David Owen's NHS bill offers a final chance to save our health service

Labour and the Lib Dems must support a bill that restores the right of all citizens to comprehensive care.

David Owen has today published in full a bill in the House of Lords to reinstate the NHS and the secretary of state’s legal duty to provide a national health service throughout England. This duty has been in force since 1948 and is the legal foundation of the NHS and our rights and entitlements to health care, a duty the coalition’s Health and Social Care Act 2012 is abolishing.

Owen’s 'reinstatement' bill puts into reverse the monstrous 473 H&SC Act, which from April this year abolishes the NHS throughout England, reducing it to a stream of taxpayer funds and a brand or logo for the public bodies and private companies which will receive them. The bill does not entail yet more disruptive reorganisation, it simply restores the democratic basis of the NHS and the rights and entitlements of all citizens to comprehensive care; rights which were shredded by the 2012 Act.

As Owen has warned: "the NHS has remained by far and away the most popular public service because people sense rationing and restrictions are inevitable, and resources limited but that they value and recognise the fairness of those decisions being taken not by market forces or quangos but by some overall democratic, open, transparent decision-making."

This bill comes at an important moment. Next week, Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt will determine the fate of Lewisham hospital and very soon the fate of many more hospitals as cuts and shareholders' profits bite deep into NHS budgets. By putting power into the hands of quangos, the government hopes to protect itself from the full force of public anger at the implementation of a four-year 'efficiency' plan expected to generate £20bn savings by 2014.

The plan, drawn up by US management consultants McKinsey on PowerPoint slides, the electronic equivalent of the back of a cigarette packet, has already led to the sacking of thousands of nurses and loss of services.

David Nicholson, the chief executive of the new NHS Commissioning Board, who appeared before the public accounts committee last week, warned of worse to come: "We are just going into a phase now where quite a lot of fairly contentious service change issues are surfacing." "Fairly contentious" makes a mockery of the scale of proposed losses and closures.

In north west London the government plans to cut 25 per cent of beds, and throughout London at least seven accident and emergency departments will close; 5,600 jobs in North West London will be lost by 2015, 4,000 in Merseyside, and thousands more in Rotherham, Devon and Cornwall, Bolton, and Portsmouth. Hospital closure and downgrading will take place in several major cities. Meanwhile, payments to private contactors continue to escalate, from those to management consultancies that have taken over from public officials, through expensive PFI deals involving payments that are contracted to rise each year, to outsourced services from which shareholders are seeking returns ranging from 15-25 per cent.

And yet the NHS returned over £2bn to the Treasury last year. Hospitals have deficits because the government chooses to load them with these costs, not because they are badly run. The government is manufacturing a financial crisis which is not of hospitals' own making.

The Health and Social Care Act legalises the break-up of the NHS under the efficiency plan. Some services will become the responsibility of local authorities and others will be the responsibility of private, for-profit firms; many services may no longer be provided free. For instance, mental health, immunisation and sexual health are being transferred to local authorities. Services for pregnant or breast-feeding women, for younger and older children, for the prevention of illness, even for the care of persons suffering from illness or needing after-care may no longer be mandatory parts of the free health service. In fact, pretty much everything is up for grabs.

MPs and the public have yet to realise that the Act will abolish the NHS by splitting up services in this way and removing the secretary of state’s control over provision. Unfairness has already been creeping in under existing rules. Two weeks ago the medical director of the NHS, Sir Bruce Keogh, admitted to the public accounts committee that for the last two years he has been "deluged by letters from people saying, 'This PCT isn’t paying for that', or that one PCT takes a different view on (entitlement of patients to) hip surgery or cataracts to another." We are outraged by the unnecessary pain this causes and authorities must be held to account for the denial of care. After April, when the Act is implemented, that will no longer be possible. Instead, a range of bodies not accountable to parliament, including for-profit companies, will decide which services will be freely available and who will receive them. That is no longer a national health service and people must understand that.

The coalition has deceived the public over the NHS. The Health and Social Care Act is not about making the service GP or patient-led, it is about abolishing the national service and transferring public funds and services to the private sector through a process of closure and the manufacture of a financial crisis. Loss of services coupled with new discretionary powers mean that people will be forced to pay out of their own pocket for more of their care. Owen’s bill exposes the truth behind the Act. For sixty years, the public , unlike their US cousins, had no fear of health care bills; this freedom from fear and commitment to the NHS model has stood the test of time. Will Labour and the Liberal Democrats support a Bill that restores the democratic and legal basis of the NHS and the principle of health care for all on the basis of need and not ability to pay?

Allyson Pollock is professor of public health policy and research at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of NHS PLC

David Price is a senior research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London

Demonstrators protest against the proposed closure of the Accident and Emergency and maternity units at Lewisham hospital. Photograph: Getty Images.


Allyson Pollock is professor of public health policy and research at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of NHS PLC

David Price is a senior research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London


David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide