Minister plays down NHS claim

Click to follow

A Conservative minister has played down suggestions that the Government is to abandon plans for a regulator to promote competition in the NHS in the face of opposition from Nick Clegg.

The Deputy Prime Minister was reported to have told a meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs and peers last night that the regulator, Monitor, should have a duty to push NHS collaboration rather than competition.

The BBC said it had obtained a Lib Dem policy document, signed by Mr Clegg, in which he said the proposal to establish Monitor as an "economic regulator" was "clearly a misjudgment".

"I have come to the conclusion that we must not make this change," he said.

The change would strip out a key plank of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms - currently on hold as the Government conducts a "listening" exercise in the face of widespread concern within the service and among patients.

But Conservative Health Minister Simon Burns insisted that no decisions had been made and Mr Clegg's proposals were among a number of ideas for change that were being considered.

"The Deputy Prime Minister met, I understand, with his Members of Parliament last night and discussed this," he told BBC1's Breakfast.

"They have come up with some ideas, like a load of other people throughout the NHS. All these ideas will be considered when the listening process is over and then decisions will be taken."

The measure introducing greater competition within the NHS has proved one of the most controversial aspects of the Health and Social Care Bill.

David Cameron has been at pains to make clear that changes to the legislation are not just being driven by the Lib Dems, and Mr Clegg's intervention is likely to irritate many Tories.

According to the BBC, Mr Clegg told his Lib Dem colleagues that he would "never let the profit motive get in the way of the essential purposes of the NHS".

"There must be no change in the way competition law operates in our NHS," he is reported as saying.

"No to establishing Monitor as an economic regulator as if health care was just like electricity or the telephone, and no to giving anyone in the NHS a duty to promote competition above all else."

He was also said to have taken a sideswipe at Mr Cameron, criticising people who profess to love the NHS while taking advice from people talking up the potential for private profits.

He was quoted as saying: "People get confused when one day they hear politicians declare how much they love the NHS and the next they hear people describing themselves as government advisers saying that reform is a huge opportunity for big profits for healthcare corporations."

Evan Harris, a former Lib Dem MP and vice chairman of the party's federal policy committee, said Mr Burns was "wrong" to say Mr Clegg's comments were simply a contribution to the listening exercise.

"We have made very clear that there will be no Government majority for things not in the coalition agreement, like this mass marketisation of the health service, without Liberal Democrat MPs and peers," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"They will not vote for Monitor to be an economic regulator so this is a veto."

Tory backbencher Peter Bone accused the Lib Dems of trying to exploit the issue for political reasons, having previously backed the reforms in Cabinet and the House of Commons.

"The only reason this is happening is because the Liberals got thrashed in the local elections and lost the AV vote," he told the Today programme.

"What they are trying to do is change the NHS, not for the best interests of the NHS but for party political reasons, and that is totally wrong."

He insisted that the promotion of competition was an important part of the NHS reforms.

"If you can get more services for less money through charitable or private sectors, then that is what people want," he said.

"It is very difficult how you could oppose that unless you are sticking up for some sort of state system dinosaur."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "We are currently engaged in the listening exercise but we have said from the start that competition must be on the basis of quality, not price, and work in the interests of patients.

"We await the recommendations from the NHS Future Forum, expected early next month."

Shadow health secretary John Healey said: "People can't trust Nick Clegg with the NHS. He only wants to save his party.

"For the past 12 months, the Deputy Prime Minister has backed the Tory changes to the hilt and Lib Dem MPs have voted for it at every stage in Parliament.

"The Lib Dems are now making arguments on the NHS that Labour has been making for months.

"It's only since his party's disastrous showing at the local elections that Mr Clegg has started back-pedalling.

"He's now trying to do a U-turn over the health bill while, in fact, up to his neck in it."