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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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). 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 considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.