Health & Care Bill: Bishop of St Albans tables amendments on health and social care in rural areas

During a debate on the Health & Care Bill on 13th January 2022, the Bishop of St Albans tabled two amendments on health inequalities in rural areas:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, Amendments 68 and 95 are in my name. I declare my role as president of the Rural Coalition. I support the broad drift of these amendments, which engage with the important issue of reducing inequalities.

Rural health and social care has often presented challenges in terms of proximity to services, the types of services available within a local area and the demographics of rural areas. It is complicated. Rural areas have a higher proportion of older residents, which is always a greater burden on healthcare services compared with areas with younger populations.

Furthermore, a variety of issues that feed into rural health and social care are beyond the remit of the Bill. In March 2017, Defra produced its Rural Proofing practical guidance to help policymakers assess the impact of policies on rural areas. At the time, this was a welcome initiative to ensure that rural interests were being adequately considered and, to quote the report, that

“these areas receive fair and equitable policy outcomes.”

Unfortunately, concerns have since grown among rural groups that this guidance has become a sort of bureaucratic box-ticking exercise in Whitehall that does not take into account the complexities of rural life.

Funding allocations are often the result of specific metrics or formulas, many of which disadvantage rural communities. For example, a 2021 report by the Rural Services Network, Towards the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, highlighted how many of the post-Brexit levelling-up funds disadvantaged poor rural areas due to way in which they measured poverty. The Department for Transport’s own 2017 statistics showed that, on average, travel from rural areas to either a GP or hospital was 40% longer by car and 94% longer via public transport when compared with travel in urban locations.

Further, 2017 figures from Rural England highlighted the higher rates of delayed transfer of care from hospitals in rural areas: 19.2 cases per 100,000 compared with 13 per 100,000 in urban locations. Analysis by the RSN has shown that, when compared with predominately urban areas, rural local authorities received significantly less grant funding per head to pay for services such as social care and public health responsibilities, in spite of the fact that they generally deal with older populations. Other problems include limited intensive care capacity in rural areas, the loss of local services through amalgamations, the relatively few specialist medical staff in rural areas, and the general staff shortage and retention issues facing rurality.

It is commendable that the Government have legislated in this Bill to introduce a duty on integrated care boards to reduce inequalities between patients with respect to their ability to access health services. My amendments would extend this principle and reduce those health inequalities with respect to where someone lives, whether it is an urban or rural area, and place a duty on ICBs to co-operate with each other for the purpose of reducing healthcare access inequalities. In effect, this is a statutory rural-proofing requirement.

This duty to consider rural access when reducing inequalities extends to co-operation between ICBs because rural areas often exist on the periphery of a large geographical region where patients in one area may reside closer to crucial services in a neighbouring board. Naturally, rural areas lack the economies of scale of urban areas, and greater cross-ICB co-operation will be required to utilise joint resources most effectively when delivering different services to rural areas that fall within border zones of ICBs.

One area where a collaborative approach between ICBs will be crucial for rural areas in the near future is the current reorganisation of non-emergency patient transport by NHS England, which will shift to ICBs shortly. Although rural areas undoubtedly are being considered as part of this re-organisation, patient transport is already a rural inequality that needs addressing. Putting rural proofing with respect to health care on a statutory footing presents a more concrete way to implement the existing rural-proofing guidance. The need for co-operation between administrative areas and for overall plans to be rural proofed will become more essential, particularly for secondary health services, if teams of specialist clinicians become increasingly consolidated in ever fewer locations.

Can the Minister outline how the Government intend to reduce the inequalities in healthcare access and funding that many rural areas face, and how they will effectively ensure that ICBs adequately rural proof their plans in line with the Government’s own guidance?


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Pitkeathly (Lab): My Lords, I support all the amendments in his group but particularly Amendment 68, in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, about health inequalities faced by those living in rural areas. When you live in a rural area, it is often difficult physically to access a GP practice—if you do not have a car, try getting a bus in a rural area whose timetable coincides with the opening hours of your surgery—and to access health information if your internet is not up to scratch. There are many rural areas where connectivity still leaves a great deal to be desired. Pharmacies, too, can be difficult to access; although some run outreach services, they are by no means universal.

In rural areas, the important non-clinical services mentioned by my noble friend Lord Howarth are largely dependent on the voluntary sector. During the pandemic, when village halls, with their plethora of exercise, dance, art and social support services, were closed, many older people in rural areas were cut off completely, with disastrous effects on their mental health.

The problems of delivering social care in rural areas are also well known. When care workers are paid for home visits only for the time when they are in the home and not for travelling time—time that will of course be extended by the spread-out nature of those visits—it is no wonder that many private and voluntary agencies are handing back social care contracts to local authorities because they simply cannot deliver them.

Lord Kamall (Con, Department of Health & Social Care): I turn next to Amendments 68 and 95, in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The Government are determined to address long-standing health disparities, including the geographic disparities experienced in rural and coastal communities. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, who have constantly raised the issues of inequality of health outcomes in rural and coastal areas and how people there access services. For that purpose, the Bill already contains a requirement for the commissioning bodies to tackle these health inequalities, as well as a requirement to protect, promote and facilitate the rights of patients. This means allowing patients to choose to be treated outside their ICB area, particularly if that makes more sense, as alluded to by the right reverend Prelate. To support this, we expect ICBs to actively co-operate with each other for tackling these inequalities. We understand the duty to reduce inequalities to also encompass the need to reduce inequalities between patients with respect to geographical locations, such as rural or coastal areas. The proposed triple aim will also require ICBs to consider the quality of services that can be accessed both in communities but also geographically. I hope I have given the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans some reassurance on this.

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