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12 October 2011

We lost. But the fight continues

Labour cannot let the coalition ruin the NHS.

By Joan Bakewell

It was a tense two days: attention was focused, argument was heeded. Heads nodded in agreement. There was no barracking. We’re a polite lot in the Lords. The second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill was introduced by the Health Minister the Earl Howe. He was universally praised for the thoughtful and exact way he introduced this legislation. Willowy of stature with a slick of grey hair his quiet voice commanded the Chamber. He could, as Labour Baroness Donaghy remarked have “made this Titanic of a Bill sound like one of Abromovitch’s yachts”. We’re a polite lot in the Lords but we make our differences clear.

There were 100 speakers over a day and a half, with 41 of them women, and up to six bishops sitting together, their white sleeves billowing like foam on the bishops’ benches. The Archbishop of York made a powerful speech in favour of Lord Owen’s amendment that proposed the setting up of a new Select Committee to scrutinise contentious issues around the duties of the legal accountability of the Secretary of State, such a Committee to run in parellel as the House of Lords itself debated remaining clauses. But first there was Labour Peer Lord Rea’s amendment that “this House declines to give the bill a second reading….” Labour peers voted for both and both amendments would be lost, by 134 and 68 respectively.

Many cited their personal background: Baroness Kennedy spoke of her surgeon husband’s family, a dynasty of doctors who wanted no part of anything other than a publicly funded and provided National Health Service: Lord Alderdice spoke of his extensive medical family too: sadly they were on different sides. Everyone spoke of being inundated with letters, emails and briefings. Passions ran high: some of us feared the NHS was being handed over to privatisation. Baroness Murphy called this “twaddle”. Baroness Bottomley called it “romantic poppycock” and gave a warm welcome to the bill. She also managed to praise the merits of Tesco, a connection that didn’t seem appropriate. Lord Mawhinny condemned what he believed was an unprecedented.level of scaremongering. Those of us who are genuinely scared spoke of the risk of the free market, of going the way of America which spends 2.4 times more on health per person than Britain and yet has life expectancy levels lower than here.

By the end of day one the numbers in the Chamber had thinned. Former trade unionist Bill Morris’s turn to speak came at around midnight. But next morning the Chamber steadily filled up. The ailing Philip Gould turned up to support Labour; the recently widowed Lord Saatchi arrived to support the coalition. Some wondered whether Mrs Thatcher might come among us.

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At the last minute there was a sudden flurry of discussion about whether Lord Owen’s proposals could be brought in by a certain date. Last minute expectations and fears coalesced around this minor spat. And then it was time to line up in the lobbies.

And so we lost. Being fewer in number, Labour could only have carried the day if enough Cross benchers and Lib Dems came across and voted with us. And not enough did. So the Bill now goes to its committee stage, a time when a cascade of amendments will be tabled, each one argued to death and perhaps significant changes brought to this unwieldy and unwelcome bill. We face hard days ahead, but every inch gained will be worth it. We all know that the British public want the NHS to survive as they know it, only better. Labour were on the way to doing that. We can’t let the coalition ruin it.

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