ConservativeHome calls for health bill to be scrapped

Three Tory cabinet ministers "almost instructed" influential website to come out against NHS reform.

It has been a bad week for Andrew Lansley. David Cameron may have said this week that the Health Secretary has his "full support", but evidently not everyone in the cabinet feels the same. The influential website ConservativeHome has published an editorial calling for the bill to be scrapped. It claims that it was urged to do so by three Tory cabinet ministers.

This comes off the back of Rachel Sylvester's article in the Times (£) on Tuesday, which revealed deep concern about the NHS bill from the inner circles of government. She quoted a Downing Street insider who said that Lansley "should be taken out and shot."

Cameron moved to squash speculation that the Health Secretary is on his way out, throwing his weight behind efforts to get the bill on the statute books in the next few months. (It was defeated in the Lords this week). The Sylvester piece also made the point that the Prime Minister is remarkably loyal to Lansley, who was once his boss at the Conservative Research Department.

Yet it appears that some in the cabinet do not share Cameron's conviction for pressing ahead with the bill. In today's editorial, Tim Montgomerie writes:

Speaking to ConservativeHome, three Tory Cabinet ministers have now also rung the alarm bell. One was insistent the Bill must be dropped. Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax. The consensus is that the Prime Minister needs an external shock to wake him to the scale of the problem.

The intervention from ConservativeHome is significant for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it was urged to make this intervention by members of the cabinet who feel that Cameron is not listening. A source at the website told the Guardian: "We have almost been instructed to write this." If this is indeed the case, it is remarkable that cabinet members have reached such a level of frustration with Cameron's refusal to ditch the bill.

Secondly, the website is generally taken as a good bellwether of grassroots Conservative opinion and is thus far more significant for the government than the on-going clamour from Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters. Montgomerie articulates the growing sense that the bill is, essentially, more trouble than it's worth and "potentially fatal to the Conservative Party's electoral prospects":

By 'succeeding' in enacting a contentious Bill every inevitable problem that arises in the NHS in the years ahead will be blamed on it. That's a heavy price to pay for a Bill that is neither transformational nor necessary.

Guido Fawkes notes that this may not be the majority view of Tory voters, who still tend to support NHS reform. He makes the point that "cabinet ministers are hardly the grassroots". That may be the case, but this is still a highly significant intervention, reflecting the fact that the political pressure on this issue is not going anywhere.

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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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