A health minister has said the premise of a tax funded NHS ‘has to be questioned’ if future economic growth lags behind rising healthcare demand for a long time.

Lord Prior, the Department of Health’s minister for productivity, said he was interested in exploring the idea of an “independent inquiry” to look into the long term sustainability of the health service.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate yesterday on “the sustainability of the NHS as a public service free at the point of need”, Lord Prior said the inquiry could look at two issues.

David Prior

David Prior believes a tax funded health system ‘is the right’ for the NHS

“What will the long term demand for healthcare be in this country in 10 or 20 years’ time” and “will we have the economic growth to fund it?”

“At heart, our ability to have a world class health system will depend on our ability to create the wealth in this country to fund it,” he said.

“I am personally convinced, having looked at many other funding systems around the world, that a tax funded system is the right one.”

“However, if demand for healthcare outstrips growth in the economy for a prolonged period, of course that premise has to be questioned.”

Lord Prior said the inquiry would not have to be a royal commission, and that organisations such as the Nuffield Trust or the King’s Fund could be commissioned to examine the issues.

He said he wanted to meet with Lord Patel, the cross-bench peer who moved the Lords debate, and “two or three others” to discuss in more detail whether such an inquiry could be framed.

Lord Prior was the chair of the Care Quality Commission until he resigned to join the government’s health team in May.

His outspoken views on subjects such as NHS competition occasionally landed him in controversy during his tenure at the CQC.

Earlier in the NHS sustainability debate, Lord Hunt, Labour’s health spokesman in the Lords, mentioned HSJ’s Future of NHS Leadership inquiry. Lord Hunt referred to the high turnover of NHS leaders highlighted by the inquiry, and said the health service needed “the best possible managers and leaders” to address the “productivity gap” and other challenges faced by the NHS.