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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill

NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill

Column Number: 373

Standing Committee A

Tuesday 11 December 2001

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill

Schedule 7

The council for the regulation of health care professionals

Amendment moved [this day]: No. 228, in page 74, line 30, leave out

    'on such conditions (if any)'.—[Mr. Heald.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 229, in page 74, line 32, leave out sub-paragraph (2).

No. 230, in page 74, line 37, leave out sub-paragraph (4).

No. 231, in page 74, line 41, leave out 'and (4)'.

No. 232, in page 75, line 1, leave out sub-paragraphs (7), (8) and (9).

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I have absolutely no recollection of where we were when we broke up at one o'clock. I think that I was dealing robustly and efficiently with the points raised by Opposition Members.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Perhaps I can help the Minister. He was being rather rude about the important point of loans.

Mr. Hutton: Ah, yes, it is coming back to me. I was curious that Conservative Members had found the holy grail of loans; something called a non-repayable loan, which was described as the ultimate piece of creative accountancy in terms of the Government's resource and cash allocations. Personally, I have never come across a non-repayable loan, but I wait to be pleasantly surprised.

Mr. Burns: I can give the Minister an example involving hundreds of millions of pounds in the 1970s, when the Labour Government wrote off loans given to nationalised industries.

Mr. Hutton: Very good. I am sure that that is absolutely right, but I have a vague memory in the back of my mind that the Opposition began our discussions on the Bill by inviting me not to refer to the previous Conservative Administrations from 1979 to 1997. I have tried hard not ever to refer to that period, but I have failed; I have succumbed and made a reference on occasion. Part of me would like to blank out as much of that period as possible because it was a

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gruesome time for many people in the national health service. However, I am interested in the fact that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) wants to highlight a period way back in the early 1970s while admonishing me for referring to an Administration that left office only four years ago. We will not explore that point.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hutton: No.

Mr. Heald: It is not on that point.

Mr. Hutton: Oh, go on then.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the Minister; he has been generous on this occasion. We are talking about the money and the conditionality for funding, as well as loans. The estimate of the Bill's financial effects states:

    ''The creation of the Council . . . will have negligible effects on manpower. There will be a small financial cost.''

What is the budget for the body?

Mr. Hutton: We have not fixed a final and definitive budget because the council has not come into existence. Nor have there been discussions with the officers of the council. It will obviously cost money, and not the non-repayable kind; once the money is spent, it cannot be spent again. There will come a time when I will be able to give more information about the budget of the UK council. I do not think that it will be hugely expensive, but we need to make specific provision for it in future years.

This morning we were dealing with the issues of loans and conditionality, and the amendments were of a probing nature. Clearly, the amendments are not serious in terms of their implications for the funding of the council. They would mean that the Secretary of State would not be able to discharge his value-for-money and public-accountability function and that none of the devolved Administrations would be able to support the work of the UK council, even though it is designed to work on a UK basis. That would be nonsense.

The question on funding is fair, but the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will have to wait a little longer before I can give him anything more definitive. The important point is that the ''conditions'', referred to in paragraph 13, will not be about smuggling in checks and controls on the independence of the UK council through the back door that we have already removed from the front door through Government amendments to the schedule and clause. We are very clear about the need for the council to operate at arm's length from Government and Ministers. The changes that we have proposed to the Bill will reinforce that independence.

The provisions here are necessary, for the reasons that I have given. It is certainly our intention that if any conditions to the powers are imposed by the Secretary of State, it is to be done strictly within the narrow confines of the issues that I have raised today.

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Mr. Heald: These are probing amendments, and I fully accept that they are full of technical deficiencies. They were designed to raise the important issue of the independence of the council where money is concerned. Money is very important if a body is to be independent. It must have adequate funding, and be sure that it can fulfil its duties. One duty of this body is to refer cases to court. These are fitness-to-practise cases about which there is a conviction that the final decision taken is either unduly lenient or should not have been made. There may be cost implications if a body refers a case to court and then loses. To be a bold regulator, or to feel independent and able to do its job, a body needs enough funds to meet liability for costs and to investigate cases properly.

We are worried because we do not know what the budget is. We are told that strings can be attached to the funding, and the Minister says that some will relate to fraud. However, we do not know what they will be. Perhaps fraud is a concern, but I would have thought that such a body—full, no doubt, of the great and good—that is regulating other professional bodies is unlikely to be the site of a great deal of fraud. Perhaps it is sensible to have a few conditions of that sort, but what we really need is an assurance that there will be enough money to allow proper independence without strings attached that will interfere with the council doing its job properly.

Despite the Minister promising at the outset of our debates to give us the draft regulations, he has not done so. On funding for the various bodies that are to be set up, we have not had from him the minimal assurance that there will be adequate funding for them to do what they are supposed to do. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), was not even prepared to concede that there would be as much money available for patients forums as there currently is for community health councils.

The Minister of State will not give us a clue as to what the small financial cost referred to in the estimate is. If he knows that it is small, he must have a rough idea of how much it is; otherwise he might simply say, ''a financial cost'', or, ''some amount''. Are we talking about £10 million, £5 million, £20 million or £100 million? What is small in this context? I will happily give way to the Minister if he can tell us what we are talking about, money-wise.

Mr. Hutton: I want to correct two inaccuracies that the hon. Gentleman has just repeated. I did not give an assurance that I would produce regulations for the Committee, because those have not been prepared. I made that very clear. I said that if any of them were prepared in time to be shared with the Committee, I would ensure that that happened. The hon. Gentleman is misquoting me.

On the UK council, I made it very clear in my remarks—perhaps the interval has blurred the hon. Gentleman's memory—that the council would be adequately and properly resourced to discharge its functions. I am not able to give him a detailed budget, but it will certainly be less than £5 million.

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Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply. In a moment, I will find the place in the record of the beginning of our proceedings where he mentioned giving us documents. Perhaps I got the wrong impression, and he was not intending to be as helpful as he has sometimes been, or claims to have been.

The sum is less than £5 million. Is that enough? How many cases does the Minister estimate would be taken to court each year? What are the other significant elements of cost? If there are negligible manpower effects, does that mean that no one is going to be employed by this body? It seems unlikely, given the contents of schedule 7. Roughly, how many people are to work there? Is the Minister able to give us some sort of picture of what this body will be like? Will it be a body that resides in the premises of the Health Professions Council, in Kennington Park road? Or is it going to be based at Richmond house? Is it just a small room with a couple of people in it, or is a decent office block with 20 or 30 people working in it? Can the Minister flesh out the details of what this body is to be?

Mr. Hutton: I have tried to be helpful to the Committee, but I cannot tell the Committee today precisely how many staff the UK council will employ. Neither can I say, with the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, where it is going to be based. No such decisions have been made. Of course those types of decisions need to await the appointment of certain key officers of the UK council, who will be entrusted with the responsibility of administering it. The hon. Gentleman must know perfectly well from his experience as a Minister that these are not questions that I can answer in detail today, and not because I am withholding information from the Committee. Quite honestly and obviously, no Minister would be in a position to provide the answers that he is seeking at this moment.

 
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