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Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for the latter part of his reply. Does he agree that it is a budget for the expenditure of a very considerable sum of money, of which the United Kingdom was due to bear out of the taxpayers' money some £3.4 billion during 1998? Does he further agree that when the budget documents eventually arrived there was no time for any scrutiny by Parliament and consequently the budget was confirmed in draft by the Council of Ministers, including our own Chancellor of the Exchequer, on 24th July, without the benefit of any observations of authority from either House of Parliament? Does the noble Lord agree that that is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs which the people of the United Kingdom will expect the Government to deal with more satisfactorily in the future?
Lord Boardman: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that whatever extension of time there may be, there will never be sufficient time for the budget to be looked at in any depth in this House? Does he therefore agree that it is worth considering the setting up of a committee such as the Public Accounts Committee in the other place, where this House could probe in some depth certain aspects of European expenditure?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion. There are committees of both Houses--the Scrutiny Committee in another place and the European Communities Committee in this House--which do that job, but perhaps not quite in the way that the noble Lord is suggesting. It is a valid point that that scrutiny of the European budget should continue throughout the year and not be concentrated on a few days or weeks in the summer.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, I find myself in the unique position of agreeing with my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington on a European Union matter. He is, of course, quite right. But is my noble friend the Minister aware that the matter goes much deeper because the committee, which I have the honour to chair and of which the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, is a distinguished member, does not have anything like enough time? We have recently carried out investigations into the consequences of EMU whether we are in or out; we have also carried out investigations on structural funds, and we are in the middle of a further investigation on enlargement and its financial consequences. All that makes it quite impossible for the committee to look at the budget even if we received it very much earlier, as I and my noble friend would like. Is the Minister aware that I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boardman, that we need a separate Select Committee to deal purely and simply with the budget? After all, it is going to grow with the growth of the single currency, whether we are in or out, and with enlargement. Therefore, will the Minister consult with the usual channels, wherever they are, to try to ensure that we have such a committee?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, of course my noble friend has the experience and the authority, and he also makes a very valid point. It is, however, a matter for the House and not for the Government. As I understand it, the Liaison Committee is meeting in two weeks' time and there is no reason at all why
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, it is not often that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, but on this matter we are in complete agreement and, more particularly, have been so for a very considerable length of time. Is the Minister aware how frequently this matter has been raised in previous years with very little discernible effect? We understand it is not a matter for the Government alone; it is clearly a matter for the European Community. Will the Minister undertake to press further in Brussels to get a better resolution of this very unsatisfactory situation?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we will and we do. If one looks at the programme for the budget, it starts in January and finishes at the end of December. If the formal programme were used, as laid down in the treaty, it would be much worse. In the hope that some noble Lord will ask what we intend to do to try to improve the situation, may I try to answer the question which has not quite been asked? Although propositions have not yet been put to Treasury Ministers, officials are looking at the possibility of improving the explanatory memorandum to explain what decisions the Council has already made--for example, the agriculture budget which is determined by the Agriculture Council. We are also looking for better communications with the Scrutiny Committee of both Houses of Parliament. We do not see why the overview volume, which could be very helpful, and which is supplied to the chairman of the European Communities Committee, should not be placed in the Library as well.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I suppose we ought to take these questions and answers seriously. Can my noble friend say whether the noble Lords who have spoken are really proposing to look at 1,500 pages, which amounts to about 15 centimetres in height for such documents, and that we actually commit ourselves to that kind of scrutiny? I used to take an interest in economic affairs, but it never occurred to me for one moment to start ploughing my way through these documents. I do not know of any other noble Lord, other than my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, who was even aware of their existence. Are we now moving towards devoting our lives to such things or am I being cynical in assuming that this is all just talk?
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that that Answer will be welcomed by everyone who has the interests of our National Health Service at heart? I have had discussions with both appointed members of trusts and with doctors in the National Health Service who think that the repeat prescription formula is wide open to abuse. Will that problem fall within the remit of what my noble friend termed the new "fraudbuster?"
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the problem of trying to identify those who have legitimately asked for and been given prescriptions and of ascertaining whether the same person then presents the prescription is under consideration. One suggestion is that there should be computer markings on prescription forms which should tally with the patient's other records. That is being considered in the development of the computer processes which may be adopted.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, that is a most helpful suggestion. It is precisely the lax operation of the prescription system in the past that has led to the extraordinary situation in which we now reckon that £100 million a year is being wasted through prescription fraud in the NHS. As the noble Lord suggests, it is clearly not conscious fraud. But we shall need to look into such lax practices.
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