BMA: Lansley’s Health Bill may need to be dropped

As the government’s listening exercise winds down, a consensus on competition in the NHS is no close

The government's health plans for the NHS in England require such substantial changes that the entire bill may have to be dropped, according to the British Medical Association.

The doctors' union called for a series of changes in its submission to the government's six-week listening exercise, which was called in response to mounting criticism of the Health and Social Care Bill. In particular, doctors demand that the regulator's new duty to promote competition be dropped. They also want to see timetables relaxed and the net of responsibilities that the bill places on GP consortiums spread to involve other clinical staff.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is due to deliver a speech on health reform that will be closely watched, given his tough rhetoric on NHS reform in recent weeks.

Although he will call for substantial changes, he is expected to echo David Cameron's speech last week on the need for reform. The Liberal Democrats share their main concern about the bill with the BMA: that competition clause. The BMA wants a greater emphasis on collaboration; the Liberal Democrats endorsed this at their spring conference. To this end, Clegg will say:

People want choice – over their GP, where to give birth, which hospital to use. But providing that choice isn't the same as allowing private companies to cherry-pick NHS services.

As the listening exercise – essentially a second consultation period – draws to a close, it seems a consensus is no closer.

The government has repeatedly promised substantial change and rethinking of the bill (while reiterating the need for reform), but the question is how far it is willing to go with watering down the competition clause. Given that a free-market philosophy permeates Andrew Lansley's entire bill, and it has the support of many Conservatives, this will prove problematic.

Among the groups that have backed the government's plans for greater competition are Reform, a pro-market think tank, and the NHS Confederation, which represents managers. Doctors on one side and managers on the other: whose advice would you rather take?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.