Public health authority formed to 'speak truth unto power' may be too close to the Government, MPs warn


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England’s public health authority may be too close to the Government, preventing it from speaking out about the health impact of political policies, MPs have warned.

In a damaging assessment of the new organisation Public Health England (PHE), formed last year to safeguard the nation’s health and provide independent, evidence-based advice to Government, the House of Commons Health Select Committee said that the new body had not yet proved its willingness to “speak truth unto power”. 

The Government’s record on issues such as reducing alcohol abuse and smoking, and improving diets, has been criticised by many health experts, but the Committee’s chairman Stephen Dorrell said that PHE’s own public comments had “often been faltering and uncertain when they should have been clear and unequivocal.”

In their report, PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie is criticised for telling the Committee that it would be too controversial for him to respond directly when asked to outline Government policies which may be increasing health inequalities.

“The Committee is concerned that the chief executive of PHE should regard any public health issue as ‘too controversial’ to allow him to comment directly and believes that PHE should be able to address such matters without constraint,” their report said.

However PHE was praised for successfully tackle last year’s measles outbreak and delivering vaccination catch-ups, despite being a new organisation formed from more than 100 predecessor organisations, including the Health Protection Agency, which was dissolved in April last year.

Responding to the report, Mr Selbie said that his appearance in front of the Health Committee had been an “important and necessary moment” in PHE’s development.

“In our first six months our job was to stabilise the system; looking forward, it will be to transform it,” he said. “We will, of course, carefully consider the report’s recommendations.”