The chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has said that it would function better if it were set free from the Department of Health.

Andrew Dillon said the public sector would look more favourably on NICE's public health guidance if it became a non-departmental public body rather than a DoH arm's-length body.

This would involve NICE being established under an act of Parliament, known as primary legislation. At present, NICE is a DoH special health authority.

Mr Dillon said: 'I think there would be some real advantages in being established under primary legislation and becoming a non-departmental public body.'

He told HSJ that although NICE provided public health guidance to local and central government and employers, it was still primarily associated with its decisions on whether drugs should be used in the NHS. Making it a non-departmental public body would 'help to both reinforce our independence and also give us a better platform to those non-NHS bodies', he said.

Mr Dillon stressed that the body had never been told what to do by the health secretary.

He said: 'The department and the secretary of state I think respect the fact that when they ask us to do something they step back at that point and let us get on with it.'

But pressure from the public and the media during the row over NICE's appraisal of breast cancer drug Herceptin had made its job 'extremely difficult', he said.