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[Un-alloted Half Day] — Future of the NHS

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 9th May 2011.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport 5:19 pm, 9th May 2011

I have a different explanation, which is that both interpretations can be sustained by a reading of the Bill. It is a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde thing. I have a vision of the Bill being drafted during the day by a sane, pragmatic Dr Jekyll-like Minister, but during the night some rabid-eyed Mr Hyde with right-wing ideology breaks into Richmond House and changes many of the sentences. That is the only way I can explain the fact that the explanatory notes to the Bill provided in Committee explained very little.

The House might know that I am a long-term critic of the Bill and the White Paper before it. At the annual Liberal Democrat conference in October, I and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend Paul Burstow went around with a double act on the Bill—him for, me against. This is not, therefore, as Grahame M. Morris might think, a hissy fit following poor election results. Like nearly everyone in the House, I do not disagree with the Bill’s objectives: more clinical involvement, less bureaucracy and more local accountability. Like everyone else, I am concerned not about its objectives, but about its likely effects. I have met no one who takes issue with the Bill’s avowed intentions, but I have met many who dread its consequences.

According to one reading of the Bill—the Mr Hyde version—the eventual outcome of the Bill will be that the NHS opts out of direct health provision and becomes simply a funding body; NHS hospitals, services and clinics become indistinguishable from private ones; everyone competes on business terms for a slice of whatever funds the Government have allocated for health purposes; and what health care a person gets depends on what can be purchased on their behalf in a largely unconstrained, privately run health market. That is a perfectly consistent view of how a health service can be run, but in our country any party that advocates it commits political suicide. Furthermore, of course, it is likely to accentuate health inequalities and overall costs.

The question for us is this: what will prevent such a situation from arising out of a Bill that appoints a competition regulator along the lines of Ofgem to promote competition, that blurs many of the lines between private and public provision, and which removes the Government’s duty to provide a comprehensive health service? Hence the importance of today’s debate, which, knockabout apart, is crucial to the wider debate on the Bill. To be alarmed by the prospect I have set out is not to oppose competition in principle. The previous Government set up competition and collaboration panels to encourage a degree of challenge in the system. In fact, if hon. Members look at their record, they will see that they were knee-deep in competition initiatives. Neither is holding these concerns to be alarmed by the presence of private business in delivering NHS services. There is not a person here who has not used a private optician or a private pharmacist when they need it. There is a long tradition of involvement by the private sector in the NHS.

Rather, to be concerned about the proposals is to be alarmed by the fear of an unconstrained, uncontrolled market in health—this is a point that has been made previously—partly because it can lead to fragmentation, potential conflicts of interest, profiteering and so on, but mainly because identifying competition as the main engine of improvement in health care ignores the simply enormous gains in service quality, cost reduction, efficiency and patient experience that can be gained through co-operation, collaboration and integration of services.

The NHS is built on the principle of co-operation, in which we, the hale and hearty, make a moral compact to support the lame and the sick. To make commercial competition the main driver of improvement in the NHS, even if it is not competition on price, would be a serious mistake. It would be to subscribe to a perverse and misguided form of social Darwinism. Competition is a mechanism; it is not an end in itself. The role of competition in the NHS, as seen by the Government, is the real issue. The problem is made a lot worse by the hopeless lack of clarity over how European competition law will apply. We struggled with that issue in Committee. We did not resolve it, and I do not think that we will do so.