The Liberal Democrats may be heading for a "catastrophic train crash" by pressing ahead with the Coalition's controversial health reforms, a senior MP warned yesterday.
Andrew George, who is a member of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, told activists at the party conference that the plans represented the "biggest upheaval" in the NHS's history at precisely the time when it needed stability and certainty.
"I want to do my best to save the NHS from what I believe may be a catastrophic train crash, which I fear may take the party with it," he said
Mr George said the proposals raised the "very real risk" of producing a health service driven more by private profit than concern with patient care.
He added the reforms represented "a major missed opportunity" to produce a service which was more accountable to communities and patients, and claimed the amendments secured through the pause in the Bill's passage took the party only to the "foothills" of the mountain.
"I think the future fate of both this party and this Coalition Government needs to take heed of the concept that, actually, 'It's the NHS, stupid.'"
Liberal Democrat activists used a debate on the NHS to vent their anger at the proposals – despite the fact that they were not allowed to vote to gauge the party's view on the reformed Bill.
Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh said the reforms took the Blairite model of the NHS to its logical, ultimate and slightly disturbing conclusion. Mr Pugh, co-chair of the Liberal Democrats' backbench health committee, added it was "absurd and unhelpful" to have the NHS and private providers at loggerheads by making the private sector no longer a helpful partner but a rival.
Former MP and doctor Evan Harris said the Bill "currently goes well beyond the coalition agreement in implementing Tory policy and falls well short of the coalition agreement in delivering Liberal Democrat policy".
Liberal Democrat grandee Baroness Williams, who is set to be a key figure in the Bill's battle to get through the Lords, and Dr Harris called on the party's peers and MPs to support her changes to the legislation.
Lord Marks said he would work to remove the Health Secretary's duty to promote autonomy for health bodies from the Bill in case it provided a legal justification for failing to intervene in the provision of care.
Norman Lamb, a parliamentary aide to Mr Clegg and a former Liberal Democrat health spokesman, insisted the Government remained open to further changes in the Lords. He added that the Secretary of State's responsibility to provide a comprehensive health service, a major concern for Liberal Democrats, would be "put beyond doubt".
The Bill removes the cap on the amount of private income foundation hospitals can earn, but Mr Lamb insisted that would benefit patients.
He said: "We should require foundation trusts to demonstrate how non-NHS income is benefiting NHS patients. I know views vary on this issue, but the debate must be had in the House of Lords so that we get it right so that any private work is done for the benefit of NHS patients."