Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is to acquire sweeping powers to shut down local hospitals at short notice even if they are performing strongly.
The Government tonight thwarted an attempt by Labour and rebel Coalition MPs to block the move.
The controversy centres on a provision in the Care Bill which allows a hospital to be closed or scaled back if a neighbouring trust develops serious financial problems.
The power was added to the Bill after the High Court ruled in October that Mr Hunt had exceeded his powers when he decided emergency and maternity units at Lewisham Hospital, south-east London, should be cut to save a neighbouring trust which was going bust.
A Labour attempt to prevent the move was defeated by 297 to 239 votes, a majority for the Coalition of 58. Six Tories rebelled on the issue. The Opposition argues that the proposal amounts to more “top-down control” of the National Health Service following its reorganisation of 2011.
But ministers counter that the moves are in the interests of patients as they boost care standards across broad areas.
In fractious exchanges, Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, compared Mr Hunt to a burglar “changing the law to get his way”.
And he claimed the plans could result in an otherwise good hospital shutting because of its proximity to a failing one, with patients and staff powerless to resist the closures. “Hospital closures should be determined by clinical reasons, not financial ones,” Mr Burnham told MPs.
Labour claims that more than 30 cash-strapped trusts could be at risk if it was made easier to rationalise services across wide geographical areas. But the health minister, Daniel Poulter, derided Mr Burnham as a specialist in spin and pointed to his own career as a GP as proof of his good intentions. He said: “Mr Burnham is good at playing politics, he’s good at spin. I’m a doctor and I will always do what I believe is in the best interests of patients.”
The moves will give Trust Special Administrators, appointed by the Health Secretary, the power to shut or downgrade any hospital or A&E departments at 40 days’ notice. Critics included Paul Burstow, the former Liberal Democrat health minister, who tabled an amendment to guarantee consultation rights for residents and give doctors who commission services a veto over any reorganisation.
His amendment was defeated by 288 to 241 votes, a majority of 47, after it was pushed to a vote in the Commons by Labour. It was backed by seven Conservative rebels, although Mr Burstow himself did not support it in the end. He was appointed to chair a committee of MPs and peers overseeing the changes.