Is the NHS reform overhaul merely cosmetic?

The government has accepted "core" changes to its NHS reform -- but the coalition's NHS headache is

The Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has confirmed significant changes to the government's NHS reforms, following a 10 week "listening exercise".
This looks like a significant victory for the Liberal Democrats, who resoundingly voted against moves to introduce greater competition. Reportedly, Nick Clegg was cheered by his MPs last night when he told them their demands had been "very, very handsomely met". In another victory for Clegg, the bill will return to committee stage in the House of Commons, meaning that it will not become law until next year.

At a joint press conference with David Cameron and Lansley, Clegg said that the government now has a plan "we can all get behind". The two key changes are watering down Monitor's role in promoting competition, and relaxing the 2013 deadline for reform.

While this is a significant step forwards, however, the coalition's NHS headache is not over yet. Cameron now faces the challenge of winning over Tory backbenchers who are angry at the way Lansley has been treated. It is believed that he was subjected to unfair briefings, given that his white paper on health was agreed by Clegg and Cameron last year.

However, Lansley and Cameron have both stressed that while the detail has been modified, the fundamentals of the plan -- giving greater commissioning powers to GPs and allowing greater competition in the health service -- are unchanged.

Gary Gibbon suggests that even these changes to the detail could be merely cosmetic:

Changing the terms for Monitor, the NHS regulator, is an interesting one too. I just asked a very senior member of the NHS Future Forum what was the difference is between an economic regulator and a sector regulator. "There's no difference," he said. If Monitor is no longer about "promoting" competition, what is its role on competition I asked. "Enabling" competition, came the answer. These are "totemic" changes, he said. You don't need a regulator to "promote competition" if you've created the space for competition. It'll just come, like breathing.

My source said the Forum frequently felt it was trying to put the original plans into politically acceptable language, not make radical change to the original Lansley reforms.

All this could be wishful thinking by supporters of the original reforms but I pass it on.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former doctor and critic of the original bill, described these new proposals as "a change in emphasis". The Lib Dems are certainly entitled to their jubilation at these concessions -- but at this stage, it is impossible to tell what this will mean in practice.

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

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.