19 Mar 2003 : Column 233

House of Lords

Wednesday, 19th March 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.


Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to raise corporate investment from last year's record low point.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, in 2002 business investment as a proportion of GDP was 12.1 per cent, which is the lowest percentage on a constant price basis since 1996, but higher than the previous six years. The Government will continue to maintain a stable macro-economic environment and a range of micro-economic measures to encourage firms to invest for the long term.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, bearing in the mind the sharpness of the fall last year and the continuing weakness of investment intentions, does not that augur badly for future profitability, productivity, competitiveness and growth? Is it not time the Chancellor listened to the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce and reduced business taxation before his revenue falls further?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, it is right that falls in investment are bad news for the future profitability of business. We are acutely aware of that. But the reasons for the fall—a combination of the slow-down in the world economy and economic uncertainty—are well known. We have already made major changes to corporate taxation but, in the short term, they will not affect the level of investment.

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the conclusions of the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce in their pre-Budget submissions that the Chancellor has damaged the profits, productivity and investment plans of UK companies through the imposition of 47 billion of extra taxation between 1997 and 2005 and the burden of extra regulation and red tape? If not, why not?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, it makes no sense to attribute the sharp decline in business investment in 2002 to factors that the Opposition and, to a certain extent, the CBI have said have been present throughout the life of this Government. The fall in investment in 2002 is clearly related to the situation in the world economy and to economic uncertainty. Investment peaked in the fourth quarter of 2000. Therefore, unless there are factors of which I am

19 Mar 2003 : Column 234

unaware, clearly what we are now seeing is attributable to the world slow-down in economic growth, which is equally hitting the investment plans of other countries.

Lord Newby: My Lords, the Minister says that the slow-down is commonplace across the world, but he will know that since the end of 2000 overall investment in the UK has fallen faster than in America, Japan, France, Germany and Italy. Therefore there must be at least an element of something that this Government are doing that is unique to the United Kingdom. Will the Minister pass on to his colleagues in the Treasury the plea from business that there should be no business tax increases in the forthcoming Budget? Unlike in previous Budgets, far from making business taxation vastly more complicated the Chancellor might usefully seek to introduce a major measure of corporate tax simplification in the Budget this year.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, it is always wrong to start from mistaken assumptions. In 2001, corporate investment in the US fell by 5.2 per cent and in Germany by 4.5 per cent. In the UK it increased by 0.9 per cent. In 2002 we saw another fall of 5.7 per cent in the US. I agree that there was a substantial fall in the UK of 10 per cent, but if you take the two years together it is not at all clear that British investment is worse.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the Government sought to justify the Chancellor's 5 billion a year raid on pension funds by changing ACT on the grounds that it would improve investment. Is that still the Government's view now that companies, instead of investing, have to use the moneys to top up their pension funds?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as the noble Lord will remember, the abolition of dividend tax credits was part of a wider package of corporate tax reforms, which included rate cuts. It is wholly inaccurate to look at one measure in isolation. The Government have reduced corporation tax. The net effect of the reforms since 1997 has been to reduce the corporate tax bill. The Government have cut the main rate of corporation tax by 3 percentage points to its lowest level in UK corporate history.

Doctors: Suspension

2.42 p.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What improvements have been made in situations of doctors suspended from the National Health Service since the setting up of the National Clinical Assessment Authority.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the National Clinical Assessment Authority has helped the NHS manage concerns about medical performance and has supported doctors in over 500 cases. The Chief Medical Officer has recently reminded NHS employers in

19 Mar 2003 : Column 235

England to consider asking the NCAA for advice when they have serious concerns about the performance of a doctor which might lead to suspension.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is strong and growing criticism of the NCAA that its assessments are frequently biased and wrong? Is she also aware that the authority has spent some 9.5 million in two years yet has completed only 16 assessments of the 300 cases referred to it? Does she really think that the NCAA is providing good value for money, as, additionally, all suspended doctors are on full pay and do nothing, sometimes for months and even years, because of delayed judgments?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I know how deeply the noble Baroness feels about inappropriate suspension and the distress that that causes doctors. The NCAA was set up to address those concerns. So the number of assessments does not represent in any way the sum total or value of the NCAA's work. There have been 18 assessments but 500 cases have been dealt with; in many instances, they have not gone to assessment and the doctors have not been suspended because the intensive advice presented by caseworkers, often over a period of time, has meant that issues have been resolved on the ground. When the noble Baroness asks me whether I think the NCAA is good value for money, I would say yes. Every doctor who is not suspended and has returned to work, maybe with retraining, represents a gain to the NHS. The feedback that we have had after the first 18 months shows that 80 per cent of the people dealt with have reported positively.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, is it not far from clear whether the NCAA is really doing the job that it was set up to do in reducing the number of long-term suspensions of doctors? I have here an e-mail from a junior doctor who says:

    "I have not been told whether I am suspended, on sick leave, study leave or special leave. This can't be right".

Does the NCAA really provide value for money? Should not the National Audit Office look into this matter?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, this body has been in operation for only 18 months. It has moved fast to address serious concerns and to create a culture in which doctors are more confident in what they do and health authorities are more confident that the procedures are right. We believe that it is working well. In addition, the national project on long-term suspension deals specifically with cases in which doctors have been suspended for longer than six months. Over the last quarter there were 29 such cases; 10 of those doctors have been returned to work and are no longer suspended, and 19 are being actively managed to give them support, retraining, or whatever they need.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, is the Minister aware that some doctors are suspended for as long as

19 Mar 2003 : Column 236

four years, which causes terrible trauma for them and their families? At the end of that time they are very often exonerated. What happens to their false accusers?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The reason for setting up the NCAA in 2001 was because there were some outstanding cases from the late 1990s. Having a body to which health employers can refer instantly when they identify a problem and from which they can obtain appropriate advice so that the problem is nipped in the bud means that we do not have these interminable cases which cause such distress for both doctors and patients.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does not the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, have a point? Is there not a possibility that this matter could be referred to the National Audit Office? I am sure that it would produce a very interesting report.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, it so happens that the National Audit Office is considering the whole range of clinical suspensions and is looking at all health authorities across the range of specialties. We hope that it will report some time in the summer. So, although it is not looking at exactly the same population, we will have more information on which to build good practice.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page