A senior NHS watchdog is to given more independence from Whitehall, to help take the politics out of key decisions on new drugs and treatments for patients, Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health has decided.
Next week, Mr Milburn will recommend that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) be given more freedom and new powers to end "postcode prescribing". When ministerial influence is reduced from Nice's decisions and remit, the body will be given greater authority to ensure GPs and hospitals use the same new techniques and drugs across the country.
The news came after Tony Blair and Iain Duncan Smith clashed bitterly again over the NHS at Prime Minister's question time. Repeatedly, Mr Blair was forced to deny the health service was in crisis under Labour, with accident and emergency departments failing to see patients quickly enough.
Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, chairman of Nice, told a meeting of the Commons health select committee that a Government consultation paper on the watchdog's role would be published next week. Sir Michael urged that the board of Nice be given powers held by Mr Milburn, in particular the choice of which new drugs and treatments to assess.
He shrugged off claims by the Liberal Democrat MP Sandra Gidley that Nice was being used as a "Teflon coat" for controversial ministerial decisions, and said reduction of political influence was vital. Govern-ment sources confirmed last night that the watchdog would get the powers needed.
During Prime Minister's questions, Mr Duncan Smith said the number of patients seen by a doctor in A&E within an hour had fallen from 75 per cent under the Tories to around 50 per cent now and claimed the service was in "acute and chronic crisis". But Mr Blair said the most recent analysis showed that by March this year at least 75 per cent of casualty patients should spend less than four hours in A&E, and that would be 100 per cent by 2004.
"That doesn't mean to say there aren't real pressures on casualty departments in many parts, but the only answer is to put in additional investment, which gives us the consultants, nurses and beds that we need," Mr Blair said. There were A&E departments under "real pressure" he said. "What is important is that just as we should not pretend the NHS is perfect, you should not pretend it's rubbish."
Mr Duncan Smith said new figures showed Government investment in public services had fallen below that of the previous Tory government. "So before we get too sanctimonious, we must ask you the same question," he said.
"Are you prepared to accept that you have made a mistake and got it wrong? One minute you say the public servants leave scars on your back. The next moment you are running to hide behind them in a problem. Then you turn the entire weight of your Government and its machine on a 94-year-old lady."
This reference to last week's row over the treatment of Rose Addis sparked angry Labour protests. But the Opposition leader continued: " ... turns that machine on people who complain because they have nowhere else to go. When will you grasp the fact that the problems in the NHS are not the fault of the doctors, nurses or patients but of you, and the buck stops there."
Last night Mrs Addis's family issued a statement jointly with the Whittington Hospital, saying: "The family is now satisfied that their concerns have been taken seriously and consider the matter resolved."