HL Deb 14 February 2001 vol 622 cc239-41

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether certain teaching hospitals have been instructed to spend some £250,000 each of National Health Service money in preparing for the United Kingdom's adoption of the euro.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, no NHS body has been instructed to spend any money on euro preparations. They have undertaken a measure of pre-planning for possible UK entry to the single currency. That was a limited management exercise carried out from within agreed running costs. Resources have not been diverted from patient care.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 29th November last year, in answer to a Question from me on the subject, he claimed no fewer than six times that the amount being spent was either limited or very limited? As there is now considerable doubt about the sums being expended, will he clear up the mystery by telling the House how much is being spent? If it is taxpayers' money, surely Parliament has a right to know about it—or perhaps the money has been donated, as in the case of the Dome, by people who wish to become Labour Peers.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that was rather unworthy. The answer that I gave six times in November is unchanged. NHS trusts were asked to undertake a pre-planning exercise—that is, they were asked to look at the impact on the National Health Service if this country decided to join the euro. That was an administrative task undertaken by current staff within NHS trusts. NHS organisations spent virtually no additional money on seeking out the implications.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be an act of the grossest irresponsibility for an organisation as large and internationally dependent as the NHS not to make the necessary contingent planning for the possibility of the British people voting in a referendum to join the euro?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend has put the issue very well. Noble Lords frequently point out that the NHS should engage in long-term planning. The health service has simply undertaken an exercise to look at its current financial systems to see what impact a possible decision by this country to join the euro would have on it. Surely that is prudent. That foresight has not cost the National Health Service additional money.

Lord Lawson of Blaby

My Lords, in the wider context of possible British membership of the euro raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, is the Minister aware that the Irish economy has seldom, if ever, been in better shape? What is the Government's view of the reprimand recently issued by the Commission and endorsed by the Council of Ministers for the recent Irish Budget?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord may be surprised to know that the Department of Health does not discuss that matter on a daily basis.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, is it not the responsibility of the NHS to prepare regardless of whether Britain goes into the euro? Access to the single European market of health services and goods will provide an opportunity for savings on bureaucracy to provide money that could be used better elsewhere in the National Health Service.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we clearly want an efficient and effective National Health Service. The benefit of the pre-planning exercise is that it has looked at the status of current NHS financial systems. That has been helpful in enabling trusts to work out what changes might need to be made in the future, not just in respect of the possibility of this country going into the euro but in ensuring that we have the most up-to-date financial systems possible.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, assuming that we are generous enough to let the Minister off the second aspect of the question asked by my noble friend Lady Knight about whether anybody contributed to the exercise in pursuit of a peerage, will he be good enough to tell the House how much has been spent by the National Health Service on those preparations? I am not sure that we have heard a figure.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, this is the ninth time that I shall give the same answer. This is a pre-planning exercise undertaken by existing staff in NHS trusts. No additional costs have been incurred. Noble Lords opposite ask how much money is involved. No doubt they would like me to issue a questionnaire to every single trust in the country asking staff to detail how much time each of them spent on this pre-planning exercise. Only a few weeks ago the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the Opposition spokesman for the Conservative Party, attacked the Government for making too many bureaucratic demands on the health service. No doubt noble Lords will now change their minds about that.

Earl Howe

My Lords, if, as the noble Lord said, this is a limited pre-planning exercise, why did the Director of Finance, Procurement and Information at Salisbury Healthcare NHS Trust say that the changeover plan is bringing, a huge amount of work and substantial costs without any known source of funds at present"? He went on to say: The plans will require substantial extra work from staff at a time when we are facing disintegration through the loss of mental health services, community hospitals and community services". Can the Minister comment on that?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that matter was raised on the previous occasion when this Question was asked in your Lordships' House. The Director of Finance at the Salisbury NHS Trust was confused about the circular that had been sent. No other trust in the country suffered that confusion. They were able to undertake the pre-planning exercise without undue bureaucracy or undue pressure. Overall, it has been a most helpful exercise in determining what steps the NHS would have to take if the country decided to enter the euro.