John Healey, the new shadow Health Secretary, has warned that the Coalition Government's plans to hand GPs control of £80bn of the NHS budget could result in the back-door privatisation of the service.
The shake-up would "open the door" to privatisation even if that was not the Government's intention because power would shift to unaccountable private companies called in by GPs to handle the commissioning of services, Mr Healey told The Independent in his first newspaper interview since being appointed to the post.
Mr Healey, 50, is the quiet man of Labour politics, little-known outside Westminster. But we will be hearing a lot more from him after his spectacular rise up the Labour ladder in last week's Shadow Cabinet election. He won the support of 192 of Labour's 257 MPs, coming second behind Yvette Cooper.
When he asked Mr Healey to take on the health brief last Friday, Ed Miliband, the Opposition Leader, told him: "This is the big public services battleground for Labour over the next five years."
Mr Healey said the plan for GPs to take over commissioning from primary care trusts (PCTs) amounts to "the biggest reorganisation in the NHS since it was set up". And yet Labour will not be manning the barricades. Reflecting the Labour leader's desire not to oppose everything the Government does, his health spokesman promises "responsible, constructive as well as strong opposition".
"It won't be all-out opposition. Some of the things the Tories set out to do will be the right things. Many of the things Andrew Lansley [the Health Secretary] says are good, but many of the things that will happen are wrong. There is a gap.
"The problem with the reorganisation is not that it gives GPs more influence over the services in their area, but giving GPs a budget of £80bn which is nearly twice as much as the £45bn defence budget. GPs trained as doctors, not managers or accountants. Most want to be family doctors rather than financial managers.
"The new NHS will be open to all-comers and all providers. Big private companies – including American companies – are ready to move in. GPs will have to hire them to do the commissioning on their behalf. At the moment, a typical PCT has 2,000 clinical and 200 non-clinical contracts. The family doctor, however bright and interested, is not going to do that."
Mr Healey signalled a departure from the line of his predecessor, Andy Burnham, who felt that the Coalition was wrong to exempt the NHS from spending cuts. Mr Healey said: "I am happy that the Government is saying it will protect the NHS budget, but I am unhappy about what it plans to do with the NHS."
He praised Mr Burnham's plan for a levy on estates – dubbed a "death tax" by the Tories – to fund a national care service, saying it was "a good starting point" for Labour, but adding that how to fund social care was "a big open question for us all".
The MP for Wentworth and Dearne, one of nine Yorkshire MPs in the Shadow Cabinet, was Gordon Brown's parliamentary aide and became a Treasury minister before making his mark as Housing minister. Never a factional politician, he reached out beyond the Brown circle and campaigned in the constituencies of many Labour colleagues.
"Elections like that are won over years, not weeks. I was very pleased. This is the judgement of people who know us best," he said. "People saw me as a politician, not a manager. I have always been someone who has got on and done the job, rather than done the journalists."
Mr Miliband lived in his Rotherham home for a month before winning the nomination as Labour candidate for Doncaster North for the 2005 election. Despite that, Mr Healey campaigned for Ed Balls in the Labour leadership election. Asked if he was surprised that Mr Balls was not made shadow Chancellor, there was a long pause before he replied: "There are traditionally three top status jobs, shadow Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. Ed Miliband won the leadership election. Ed Balls didn't. He [Mr Balls] started a long way behind and finished a lot closer. He finished very strongly."
Mr Healey said Mr Balls would put aside any disappointment and do a strong job as shadow Home Secretary.
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