Tories accused of NHS promise smokescreen

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's promise to "pause and listen" to concerns over his planned NHS shake-up were dismissed as a smokescreen to protect the coalition from an electoral backlash in the run-up to next month's polls.

Shadow health minister Diane Abbott said Mr Lansley was determined to "get away with as little substantive change" as he could to the Health and Social Care Bill, despite the launch of a listening exercise in response to growing resistance to the plans.

Mr Lansley told the Commons the Government was united in its aim of strengthening the NHS.

The Health Secretary has come under sustained attack from health professionals over his plans to hand more power and financial control to GPs and the radical reforms have also strained relations between the coalition parties.

But Ms Abbott insisted that the consultation exercise was a sham designed to protect the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats during next month's elections to councils and the devolved institutions.

She said: "If Lib Dem MPs were seriously opposed to this reorganisation, they could have voted against it at second reading."

She asked Mr Lansley how he could "expect the public to take these discussions and the listening exercise seriously", adding: "Aren't they just a device to get the coalition through the May elections?

"Aren't you determined to get away with as little substantive change as you can manage?"

Mr Lansley told her: "My objective, that of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, all of the Government, is further to strengthen the NHS.

"We will use this opportunity to ensure that the Bill is right for that purpose."

Mr Lansley told MPs: "We are taking this opportunity to pause, listen, reflect and improve the Health and Social Care Bill.

"A total of 119 events have already been organised centrally, and the regional and local NHS will be organising many more.

"These events will allow us to hear a full range of views, from professionals to public and patients."

Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes welcomed the pause and the "opportunity to reflect on what changes might be beneficially made to the legislation".

He said local councillors and the public should be involved in the process.

"The professionals have had their say, and they have very strong views, but the patients and elected people need to have their say too."

Mr Lansley said he could give that assurance and added: "The Bill substantially improves both public and patient voice in the NHS.

"We have to ensure that we take every opportunity now further to improve it."

Labour's Kevin Barron, a former chairman of the health select committee, asked whether any changes to the Bill would be put out to public consultation and whether MPs would be able to look "in detail" at any fresh proposals.

Mr Lansley said the Bill would have to return to the Commons for its report stage and third reading.

Former health secretary Stephen Dorrell, who now chairs the select committee, asked Mr Lansley to "take account fully of the views of representatives of the full range of clinical opinion within the health service - nurses, hospital doctors, community-based clinicians, as well as GPs".

Mr Lansley told him: "We have done that in the past and we continue to do so."

Labour's Clive Efford (Eltham) asked whether there could be a second committee stage examination of the Bill, which he claimed was in "disarray".

Mr Lansley said: "What matters to the public is the quality of services being provided to them."

Shadow health minister Liz Kendall said the London Ambulance Service was planning to cut "560 frontline staff".

She said: "Nationally, A and E waits of more than four hours are up 65%, the number of patients waiting more than six weeks for their cancer tests has doubled, and more patients are waiting longer than 18 weeks than at any time in the last two years."

She told Mr Lansley to acknowledge the Government's pledge to protect frontline care was "unravelling even faster than your chaotic health bill".

Mr Lansley told her: "The Labour Party wanted to cut the budget of the NHS."

The Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government is "cutting the NHS in real terms".

The Health Secretary added there was a need to maintain frontline services "while continually improving efficiency".