The Budget opens the way to accountability in the NHS, but Lord Hunt says the Enterprise Bill threatens some draconian measures in the boardroom

The tradition about the Budget is that proposals which have short-term approval do long-term damage, whereas the Budget statement, which receives the most immediate criticism, is the most successful.

What do we make of last week's effort? Health Secretary Milburn's medicine and Chancellor Brown's boost for the NHS correctly conveyed the general impression of substantial extra funding for the National Health Service. The biggest and most sustained increase in public spending for nearly 30 years has to be paid for. The key question is, to what extent the economy can bear the strain of the new "tax and spend" shift.

The bad press came quickly, with the revelation that a substantial part of the increase in National Insurance costs would have to be paid by the government itself and, in particular, by Britain's biggest employer (with 1.1million staff), the NHS.

Of much more interest to the financial services industry is the indication that there is increasing importance being given to public/private partnerships. The future of the NHS will be built on even stronger foundations if the government accepts that the private health sector has a critical contribution to make to healthcare in the UK, in particular when it is done in partnership with the NHS. The new Financial Services Authority for Healthcare is an important part of the government's drive for value for money, but it must embrace both public and private sectors if it is to be a successful "super-regulator".

The Budget theme of promoting higher productivity and greater enterprise was accompanied this month by the government's flagship Enterprise Bill - a 333-page proposition to radically overhaul UK competition and insolvency laws.

Everyone in our industry should not only read the Budget but also this Bill. It removes ministers from the decision-making process and establishes a strong deterrent effect for freshly defined "anti-competitive behaviour". There is to be a new criminal offence of dishonestly entering into cartels, backed by sanctions that include the possibility of up to five years' imprisonment.

I share the concerns of many about this draconian move, which flies in the face of developments in the rest of Europe. Faced with these proposals, together with all the other extensions of criminal sanctions, who will come forward to take on responsibility as a company director? The fact that all directors will need their lawyer at their side may be good news for lawyers, but bad news for the economy.

  • Lord Hunt is senior partner of national law firm Beachcroft Wansbroughs.

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