Anaesthesia Associates and Physician Associates Order 2024 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords am 7:49 pm ar 26 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Markham:

Moved by Lord Markham

That the draft Order laid before the House on 13 December 2023 be approved.

Relevant document: 10th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, I note that the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Brinton, have laid regret amendments and that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has laid a fatal amendment relating to this order concerning professional titles, supervision requirements and the General Medical Council as the regulator, along with constitutional concerns about how parliamentary oversight of regulatory bodies will be maintained in the future. These are important points that I will turn to shortly. I thank the noble Lords who took the time to engage with me on this order at a briefing session last week, when we had a very helpful discussion on the key issues.

Anaesthesia associates and physician associates are already a valued and integral part of the multidisciplinary healthcare team. We acknowledge that there have been some concerns around the AA and PA roles, but regulating these professions will help to increase the contribution that they can make to the UK healthcare sector while improving patient safety and professional accountability. As well as bringing AAs and PAs into regulation by the General Medical Council, this order paves the way for full-scale reform of the regulatory frameworks for all the healthcare professional regulators. This is a rare and significant opportunity to deliver a large-scale programme of reform that will implement improvements to patient and public safety, the system of professional regulation and the health and care workforce.

This order will give the GMC powers to register AAs and PAs it assesses to be appropriately qualified and competent; to set standards of practice, education and training and requirements for continual professional development and conduct for AAs and PAs; to approve AA and PA education and training programmes; and to operate fitness to practise procedures to investigate concerns and, if necessary, prevent or restrict an associate practising. The legislation provides a high-level framework for the GMC to regulate AAs and PAs and, importantly, gives the GMC autonomy to set out the details of its regulatory procedures in rules.

The GMC has committed to developing rules and processes for regulating AAs and PAs that will be subject to public consultation to enable regulation to begin by the end of this year. Once regulation begins, in keeping with the approach taken to bring other healthcare roles, such as dental nurses and dental technicians, into regulation, there will be a two-year transition period that will enable individuals to continue to work and use their relevant professional title while they go through the process of registering with the GMC. After the transition period, it will be a criminal offence to practise as an AA or PA without being registered with the GMC.

I now turn to the fatal amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and specifically to the concern that this order represents a significant constitutional change without the required parliamentary oversight. I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its comments on this topic.

I highlight that the delegated arrangements that give Parliament broad powers to make changes to the regulatory landscape via secondary legislation have been operating effectively for more than two decades. It is important to note that prior to the Health Act 1999 there had been growing public, parliamentary and professional concerns about the healthcare professional regulators and the delivery of public and patient protection. Important reforms had been delayed by the need for primary legislation to overhaul a number of Acts dating back to the middle of the 19th century. The delegated powers afforded by Section 60 of the 1999 Act allowed a start to be made on the large task of modernising and rationalising this legislation. These powers have facilitated some important changes and improvements to healthcare regulation, including bringing nursing associates into regulation and introducing revalidation for doctors.

In using the powers under Section 60 of the Health Act, the Government are required to consult publicly for three months on any draft legislation they intend to lay. In addition to a legislative consultation, in March 2021 the Government undertook a three-month policy consultation that invited views on the aims of this work. These consultations and the extensive engagement conducted throughout the project have been clear that one of the primary aims of the legislation is to bring anaesthesia associates and physician associates into statutory regulation by the GMC.

Following the legislative consultation, the legislation is subject to the affirmative parliamentary procedure. This requires the legislation to be debated in both Houses of Parliament and is why we are here today. This is a necessary and proper procedural requirement allowing for parliamentary consideration and scrutiny of the legislation.

The Government have sought, at every stage of the process, to engage a wide and diverse range of interested parties and to be clear on what this work will achieve. In addition to the helpful discussions I had with noble Lords at last week’s briefing session, it is my sincere hope that this evening’s debate will be a further example of this vital engagement and that fellow Peers will feel reassured.

I turn to the order itself. The principles set out in this order have long been sought by the regulators and were recommended by the Law Commission in 2014. At present, for a majority of healthcare regulators, the requirement for parliamentary approval of changes to their rules means that they are less able to respond quickly to amend their processes to reflect emerging workforce trends or concerns. We are providing the GMC with greater autonomy to set out the details of its regulatory procedures in relation to AAs and PAs in rules it publishes itself. The GMC will still be required to consult on its rules but will not need to secure the approval of Parliament or the Privy Council, giving increased flexibility to rapidly adapt its processes and procedures to changing requirements.

Although the order increases the number of areas that the GMC has autonomy over in respect of its day-to-day functions in relation to AAs and PAs, we recognise that there needs to be a system of checks and balances in place to ensure that the GMC continues to act in accordance with the needs of patients, registrants and the wider healthcare sector. The legislation places a number of duties on the GMC to ensure that the new powers are used reasonably and proportionately. For example, it must discharge its functions under this order in a way that is transparent, accountable, proportionate and consistent.

The GMC will remain accountable for any function, or part of a function, it delegates to another regulator or third party. Although the GMC already has the power to set its own fees for medical practitioners, and the same power is proposed for AAs and PAs, we are also introducing a requirement for the GMC to include in its annual report the evidence it has considered of the likely impact of any changes made to fees.

We are also retaining current accountability mechanisms. For example, the GMC will continue to submit annual reports to the Privy Council and copies will be laid before each House of Parliament, which will enable Peers and MPs to scrutinise the regulator’s activities and raise any issues in the House. There is also the Health and Social Care Select Committee, which can hold the GMC to account. As noble Lords know, it has held hearings with the GMC and other professional regulatory bodies on a number of occasions to oversee their work.

The Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care—the PSA—oversees the 10 health and care professional regulators and is an independent organisation accountable to the UK Parliament. It carries out performance reviews on all the regulators to see whether they have met the standards of good regulation and publishes its findings. It also has an escalation policy that would allow the PSA to escalate serious or intractable concerns to others, particularly the Government and Parliament. Finally, the Privy Council has a power to direct the GMC where it has failed to carry out its statutory functions using its default powers. I hope these points on how oversight and scrutiny of the healthcare regulators will be maintained in future will reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and address the issues that were raised in the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report.

I turn to the role titles, which are referred to in the regret amendments tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Finlay, and the fatal amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. They have been the topic of much debate online, specifically about the use of the word “associate” rather than “assistant”. It is worth noting that AAs and PAs have been practising in the NHS for around 20 years, with the “associate” term being in use since 2019 and 2014 respectively. The titles reflect the fact that, as with nursing associates, they are part of a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals from various disciplines working together to deliver co-ordinated patient care.

As set out in National Institute for Health and Care ExcellenceNICE—guidelines, all healthcare professionals should introduce themselves and explain their role to the patient regardless of their job title. In addition, in advance of regulation the GMC has published interim standards for AAs and PAs, which make it clear that professionals should always introduce their role to patients and set out their responsibilities in the team.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, also outlined concerns in her regret amendment around the decision for the GMC to take up the regulation of the AA and PA roles. The assessment of the appropriate regulatory body for AA and PA regulation was completed in 2019 following a public consultation. The majority of respondents to that consultation were in favour of the GMC taking on regulation, including the professional bodies representing the roles and the medical royal colleges, including the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Physicians.

The GMC is the right regulator for these roles. Regulation will give the GMC responsibility and oversight of AAs and PAs, in addition to doctors, allowing it to take a holistic approach to education, training and standards. This will enable a more coherent and co-ordinated approach to regulation and, by making it easier for employers, patients and the public to understand the relationship between the roles of associates and doctors, help to embed them in the workforce.

There has also been the suggestion that the AA and PA roles are being used to replace doctors in delivering NHS services, alongside concerns about the level of supervision required. Let me be clear on this: the role of associates is to work with doctors, not replace them. AAs and PAs are distinct, complementary and valued professionals who, under appropriate supervision, can enrich the workforce skill mix, freeing up junior doctors and consultants to spend more time using their specialist skills and training to focus on complex clinical duties and decisions around patient care.

It is important to note that the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan sets out an aim to double the number of medical school places in England to 15,000 places a year by 2031-32, and to work towards this expansion by increasing places by a third, to 10,000 a year, by 2028-29. We have accelerated this expansion by allocating 205 additional medical school places for the 2024-25 academic year, with the process for allocating 350 additional places for the 2025-26 academic year already under way. This demonstrates our commitment to the medical profession and that we do not see PAs or AAs as replacements for doctors. There are currently more than 139,200 full-time equivalent doctors working in the NHS in England—that is over 42,000 more than in 2010—and there are fewer than 3,500 AAs and PAs.

Across the UK, each nation is considering the operational deployment of these roles within its workforce. In England, the long-term workforce plan commits to increasing the PA workforce to 10,000 by 2036-37 and the AA workforce to 2,000 over the same period. It is of course vital that this expansion is delivered safely, and the NHS is working with partners including the GMC, royal colleges and other stakeholders to ensure that associates can be effectively trained and integrated into teams across a range of specialities.

To summarise, regulation will provide a standardised framework of governance and assurance for clinical practice and professional conduct, to enhance patient safety and to enable PAs and AAs to make a greater contribution to patient care as part of the multidisciplinary team. I am content to bring forward this legislation today. The order is a positive step forward in the safe expansion and further integration of the AA and PA roles within the NHS. I commend this order to the House.