Could David Owen kill the NHS bill?

Health minister warns that Owen's amendment could prove fatal to the government's reforms.

While Westminster has been Fox hunting, the dispute over the government's NHS reforms has quietly restarted. The House of Lords began debating the Health and Social Care Bill today and a vote will be held tomorrow. While there is little prospect of the bill being voted down, ministers are concerned that an important amendment tabled by former SDP leader David Owen and the constitutionalist Peter Hennessy could pass.

The amendment is calling for the whole of part three of the bill - the section relating to competition in the NHS - to be referred to a special select committee for further scrutiny. Significantly, as the FT's Kiran Stacey notes, some ministers fear that the amendment could kill off the entire bill. In a letter to peers before today's debate, Richard Howe, a health minister, warned that the "potential for slippage in the timetable carries grave implications for the government's ability to achieve royal assent for the bill by the end of the session. The bill cannot be carried over from this session to the next.

"The House must have proper time to examine the bill but the proposal put forward by Lord Owen could result in delay, which could well prove fatal to it. This is not a risk that I believe this House should take." Under the terms of the amendment, the special committee would report back by 19 December.

Owen has warned that the bill will allow the Health Secretary to "abdicate from all responsibility for the provision as well as the promotion of health-care." In an an article for the NS earlier this year, he previously declared that the Lib Dems would no longer be "the heirs of Beveridge" if they failed to halt or "at the very least, slow down" the reforms.

Labour is likely to vote en masse for the amendment, leaving Owen and Hennessy with around 80 additional votes to win.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.