Open letter to Lib Dem members from John Healey MP, Labour Shadow Health Secretary
I attended your Party’s debate in Sheffield today on the government’s NHS reorganisation. It would have surprised some to see me at a LibDem Conference but I was made to feel welcome, and I welcome also the outcome of the vote that followed the debate.
Your conference showed its understanding that there is next to nothing of Lib Dem health policy in David Cameron’s huge top-down internal reorganisation of the NHS in England. The Prime Minister is trying to force this onto people, despite promising NOT to do so in the Coalition Agreement, and despite increasing concern and criticism from patients’ groups, professional bodies and NHS experts.
By voting how it did, your conference has recognised Mr Cameron’s plans for the NHS as Conservative policy.
Your Party’s policy priorities before the election were to ensure that local people have more control over their health services. The Tory-led government meanwhile, wants to place sweeping powers with a new national QUANGO – the National Commissioning Board – and a national economic regulator charged with promoting and enforcing competition to open up all parts of the NHS to private health companies.
Your Party’s principled concern before the election was to strengthen local and public accountability of health services. However, the Health and Social Care Bill seriously restricts openness, scrutiny and accountability both to the public and to Parliament. It will lead to an NHS in which “commercial in confidence” will be stamped on many of the most important decisions.
The Conservative ideology towards full market competition at the heart of this legislation directly conflicts with your Party’s long and proud commitment to the ethos of essential public services. Doctors warn the plans will be “the end of the NHS as we currently know it”.
The reorganisation, which the NHS chief executive himself has described as “enormous – beyond anything that anybody from the public or private sector has witnessed” is piling on extra unnecessary pressure on the health service. It comes at a time when patients and staff are already seeing waiting lists grow and services cutback. Led by the BMA, organisations speaking for NHS staff say the scale, speed and cost of the changes are “extremely risky and potentially disastrous”.
The outcome of today’s vote shows LibDems recognise all of these concerns. I saw for myself what your delegates think of David Cameron’s plans. The big test now is for your leader Nick Clegg. It will be up to him to persuade the Prime Minister to change course and make fundamental changes to the planned legislation and reorganisation. If Mr Clegg fails to do so, I hope you as an ordinary LibDem member will make common cause with everyone else who wants to defend and protect the NHS.
John Healey MP Labour Shadow Health Secretary