Committee (5th Day)

Part of Health and Social Care Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 14th November 2011.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 3:45 pm, 14th November 2011

My Lords, I begin by saying that I completely understand the seriousness of the issues raised by the noble Lords, Lord Patel of Bradford and Lord Noon, and others noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, suggested that part of his purpose was to ensure that this issue remained on the government agenda. Let me assure him that the issue is very firmly on the Government's agenda, and I am pleased that we are having this debate today so that I can outline exactly what we are doing.

Before I turn to address the amendment, I think it would be helpful if I briefly laid out the Government's view of the role of the voluntary sector in the NHS. We firmly believe that voluntary sector organisations have a strong and often crucial role to play, due to the experience, expertise and insights that they can offer to commissioners and the system more widely. I of course acknowledge and pay tribute to the valuable work performed by Sue Ryder and numerous other charities, including most especially hospices. We recognise that they can play a vital role in delivering innovative, high-quality user-focused services in their local communities, along with improved outcomes for patients and increased value for taxpayers. We also acknowledge, as Amendment 46 highlights, that taxation treatment is one potential barrier to voluntary sector organisations' entry into the provision of NHS services and to their increased involvement in those services. Access to capital is another. We are very keen to explore ways to overcome these challenges. The department is discussing this, as part of a wide range of issues, with voluntary sector providers of NHS-funded services.

When I was preparing for this debate, I asked whether the Treasury was looking at these issues, and the answer is that it is. I understand that Treasury officials are already working with representatives from the voluntary sector to explore the value added tax treatment of charities supplying the NHS, taking into account the legal limitations and the potential complexities around possible solutions. We are keen that they should make speed over this. However, the introduction of an artificial one-year timetable, as this amendment proposes, would limit the scope for a full and thorough discussion and consideration of this issue. I cannot commit to that limitation. However, I emphasise that we are very keen to work at possible solutions as fast as we can. It is a complex issue. My noble friend Lady Barker pointed us towards some of those complexities.

It is worth my repeating a general point here. The Government are committed to fair competition that delivers better outcomes and greater choice for patients and better value for the taxpayer. We want to see providers from all sectors delivering healthcare services. We have not the least wish to favour one type of provider over another. Indeed, as a result, and to ensure that the Secretary of State, Monitor and the Commissioning Board do not confer preferential treatment on any type or sector of provider, the Government have introduced amendments to Clauses 144, 59 and 20, inserting a new section, Section 130, into the National Health Service Act 2006.

We know very well that the voluntary sector plays a strong role in bringing the voices and experience of patients, service users and carers to the work of improving services, often reaching individuals who are excluded or who cannot access mainstream services. The voluntary sector brings advocacy and information to support individuals to exercise choice and control over the services that they access. These are major prizes, and we wish to capitalise on them. Opening up services to greater choice, for example, through "any qualified provider"-as was pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay-allows for greater involvement by social enterprises or voluntary sector organisations. To a great extent, this is already happening.

Listening to noble Lords, I felt that there was a great deal of consensus around those points. There is a shared feeling across the House that charities have a key part to play in NHS provision, that the current VAT rules can act as a barrier and that this needs to be looked at very closely and urgently. I completely agree with that, and I would like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, that we will ensure that this taxation issue continues to be considered urgently, as we develop work on a fairer playing field for delivering NHS services. In establishing Monitor's new functions, the department and Monitor will continue to consider these issues and the priorities to be addressed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, asked in particular what comfort there is in this Bill for the voluntary sector. She quite rightly mentioned the Future Forum in highlighting the work of the sector. The noble Baroness will be aware that the forum gave a very strong endorsement to the Bill's creation of a bespoke provider regulator, Monitor, in order to oversee a level playing field. Such a commitment to a fair market was and remains a comfort to the voluntary sector. Of course, we acknowledge that more needs to be done, and that includes the ongoing work at the Treasury.

With those remarks, although I am sure that I have not completely satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, I hope that I have given noble Lords the sense that we are onside with this issue and shall be pursuing it with as much urgency as we can. I therefore hope that I have done enough to persuade the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.