Lord Howe has written to Parliament playing down the effect of new competition rules, in an attempt to stave off political opposition, HSJ has learned.

The letter, sent yesterday evening and obtained by HSJ, insists that in many cases commissioners will not have to tender services, because they will be able to cite “technical reasons”.

It indicates the effect and scope of the rules is narrower that many have suggested. It follows strong political opposition to the rules from senior Liberal Democrats, and from the Labour party.

The letter says: “I can assure you the procurement requirements go no further than existing UK procurement law (the Public Contract Regulations 2006). This law already applies to Primary Care Trusts.”

Lord Howe says he is “absolutely clear that the regulations do not force commissioners to create new markets” and that “commissioners would not be obliged to advertise or competitively tender where no market exists and there is only one provider capable of delivering their requirements”.

He says regulations identify “technical reasons” as an exception to competition requirements and that “in practice, this criterion will be broad in its application”.

It could cover “provision of acute hospital services accessible on single sites; a range of integrated services to be delivered in the community; or where clinical volumes need to be maitained to protect patient safety”.

The government faces Parliamentary opposition which could potentially defeat the regulations. Lord Howe’s letter is an attempt to secure support by detailing the limits of the rules. If it does not allay fears, the government may have to change their wording or change policy.

Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones told HSJ the letter did not change his view that they need to be withdrawn and changed. He said: “I cannot support the regulations in their current form because I cannot see how they can be squared with Lord Howe’s previous statements.”

The full letter is attached

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