Frontbencher calls for NHS to be broken up

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Nick Clegg, a member of Charles Kennedy's shadow cabinet, claims that public patience with the NHS is "running out". He said in an interview with The Independent that the Liberal Democrats should "break up" the NHS, and stop trying to defend the status quo.

In a controversial intervention, that will infuriate many activists, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman urged the party to abandon "taboos" when talking about reform of the public services. He said the party should not rule out scrapping the centrally controlled NHS and moving to a locally run system or an insurance-based model such as those used on the Continent. "I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do to make it a more responsive service. I don't think anything should be ruled out. I do think they deserve to be looked at because frankly the faults of the British health service compared to others still leaves much to be desired."

Mr Clegg, who is regarded as a potential future leader, said he did not want to privatise the health service. But his remarks, on the first day of the party conference in Blackpool, will revive the row over The Orange Book - a collection of essays by leading Liberal Democrats - which infuriated allies of Mr Kennedy when it broached the question of health service reform.

As the Liberal Democrats began a week of debate about their future direction, Mr Clegg said the party should be bold about new thinking, and let its hair down and even be "reckless."

Mr Clegg said the party could not "just trundle along on the same tram lines as before". But, in the debate about tax policy, he urged the party not to "squeeze the middle classes" by increasing taxes. "My own reflex is that I don't think that clobbering middle England is the solution to our problems either economically or politically," he said.

Mr Clegg called on the party to review its policy of 50 per cent income tax for people earning more than £100,000 because he said voters, even those on medium salaries, were worried that it hampered aspiration.

His remarks drew an angry response from Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and the party's former health spokesman. Dr Harris said that talking about dismantling the NHS was uncalled for, while the party's tax policy was designed to help low income groups.

"Our policies for fair taxation including the 50p rate are not only principled but they are both popular and distinctive which is essential," he said.

"Party spokesmen have to understand that the language we use when talking about reform of the NHS is vital and talk of breaking it up is not helpful."

Mr Clegg also expressed scepticism about the party's proposals to consider a flat tax. He warned that the proposal could help the very rich and very poor but hit middle-income earners.

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