Lib-Dems baulk at NHS privatisation

by Daphne Liddle

THE LIBERAL Democrat conference in Sheffield last weekend was the scene of a rank and file revolt against the party leadership’s collaboration with the Tory onslaught on the public sector and especially the planned changes to the NHS.

After much verbal battering Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg had to accept that the conference would vote to significantly amend the Health and Social Care Bill.

Veteran Shirley Williams described the changes as “lousy” and warned that the Lib-Dems should not be responsible for burying the NHS.

Clegg told the conference: “All of us in government are listening and we take these concerns seriously,” and added that he was totally opposed to NHS privatisation.

Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP, warned that the party would not accept the leadership simply ignoring these amendments. He said:

“The conference voted overwhelmingly for more accountability and openness in commissioning, for a rejection of the marketisation of the health service and for safeguards against cherry-picking by private sector providers and against the undermining of local NHS services.

“Nick’s rejection of privatisation, while welcome, does not yet address all these issues.

“We expect Liberal Democrats in government to follow what we overwhelmingly vote for.”

This has damaged the chances of the Bill going through unscathed — without Lib-Dem support the Tories do not have enough votes.

Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on Monday began to backtrack and promised he would review the Bill and consider amendments to make it more acceptable to the Lib-Dems.

But this is likely to be little more than a few cosmetic changes that will allow Clegg and other Lib-Dem leaders to back the Bill. How they will square this with their membership later is another matter. But it is another sign that the Coalition is starting to come apart.

Meanwhile the British Medical Association is due to debate the Bill this week in a special conference. Ahead of the debate it spelled out some of its greatest concerns. One motion includes a vote of no confidence in the Health Secretary.

Under the Bill, the new economic regulator Monitor would have the same powers the Office of Fair Trading has under the 1998 Competition Act, following the model that applies to a number of privatised industries, including gas, telecommunications, electricity and water. It would also have a statutory duty to promote competition in the NHS.

In a new briefing paper, the BMA requests amendments to the Bill removing this duty. It raises concerns that:

In response to concerns by the BMA, a cross-party group of MPs have started to sign a parliamentary motion outlining worries about the Bill, particularly its emphasis on increasing and enforcing competition which is feared will undermine collaborative working.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chair of Council at the BMA, said: “Whatever your views of the privatisation of other services, it is certainly not the right model for the NHS. The consequences of failure in healthcare are far more serious than in other industries. At best, providers of care will be distracted from their main responsibility of providing excellent services.

“At worst, hospitals will close — not necessarily for appropriate reasons — and large groups of patients will have greater difficulty in accessing the care they need. The role of the regulator should not be to enforce potentially damaging competition but to ensure comprehensive, high quality care and to protect patients.”