The more we find out about Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill – his bid to privatise the NHS – the more childish it all seems.
This has been a week of shocks for the architects of the Bill, starting with the revelation that a Conservative ‘insider’ had described Mr Lansley as “a disaster” who, far from winning over critics of the Health Bill, has managed “to further annoy and alienate NHS staff”, and that a Downing Street briefing had called for him to be “taken out and shot”.
“Health reform should have been carried out by stealth,” said one strategist, according to an article in The Times.
It seems that many of Mr Lansley’s changes could have been carried out without primary legislation, thereby avoiding the glare of the public spotlight and all the adverse publicity that has come with it. Nevertheless, the idea of fundamental changes to our greatest national institution taking place covertly is outrageous and Jon Trickett MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, has written to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, seeking reassurance that “there will be no such covert attempt to bring about fundamental change in the ethos or the care offered by our National Health Service”.
In fact, changes have already been implemented by the government – at considerable cost to the taxpayer – without waiting for the Bill to finish its passage through Parliament and get Royal Assent. Apparently these things are mere formalities for our Coalition leaders (who, let’s not forget, are composed of members of two political parties who could not win the confidence of a majority of the electorate on their own).
But a judicial review, to establish the legality of these moves, is now a distinct possibility.
The decision to implement as much as he has without waiting for the bill’s royal assent is a “flagrant flouting of parliament”, according to Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. But while a U-turn would be embarrassing, failing to do so would be worse, she argued.
Andrew George, the Lib Dem MP and member of the health select committee, put it like this: “It will now cause havoc either way, but going ahead is even more catastrophic”.
Even Tory commentators have turned on the Bill. Craig Barrett, writing in Tory blog Egremont, said: “The fact that many of the reforms do not even require primary legislation makes the resulting headache look embarrassingly self-inflicted. Without a proper mandate, it looks undemocratic.
“For the good of the NHS, Andrew Lansley must admit defeat and head to the backbenches.”
Hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, midwives and others have called for the government to abandon this proposed legislation before it does great harm to the NHS. The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing have voiced concerns, and the Royal College of GPs wrote last week to Mr Cameron to ask for the bill to be scrapped. The Faculty of Public Health became the latest healthcare body to call for the Bill to be dropped, “in the best interests of everyone’s health”.
Downing Street has insisted that Mr Lansley and his reforms have the Prime Minister’s full support, though.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Cameron said his government was increasing its spending on the NHS, while the Labour administration in Wales was making cutbacks. It is easy to dismiss this criticism, though – the cutbacks in Wales are entirely due to cuts in funding from Mr Cameron’s own Westminster government.
The government has offered more than 100 concessions in an effort to get the Bill passed, but this did not stop the House of Lords passing another amendment when peers discussed it on Wednesday.
So – as one can see – there’s a huge amount of opposition to this Bill. It is seen as undemocratic. Only a tiny minority of healthcare professionals want to see it implemented, and they tend to belong to the administrative side – the bean-counters and pen-pushers, rather than the medical practitioners themselves. And Mr Lansley’s time as Health Secretary has been a “disaster”.
Why, then, do both he and our comedy Prime Minister persist with it?
Well, it’s their vanity project, isn’t it?
It’s their attempt to write their names into the history books – the biggest change to the National Health Service since it was created in 1948 and, they hope, the blow that will lead it into a long-drawn-out death, to make way for private health companies and block millions of people from receiving health care of any kind in the future. You just won’t be able to afford it.
In short, they want to graffito “David and Andrew were here” across the face of Britain’s biggest and best-loved national institution, and they’ll do it at any cost.