Last Thursday's election results have sparked a furious and emotional debate about the direction the Coalition Government is taking.
The Party that lost swathes of councillors and councils feels that it gains the mandate of the people, and the party whose vote stayed strong a year into Government seems to become apologetic and defensive. Talk in many of the serious papers has been that in order to raise Nick Clegg’s popularity the Prime Minister will allow him to change the Health and Social Care Bill until he is ‘personally satisfied’. This is in the face of the majority of voters in England (the area, after all, where this Bill will take effect) who went to the polls on Thursday in local elections to vote for a Conservative candidate. Liberal Democrats should absolutely change their tune.
One of the main bones of contention is the assertion that Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s reforms will see privatisation of the NHS. As a backbencher who sat on the committee for the Health and Social Care Bill and went through the clauses – one by one, hour by hour – I feel fully confident in stating publicly that the NHS under the current Government will always be free at the point of use, funded by general taxation and available based on need, not ability to pay. We will never privatise the NHS.
The scaremongering by the Labour Party on this issue is irresponsible. As even Labour leader Ed Miliband admitted, no change is not an option. Even though the Coalition Government is increasing health spending in real terms by £11 billion, we still need to reform the NHS to ensure it gives modern, first class patient care. Labour’s attempt to block these reforms is particularly unpalatable given that cancer survival rates became one of the lowest in Europe under the last Government. The number of managers increased six times as fast as the number of nurses. Just like on the economy, Labour are very good at spreading myths but deafeningly silent when it comes to proposing new and innovative ideas.
Contrary to what has been argued recently by some Liberal Democrats, competition is absolutely vital to ensuring the future of the NHS. Crucially, these reforms will introduce competition on quality, not price. To do this we need to accept that the private and not-for-profit sectors should have a role in providing services. All providers will be paid the same price for the services they provide – therefore driving up quality in the NHS, not driving down prices. And quality is measurable and tangible, as many patients and their families will testify from their experiences of the past ten years.
The NHS urgently needs to reform, and it should not go unnoticed that although the plans that have been outlined are ambitious and bold, they are an evolution and not a revolution. The Labour Party trialled them and introduced GP fund holding when it was in power, but lost its bottle under Brown. The Deputy Prime Minister signed up to the NHS White Paper not so long ago, but is now shaken by his party’s result last Thursday. The listening exercise is rightfully underway and should be the basis for any improvements to the fringes, not the core principles of the Bill.
I would encourage the Government to have the resolve to finally make these plans legislation, and make Andrew Lansley the Secretary of State to bring the NHS into the 21st Century.