confederation, the Association of Directors of Public Health and the British Medical Association were unanimous in the need for PHE to be independent in order to maintain its integrity and allow it to generate additional income from contracts with organisations outside the government.
Under the Health Bill many of the DH’s other functions are due to be taken over by the NHS Commissioning Board but public health is to be kept in house.
However, in a written submission to the committee, the NHS Confederation warned keeping PHE within the DH could cost the government more if it meant it was not able to win contracts from other organisations.
National transition director for Public Health Observatories, Professor Brian Ferguson told the committee research and evidence produced by PHE and used to inform DH policies would not be “as trusted” if it was coming from outside the department.
Asked if he was confident the new system once up and running would be better than the current system, Professor Ferguson said he was not sure.
President of the Association of Directors of Public Health, Dr Frank Atherton said: “It’s important that PHE is not just independent in terms of its advice and information but is perceived by the public to be independent.”
Witnesses were also asked whether they supported ring fencing public health budgets when the money is transferred to councils and why they had all warned in their written submission that the proposed health premium, where local authorities are financially rewarded for reducing health inequalities could lead to unintended consequences.
Deputy policy director of the NHS Confederation, Jo Webber, said that “supporting that money within a ring fence” during the transition period would be helpful but the health premium would be unfair on areas with large transient populations.