Published: 06/02/2003, Volume II3, No. 5841 Page 6 7

Controversial plans to fine social services departments for delaying discharges of hospital patients could be held up by strong House of Lords opposition.

The government plans to implement its cross-charging scheme by April but intense pressure by opponents in the Lords could see the scheme put back by at least a year.

Opposition peers have already submitted a string of amendments to the Community Care (Delayed Discharges) Bill which contains measures to implement the scheme. The bill is set for its committee stage in the Lords on 17 and 18 February but opposition Lords have already warned the government that they will include amendments that will seek to delay implementation of the legislation until 2004.

But parliamentary procedure means conflict between the Commons and the Lords - where the government does not have a majority - could itself significantly delay the bill, which would be batted back and forth between the two houses until one side backs down or - more likely - some kind of trade-off is agreed between government and opposition parties. Such a delay could prevent the legislation receiving Royal Assent in time for the April start date.

Liberal-Democrat health spokesman Lord Clement-Jones said: 'The timing is very tight. I think it is extraordinary that ministers are trying to drive this through at this speed.'