Fellow blogger Sam Bangert just published his latest article, in which he quotes reports in the Telegraph and the Guardian that the government is preparing to withdraw its new regulations that open up the NHS to “compulsory competitive markets”.
It seems that Statutory Instrument 257, that would have seen the demise of the English National Health Service as anything other than a brand name, may be scrapped before it has a chance to wreak the devastation that so many of us fear. That’s a good thing.
The regulations were being brought in under section 75 of the hated Health and Social Care Act 2012, under a process known as ‘negative resolution’. This meant there would be no debate or vote; they would become law 40 working days after they were introduced. In order to fight them, Labour MPs would have had to ‘lay a prayer’, calling for a debate to take place. If they are withdrawn willingly by the government, there’s no need for all that rigmarole.
But there is a very good reason for us to remain extremely suspicious about this affair.
This is not because it’s yet another government U-turn. Yes, we have the most indecisive, vacillating administration in recent British history, but at least in this instance it is doing the right thing.
Having heard Health questions in the House of Commons this morning, one has to wonder whether it is for the right reasons.
You see, comedy Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, knocked back not one but two questions from Labour MPs on this very issue, claiming that the new regulations were nothing more than what Labour would have done.
“Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): “The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) asked a key question. Under the secondary legislation being introduced by the Secretary of State under section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, local commissioning groups will be forced to allow private providers into the NHS. These private providers will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, which will make it harder for patients to compare data between providers. It cannot benefit NHS patients for core clinical services to be given to private providers that do not have to conform to the same standards of transparency as those in the NHS. Will the Secretary of State see reason, ensure a level playing field for the NHS and withdraw the section 75 regulations without delay?
“Jeremy Hunt: “Who exactly are the section-75 bogeymen that the hon. Gentleman hates: Whizz-Kids who are supplying services to disabled children in Tower Hamlets, or Mind, which is supplying psychological therapy to people in Middlesbrough? The reality is that those regulations are completely consistent with the procurement guidelines that his Government sent to primary care trusts. He needs to stop trying to pretend that we are doing something different from what his Government were doing when in fact we are doing exactly the same.”
Later in the same session, the following exchange took place:
“Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): “On 13 March 2012, the former Secretary of State said of the Health and Social Care Bill:“There is absolutely nothing in the Bill that promotes or permits the transfer of NHS activities to the private sector.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 169.]However, the new NHS competition regulations break those promises by creating a requirement for almost all commissioning to be carried out through competitive markets, forcing privatisation through the back door, regardless of local will. Will the Secretary of State agree to make the regulations subject to a full debate and vote of both Houses?
“Jeremy Hunt: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my previous answer, he would have heard that the regulations are consistent with the procurement guidelines that his own Government sent out to PCTs. It is not our job to be a champion for the private sector or the NHS sector; we want to be there to do the best job for patients. That is the purpose of the regulations.”
If one thing is perfectly clear from these exchanges, it is that the well-known Misprint was not going to be corrected!
Then, a matter of moments later, this happened:
“Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): “In spite of my right hon. Friend’s earlier comments, I am afraid that the regulation that implements section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 does not maintain the assurances previously given and risks creating an NHS that is driven more by private pocket than concern for patient care. Will the Secretary of State please withdraw that regulation and take it back to the drawing board?”
“Norman Lamb, Minister of State, Department of Health: “We are looking at this extremely seriously. Clear assurances were given in the other place during the passage of the legislation, and it is important that they are complied with in the regulations.”
If you are re-reading that, thinking to yourself, “What just happened?”, you’re not the only one!
Mr George added nothing to what the Labour members had said – nothing at all. Yet Mr Lamb’s attitude was a complete, utter and ludicrous reversal of his Secretary of State’s.
He practically tugged his forelock and murmured, “Yes sir, koind master!”
Is this some ridiculous attempt to make it seem that the Coalition is still strongly united?
Is it some bid to show that, no matter what the result of the Eastleigh by-election, they’ll still be friends, working together “for the good of the country” (if anyone still believes that)?
At its lowest level, is it an attempt to show the Liberal Democrats that they are still relevant to British politics?
If so, then it should fail, precisely because the only points made by the Liberal Democrat member had previously been made by Labour.
If the Conservatives try to say the decision was changed because of the Lib Dems – as the Guardian seems determined to suggest – then we should laugh them out of the Commons chamber.