Newly appointed Monitor chair David Bennett has warned politicians against imposing “inappropriate influence” in debates over whether NHS pensions are blocking competition.

In an interview with HSJ, Mr Bennett said stronger safeguards were needed to prevent governments from exerting political pressure on Monitor, particularly over its new role in promoting competition.

This would be crucial in decisions regarding the “politically sensitive” subject of whether NHS pensions were preventing private providers from entering the market, he said.

“It’s absolutely essential to stress that at the end of the day we will not be, must not be, subject to any form of direct political pressure,” he said.

“Speaking as someone who has been very close to politicians making political decisions… I think on these really difficult issues it’s highly desirable that you take any inappropriate influence out of these things.”

Mr Bennett, who is currently Monitor’s chief executive, formerly worked at McKinsey and as chief policy adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair. It has not yet been decided when he will take over from Monitor’s present chair Steve Bundred.

The Health Bill’s impact assessment said that NHS providers had a 14 per cent advantage over private firms, largely due to the fact that they were able to offer employees the relatively generous health service pension.

Mr Bennett said it was “unfortunate” that the impact assessment had focused on the factors tilting the playing field away from the private sector. Monitor itself is due to carry out an in-depth analysis of competition issues.

The regulator is also in talks with the Department of Health about the circumstances in which a health secretary would be able to “direct” it, in the event of it failing in its duties.

Mr Bennett said the advantage to setting out the circumstances more clearly was “not just transparency but means if the processes are not followed properly they can be subjected to review by the courts”.

But he did not believe further clarity was needed on where price competition would be deemed appropriate, despite accusations that the government has performed a policy U-turn.

He said: “I think the best thing is to make sure that the controls of the economic regulator are appropriate and then let [it] get on with the job.”

Monitor would need to consult carefully before “making pronouncements” on services that could offer below tariff prices, Mr Bennett said.

But his first task as chair would be to appoint a chief executive - ideally someone who knew about healthcare and economic regulation, but “most importantly” was a strong leader.

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