NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill

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Mr. Burns: May I return to my earlier intervention on the Minister on the previous amendment? It now seems to be a more appropriate time and I should like more information from the Minister about the loans.

Before the Minister was rightly stopped by you, Miss Widdecombe, he was about to give us an elementary economics lesson on the fact that borrowed money must be repaid. I understand that, but if one borrows money, one normally repays it gradually in relatively small amounts each month, or according to whatever the terms and conditions happen to be. Some loans are made on the condition that there is no need to start repaying them for a significant period. Given the creative accounting of this Government, one could anticipate a number of sleights of hand to lend money, which would not necessarily be repaid in the immediate future. That could help a body and would, in effect, increase its funding so that it could fulfil its duties more easily by, for example, commissioning work from outside persons or organisations. The provisions in this part of the schedule lay down the skeleton powers to make loans and set down the conditions for repayment. One condition, unless the Minister corrects me, could be that a loan does not have to be repaid, or that it could be repaid at a date very far in the future, until which point it would, in effect, be interest-free and non-repayable. Is that accurate or is there some way in which, in theory, that could not happen?

Mr. Hutton: Perhaps I should explain what we are trying to do here, and what the effect of the amendments would be. I understand that some are probing, but I am not sure whether all of them are.

Mr. Heald: Yes, they all are.

Mr. Hutton: The amendments would make it impossible for the devolved administrations to make any payments or loans to the council. It is, of course, a UK council, and provision for that must be in the schedule. Amendment No. 231 is a consequential amendment following on from amendment No. 230, which, with amendment No. 228, would prevent the Secretary of State from placing any conditions on the use of those funds.

The hon. Gentleman has asked me various questions, but I think that he essentially wants to know why such powers should be included in the Bill. We have been mindful throughout the debate, in preparing the Bill and in tabling amendments to it, of the need to meet the concerns of hon. Members and the regulatory bodies on the drawing of the line between the Secretary of State's proper accountability to this place for the use of public funds and the operational independence of the UK council so that it can get on and do its job without being subjected to unfair accusations that it is doing Ministers' bidding.

No gain or benefit would flow from the legislation if we became enmeshed in such arguments 18 months or two years down the track. The point of the UK council is to add value to the system of professionally led self-regulation, not to subtract from it, and as a direct result to ensure greater public confidence in how the system works. We would be pretty stupid if we engineered things so that we not only did not achieve that, but added to public concerns. We have tried throughout to ensure that the balance is redrawn in the right place. We want to deal with the concerns of the regulatory bodies, hon. Members and others, and to ensure that the independence of the UK council is properly enshrined in the Bill.

Paragraph 13 of the schedule is designed to enable the Secretary of State to set conditions to the exercise of his powers, if he chooses—he is not required to do so—to ensure, for example, that there is a proper audit trail and accountability in the council's use of public money. We are keen to deal with fraud. The Secretary of State might want to ensure that proper arrangements are in place in the council for dealing with such issues. In such a case the Secretary of State could, if he felt it necessary, set conditions relating to the powers to make grants and loans that he has. This is not, however, designed as some back-door way for the Secretary of State to have his fingertips on every decision of the UK council. That would be counterproductive. We have tried to ensure in the Bill that the Secretary of State can never be accused of so interfering with the council's work.

Paragraph 13 contains essential housekeeping or value-for-money provisions. They are commonly used, and were used extensively by the previous Conservative Administration in relation to other organisations to ensure proper public accountability. They do not go any further than that.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford got very excited about loans. On this rare occasion, there was an element of absurdity in his argument. [Interruption.] I am afraid so. I say that with the greatest reluctance, but I thought that he was labouring a particular point about loans. Loans come in all shapes and sizes. The Department is not generally in favour of non-repayable loans, because they are not a sensible idea. The argument about creative accountancy was similar. I do not think that there is any suggestion that we might have to resort to non-repayable loans as a device to ensure that the UK council is properly resourced. We have other means of making sure that that is so.

In my experience as a Minister, all the loans that I have ever known of have involved repayment. If the hon. Gentleman, as I said earlier—

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Widdecombe, Miss Ann (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Baron, Mr.
Burnham, Andy
Burns, Mr.
Challen, Mr.
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Hall, Mr. Mike
Harris, Dr. Evan
Havard, Mr.
Heald, Mr.
Hutton, Mr.
Moffatt, Laura
Murrison, Dr.
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Thomas, Gareth
Touhig, Mr.
Ward, Ms

 
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