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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.