New Clause 19 — NHS Foundations Trusts: phasing out of provision of private health care

Vat – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 6th September 2011.

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‘The Secretary of State must make regulations which provide for NHS Foundation Trusts to be prevented from providing services other than those of the health service in England within three years of Royal Assent of this Act.’.—(Andrew George.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 22—Private health care: rules—

‘(1) Section 44 of the National Health Service Act 2006 (Private healthcare) is amended as follows.

(2) Insert new subsection (A1) as follows—

“(A1) NHS Foundation Trusts must act in accordance with the following rules when carrying out their functions under this section—

(a) NHS Foundation Trusts are not permitted to operate NHS functions or contracts in a manner which promotes their private healthcare operation;

(b) any private healthcare service offered should only be within the provision of the services and procedures which are not also duplicated by the Trust’s NHS functions or contracts; and

(c) the Trust should at all times operate any private healthcare interest in a manner which in no way conflicts with its responsibility to provide unfettered access of its NHS patients to its NHS services.”’.

Amendment 1165, page 159, line 24, leave out clause 168.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

The new clauses deal with a totemic issue that has bedevilled the debate throughout and raised concerns. The question whether to raise the cap or leave it where it is is a ham-fisted reaction to our current situation in the Report stage of a re-committed Bill. There should be an opportunity for further consideration, and I hope the issue will be examined in another place.

There has been much hyperbole about the privatisation of the NHS and other themes that have run through the debate. The general concern is that, as a result of various genies being let out of bottles and caps being lifted, we will end up with an NHS driven more by concern with private profit than by concern with matters of patient care. There is a slippery slope, of which that issue is symptomatic, throughout the Bill.

The purpose of the new clauses is to address that issue and retain the cap to ensure that the matter is kept under appropriate control. The rough and tumble of political debate means that we will end up scoring points off each other and asking who introduced foundation trusts and so on. We have been through that playground before and I do not intend to go in that direction, but I want to make sure that we have an opportunity to explore the matter. We do not have much time so I will not detain the House unnecessarily.

The removal of the cap will give more scope for NHS trusts to compete in the market, which will make them more likely to be considered undertakings for competition law purposes, even in respect of NHS services which the hospitals claim their private work subsidises, thus allowing competition law to reach further and more firmly into the NHS. The Government briefing does not even dispute that fact, as far as I can see. Also, if NHS foundation trusts can muscle in on the private market, rather like the BBC, private providers will feel more justified in arguing for the right to compete for far more NHS services, and the courts may well agree.

New clause 19 recognises that pay beds in the NHS represent a challenge, both ethically—it is about how beds can be reserved for paying patients in the same hospitals where poorer patients with higher needs must wait—and with regard to competition law. It would phase out the reserving of beds for paying patients in NHS hospitals by 2015.

New clause 22 would put a bar on foundation trusts offering private services where that would compete with their NHS provision. I certainly know, having undertaken surveys of the NHS 12 years ago, that the specialties with the longest waiting times—I will not say which, but Members might guess—happened to be those in which the most private practice was going on. One might argue that the private practice resulted from the long waiting times, but the long waiting times could have been part of a system that enabled the private sector to flourish. I fully accept—to save the Minister a lot of time in his response—that the new clause is technically very deficient, so I will not press it to a vote, but I want to express my concern and probe the issue in debate.

I know that there are ethical considerations here and that the General Medical Council and others would not only frown on the kind of practices I am implying might go on, but would rule against them. The concern is that the trusts, or those working for them, might be seduced into behaving in ways that drive their NHS patients into the arms of their private wings. Once we go down that road, many conundrums will arise and will need to be sorted out. I do not believe that the Government entirely have a handle on the issue, which is why I believe that simply lifting the cap, despite all the justifications they have given, needs a serious rethink.

I do not question Ministers’ intentions, which I think are honourable, but I do think that they have the wrong policy. I do not think that they, as some claim, want to push privatisation across the NHS, but I do think that this could end up being a catastrophic policy that unleashes something that, once it goes through, we will be able to regret at our leisure. On that basis, I simply wanted to raise these matters and ensure that we have an opportunity to debate them, primarily for the purposes of probing the issues.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health) 9:15 pm, 6th September 2011

I would like to speak to amendment 1165, which stands in my name and those of my right hon. Friend John Healey, my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), for Halton (Derek Twigg) and for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), and the hon. Members for St Ives (Andrew George), for Southport (John Pugh) and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). It would delete clause 168, which abolishes the cap on the number of private patients who can be treated in foundation trust hospitals. There has been much interest in this issue, and we will seek a vote on the matter if possible.

Earlier, the Secretary of State assured us that the legislation would not result in a market free-for-all. “That will not happen if this Bill is passed,” he said. But close examination of the clause shows that we will certainly be getting a step closer. It will mean that our national health service, where people are tended by our NHS-trained doctors using our NHS equipment, will be full of private patients, who are able to pay more. Hard-pressed hospitals facing increasingly large shortfalls, desperately trying to balance their books, are bound to take in increasing numbers of private patients.

We have been here before. Many of us remember the last time the Conservatives were in power, when there was a two-tier health service: those who could pay got faster treatment and could skip the queue, while those who could not afford to go private had to wait, and many of them had to die.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has seen the letter in The Times today. It is often concerning to see how he assimilates data, because he seems to listen only to some things and not to others; he listens to what he wants to hear. I hope that he has realised that in The Times today the doctors, nurses, midwives, psychiatrists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists have said that the Bill will destabilise the national health service. They are particularly concerned about the removal of the private patient cap. Why is that? The Government’s own impact assessment, at B156, acknowledges that

“there is a risk that private patients may be prioritised above NHS patients resulting in a growth in waiting lists and waiting times for NHS patients.”

We could not have put that better ourselves, and it is in the Government’s own impact assessment of the Bill.

If we lift the cap on the number of private patients in the time of crisis that the national health service is about to go into, as night follows day the number of private patients in hospitals will increase, forcing out national health service patients. As a result, waiting lists will go up, and what will the public make of that?

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

As the hon. Lady is well aware, the previous Government introduced the private sector in a number of hospitals, and at the moment the private sector works alongside the NHS, helping to cut down on waiting times and the like. She is concerned about the private sector working alongside the NHS in hospitals. Does she have any concerns at the moment based on what the previous Government did in introducing that side-by-side service?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

What is extraordinary is that many people who used to go private felt that it was not necessary to do so under a Labour Government because they did not have to wait as they had to under the Conservative Government—that is one thing that I certainly remember. Yes, we have used the private sector as and when it has been necessary to reduce waiting lists, but we are not talking about that now. We are talking about whether there should be a cap on the number of private patients in national health service beds.

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

The hon. Lady is very kind to give way twice. She makes well the point about why the private sector is beneficial. We either agree that the private sector adds value to the NHS and patients or we say that it is a bad thing; it is either working at the moment for the benefit of patients and will work that way in future, or it is not and will not. Which way does the hon. Lady see it?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

I am sure that that contribution was of some use to someone in this debate, but I am not going to bother to respond to it.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Does my hon. Friend agree that the real difference between what was happening under the Labour Government and what is proposed in this Bill is that we used the private sector to treat people on the basis of need identified by the NHS, not ability to pay? This Government propose to allow more people to pay to jump the queue. In that sense, if waiting lists go up, that helps the private sector: there is no point in paying to jump the queue if there is no queue.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

Exactly; I am very grateful to my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State, like the Minister of State, Mr Burns, is fond of quoting the Future Forum. I have a quote from Professor Steve Field that I hope will be of assistance to the House when it comes to discussion of the cap. He said in evidence to the Committee:

“if you opened the cap, it made you more likely to be under attack from EU law, competition and Monitor”.––[Official Report, Health and Social Care (Re-committed) Public Bill Committee, 28 June 2011; c. 14, Q24.]

That is one of the arguments that he used. If the Future Forum is concerned about this being another reason why we should not lift the cap, I hope that the Minister will at least listen to its arguments.

As we heard in Committee, a number of criticisms have been made on both sides of the House about the details of the cap and how it is implemented. Indeed, it is common ground that there ought to be some changes to it. We have no problem about changing and modifying the cap and making it more appropriate, but we do not understand why, just because the cap needs changing, it is simply being lifted completely.

A parallel can be drawn with the carbon emissions cap. If I were working in the Potteries in Staffordshire, I am sure that I would believe that the carbon emissions cap was unfair and went against my personal business. One would need to look at the cap and change it as appropriate in order to make it work properly; one would not get rid of it completely just because there are criticisms of it, unless one had another agenda.

The question is why on earth the Government are considering allowing as many private patients as wish to do so to go into our national health service at a time of crisis, pushing out national health service patients. [ Interruption. ] If the Minister believes that that is wrong, I will be interested to hear an intervention from him in which I hope he will be able to give us a complete assurance that that will not happen. The fact of the matter is that there are not the necessary safeguards. As we understand it, there will be absolutely no limit. We have no idea how foundation trusts are going to respond to the lifting of the cap. We do not know and neither, with great respect, does the Minister. Why is he allowing this great risk to be taken with our national health service? The clause needs to be looked at very carefully in this place, and I know that it will be looked at very carefully in another place.

Photo of Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan Conservative, Loughborough

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has seen a note from the Foundation Trust Network that was, I believe, circulated to all Members of the House and sets out six positive reasons why the private patient income cap has worked: it has allowed hospitals to build new units, to buy leading-edge technology, to extend mental health support, to offer fertility treatment, and to provide maternity services. There is also the fact that rental income is caught by the cap. There are some positive benefits in allowing private patients access to be treated by hospitals. In particular, at a time of financial crisis, bringing new technology into the NHS must be a good thing.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I think that if we were to stop and walk away from party politics, we would be quite close on this matter. We do not have a problem with there being a cap; the problem is how it is implemented. I think that, deep down, she agrees with us. The difficulty is that her party wants to get rid of the cap completely, and that will have a completely different effect on the national health service. We are happy to sit down and talk to the agencies that will be affected and to make improvements in the working of the cap, but getting rid of it completely is behaving recklessly with our national health service.

Photo of Nicky Morgan Nicky Morgan Conservative, Loughborough

The misinformation and emotive language that has been used throughout the whole debate has been using patients at the heart of this. Everything we have heard so far on both sides of the House, perhaps prompted by the hon. Lady’s remarks, has been about how bringing in private patients is bad for the NHS. In fact there are some good aspects. I am pleased to hear that there can be some agreement between both sides of the House.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

That is why I have been relying on the Government’s impact assessment as perhaps the strongest part of my argument. I have also relied on what Professor Field has had to say. I would now like to turn to Baroness Williams, who wrote an article published on 4 September that I commend to the House, in which she says:

“One thing that remains…is the decision to lift the cap on private beds in foundation hospitals. Not only could that mean that many of our finest hospitals would gradually become private, it also means that inevitably foundation hospitals would be subject to European and British competition law.”

Many organisations and people agree with us on this, and that is why the House should pause and think about what we will be doing to the national health service if we accept this clause. I also pray in aid the Royal College of Nursing’s briefing, which Members who are closely following this debate will have read, in which it says that it is against the removal of the cap and does not believe that it will not have an effect on NHS patients’ access to health care. The BMA has said the same thing.

In essence, the argument is about whether we should have a cap or not. If the House votes tonight to lift the cap, our constituents will ask how it can be that their representative has voted for a clause that allows private patients to fill up the national health service hospital paid for by those constituents’ taxes so that they will be pushed out of it.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department of Health 9:30 pm, 6th September 2011

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Andrew George—for moving the new clauses and amendment, especially for the constructive and reasonable way in which he did so. He raised several issues and, if I understand him correctly, he sees the amendment as a probing amendment that also puts across several of his concerns about this issue. I hope to deal with the main thrust of his concern in my contribution.

I am also grateful to Emily Thornberry for her contribution. Her amendment and indeed her comments were more controversial and I have far more disagreement with several of the contentious things that she said, although she will be unaware that I am saying that because she is not listening. She might argue that she is not missing much.

I shall start with a fact. It may have got lost in the telling, but I assume that the hon. Lady realises that there is no cap at the moment for NHS trusts. There is only a cap for foundation trusts. She has not seen the difficulties that she forecasts in NHS trusts, and I hope—although I am not confident of success—that I will convince her that her fears are unfounded.

The Government believe that keeping the cap would damage the NHS and patients’ interests. Removing it would allow foundation trusts to earn more income to improve NHS services, and I will address the safeguards that will be in place to ensure that the armageddon that the hon. Lady predicted will not happen and that my hon. Friend’s concerns are needless.

Removing the cap will enable foundation trusts to earn more money to improve NHS services, and those trusts are telling us that they must be freed from what is an unfair, arbitrary, unnecessary and blunt legal instrument. I do not want to go too far down memory lane, but I must remind the House that there was no intellectual case for bringing in the cap in the first place. It was introduced in 2002-03 in the relevant legislation as a sop to old Labour. Frank Dobson says that he has moved on, but he still has the Neanderthal tendencies of old Labour—[ Interruption. ] Before the Opposition Whip says anything, I should point out that the right hon. Gentleman takes that as a compliment. I am being very nice to him and probably enhancing his street cred. He would not thank the Whip for diminishing that.

The point is that the cap was not brought in after some coherent intellectual argument about protecting the NHS or preventing private patients from overrunning the NHS. It was brought in because the then Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, and the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, were having considerable problems with some of their Back Benchers on this issue. To avoid a defeat on the Floor of the House, they brought in the cap as a sop to those Back Benchers to buy them off. But it was not introduced consistently for both NHS trusts and foundation trusts—just for the latter.

The cap is arbitrary and unfair. Several NHS trusts that are not subject to the private patient income cap have private incomes well in excess of many foundation trusts. Last year, four of the top 10 private income earners were NHS trusts—that is, without a cap. A few FTs have high private incomes simply because they did a few years ago. The cap locks FTs into keeping private income below 2002-03 levels and means that last year about 75% of FTs were severely restricted by caps of 1.5% or less. Meanwhile, patients at the Royal Marsden benefit from its cap being 31%, and it has consistently been rated as higher performing by the Care Quality Commission.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

The Minister is making an interesting point. Will he elaborate further on the proportions of the private work to which he refers? Is that private work for private patients or private work for research, innovation and training, which are important functions of hospitals but are often lost in the debate?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but the simplistic answer is that it is a combination of both.

The cap is unnecessary. I remind Opposition Members that the original proposal was not to have one. To suggest that NHS patients would be disadvantaged if the cap was removed, as the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury did, is pure and simple scaremongering. Existing and new safeguards will protect them. NHS commissioners will remain responsible for securing timely and high-quality care for NHS patients. The Bill will make FTs more accountable and transparent to their public and staff, allowing us to require separate accounts for NHS and private income and giving communities and governors greater powers to hold FTs to account in performing their main duty, which is to care for NHS patients.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department of Health

No, because others want to speak.

I can assure the House that FTs will retain their principal legal purpose—to serve the NHS. This means that the majority of their income will continue to come from the NHS. With no shareholders, any profit they make will have to be ploughed back into the FT, and so will support that purpose of caring for NHS patients. The vast majority of FTs have little, if any, potential to increase private income, never mind the desire to do so. For them, NHS activity will remain the overwhelming majority of the work they do, if not all of their work. It is extremely unlikely that even the most entrepreneurial FTs with international reputations would seek to test the boundaries. Their commissioners, public and NHS staff governors would hold them to account in fulfilling their duties and serving their NHS patients.

For these FTs, however, the cap is a blunt instrument that harms NHS patients. FTs tell us that there is potential to bring extra non-NHS income into the NHS, for example, by developing the NHS’s intellectual property, from innovations such as joint ventures and by using NHS knowledge abroad. Additional demand and income can help organisations to bring in leading-edge technology faster, including in the important area of cancer treatment. I hope that that goes some way to helping my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. Opposition amendment 1165 would harm the NHS, and new clauses 19 and 22 would stop FTs providing private health care altogether. Many of the other protections proposed would be almost as damaging and reduce income.

We want to ensure that safeguards are appropriate, not harmful. For example, a prohibition on FTs offering privately the same services that they offer on the NHS would rule out most of their current private health care. It could even create perverse incentives to stop providing some services for some NHS patients. We are confident that private income benefits NHS patients. On reflection, we are proposing to explore whether and how to amend the Bill to ensure that FTs explain how their non-NHS income is benefiting NHS patients. We will also ensure that governors of FTs can hold boards to account for how they meet their purpose and use that income. I believe that that is an important move forward.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department of Health

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I will not give way, because other hon. Members wish to speak and the debate finishes in 20 minutes.

To my mind, the private patient cap and the proposed new restrictions are both unnecessary and damaging. Indeed, I know that this will drive some Opposition Members potty, but the former Labour Minister responsible for the cap, Lord Warner, repented his sins in the other place, describing it as

“wrong and detrimental to the NHS.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 12 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 936.]

I urge Opposition Members not to repeat that mistake and to heed Lord Warner’s advice. I appreciate that the Opposition Benches are not full of champions of Lord Warner—particularly not at that end of the Chamber from which we heard the earlier comments about him—but he is a respected former Labour Health Minister and I would suggest that he knows what he is talking about.

Let me deal briefly with two final points that were made by the hon. Members for Islington South and Finsbury and for St Ives about the safeguards that are in place to offer protection and ensure that NHS patients would not lose out with the removal of the cap. First, the NHS commissioning board and clinical commissioning groups would be responsible for ensuring that NHS patients are offered prompt and high-quality care, and that good use is made of NHS resources, whoever provides care, through robust contracting arrangements. NHS patients will also maintain their right in the NHS constitution to start treatment within 18 weeks of referral. Secondly, as foundation trusts do not have shareholders and cannot distribute surpluses externally, and as their principal legal purpose will remain to serve the NHS, all proceeds from non-NHS work would be reinvested in the organisation, ultimately adding to the level and quality of the NHS service.

The Bill will make FTs more accountable and transparent to their public and NHS staff. Our commitment that FTs will produce separate accounts for their NHS and NHS private-funded services—as well as Monitor’s use of its regulatory powers to ensure a level playing field between providers—will also help to avoid any risk of NHS resources cross-subsidising private care, thereby protecting NHS money. I believe that those five safeguards will protect NHS patients and the NHS, and will not lead to the situation that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury described in her speech.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

I do not mean in any way to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman does not believe what he has just said, but what if he is wrong? It is all very well for him to say, “We’re going to lift the private patient cap—we have these safeguards and I believe they’re sufficient to ensure that NHS patients won’t suffer,” and he may be right. However, the difficulty is that he may be wrong, so why are we taking this risk at a time like this? What is the point? What is the benefit?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department of Health

I do not think that this will come as a surprise to the hon. Lady, but I do not think that I am wrong, and I say that for the following reasons. First, there has never been a cap on NHS trusts, and the problems that she has speculated about during this debate have never occurred where there is not a cap. Secondly, the reasons that I have outlined would suggest to me that there will not be a problem, particularly as the one hospital that I singled out—the Royal Marsden—has an income cap of 30.7%. Nobody is suggesting that NHS patients are suffering as a result of that, and that is where a substantial income comes from non-NHS work. Finally, the five safeguards that I have highlighted will be powerful measures to ensure that what she describes will not happen.

For those reasons, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives did not press his new clause to a vote. I would also hope that, on reflection and having made her points, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury will resist the temptation to press her amendment to a Division. I fear, however, that she is not going to heed my advice, and she will regret it.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Four Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I should like to give the person who moved the new clause a couple of moments to speak. Members can do the arithmetic in terms of taking time for themselves.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Leader of the Green Party 9:45 pm, 6th September 2011

New clauses 19 and 22 also have my name on them, and I should like to say a few more words in support of them as I have not been reassured by the Minister. I find it unacceptable that taxpayers’ money has ever been used to allow private patients to jump the queue and use NHS facilities. The history of the cap was all very interesting, but the bottom line is that it serves an important purpose, which is why it should stay. The Government argue that income from private patients is put back into the NHS and ultimately benefits the health service, but the reality is that when people become ill and need treatment, it is hard to justify asking them to wait longer because capacity in our NHS hospitals is being taken up by private patients. The bottom line is that an NHS hospital has to treat NHS patients, and I do not believe that we have adequate spare capacity sloshing about in the system to justify private queue-jumping into NHS hospitals.

Some Members will recall that foundation trusts were brought in after Alan Milburn visited the state-owned but privately run Fundación hospital in Madrid. The then Health Secretary was apparently impressed when he was told that the foundation hospital outperformed the Government-controlled hospitals. However, he ignored the argument put forward by the local unions that it was able to do so precisely because the more costly and difficult patients were sent to the fully public hospital nearby.

It is often argued that foundation trusts are about choice, but I would argue that such private treatment should be offered only when there is surplus provision in the system. It is one thing to talk about a choice of general goods and services, but it is enormously inefficient and massively costly to apply that kind of mentality to the health service. Now, we see the present Government trying to use the model introduced by the previous one to allow foundation trusts to do as they please, and lifting the cap on the income that can be derived from private sources.

The hundreds of constituents who are contacting me about this do not want private queue-jumping; they want NHS services paid for from taxation. The future of the NHS should be about developing whole systems, not isolated institutions, and private health care in the NHS should be phased out. The NHS needs to be about building networks across professional and institutional boundaries, not about creating new barriers. It needs to be about IT and information sharing, not reducing connectivity, and about getting more people treated in the community and in primary care. The danger with this Bill is that is will do exactly the opposite and return us to the fragmentation of the time before the NHS.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport

I supported the amendment tabled by Emily Thornberry—or rather, I tabled it independently. I accepted at the time that it was not the most elegant way of dealing with the problem, but I recognise that there is a problem, as do foundation trusts. The cap as it stands has certain perverse consequences, and the NHS cannot fully profit from sources such as intellectual property. NHS profits help to subsidise public services. As the Minister has pointed out, there is no cap on non-foundation trusts, and the current format was to some extent a political compromise because Labour Members raised certain considerations during the passage of the legislation on foundation hospitals. That does not mean that their concerns were not valid at the time.

I am not concerned by the prospect of dramatic privatisation overnight; nor do I think that queue-jumping is the real danger. By abolishing the cap altogether, however, we run the risk that foundation trusts will run on the wrong side of state aid rules, and that their activity will be perceived as economic activity under EU competition law. The more they subsidise general NHS services, the more they will be perceived as engaging in economic activity.

I do not take a doctrinaire view on this issue. Very sensible people, such as Steve Field and the NHS Confederation, have raised the matter. Liz Kendall raised it, as did, if I recall correctly, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury in a spirit of compromise in Committee, making the point—I think I am quoting her correctly—that the only alternative to a bad cap is not no cap at all.

There is a genuine fear, however, by people who are far more expert than most hon. Members in this field, which is caused by the blurring of the boundaries between public and private hospitals. We could end up theoretically with a private hospital that has 90% of its patients provided by the NHS. I know we cannot end up with an NHS hospital filled by 90% of private patients, but there is a threshold at which things could quite easily start to become complicated. This a critical issue, which will have to be dealt with in the House of Lords.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Health)

The hon. Gentleman has quoted me, so let me clarify that I was quoting the Deputy Prime Minister when I said that the only alternative to a bad Bill was not no Bill at all. I was talking about a Bill as opposed to a cap.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport

I may not have paraphrased the hon. Lady correctly, but I believe that the sentiments I described were produced by her in discussions of a particular amendment on this subject, but we can go and look at the Committee proceedings and find out whether I am right.

It seems to me that what has happened on this occasion is that the Secretary of State has rehearsed the arguments that we have already heard in Committee. That does not advance things massively. He has supplemented that by saying that better efforts should be made to explain how the cap operates by the foundation trusts themselves, which will be more accountable, as I think he said, to the governing body of the foundation trust. That is an explanation and good explanation is to be desired. The point is, however, that expert opinion—independent of this House— perceives this to be a problem, but it has not been addressed.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I intended to make only a short intervention, but given the Minister’s cap on interventions, I decided that I needed to find a brief opportunity to say that removing the private patient cap is the wrong thing to do. The Minister’s basic argument— “I do not think I’m wrong”—really does not cut it. Removing the cap will remove an incentive for reducing waiting lists. The two issues of waiting lists and waiting times and the degree of private business within the NHS cannot be separated: they go hand in hand.

In a sense, a bit of ancient history is required, because it is important to note that the previous Labour Administration reduced waiting times so much that many of the private health insurers were, frankly, complaining. Long waiting lists matter because they are also the lifeblood of the private medical industry. We need only look at the advertising slogans of many private medical insurers to see how they try to entice people with promises of “speedy service” and “getting your health situation sorted out quickly”. This, however, can happen in the context of NHS hospitals.

What we must do is ensure that we put the needs of NHS patients first. My worry about removing the private patient cap is that it changes the incentives relating to how the foundation trusts will work, putting revenue generation ahead of patient treatment. The allure of revenue will, of course, be there, but keeping waiting lists high is, in a sense, part of ensuring that revenue continues to come in. I want to see trusts focused absolutely and completely on reducing waiting times. That is incredibly important.

It has been interesting to hear some of the important points raised by some Government Members—and not just about state aid rules. To me, however, the issue of waiting times and, particularly, this Administration’s watering down of the targets set for them and the issue of removing the patient cap are two sides of the same coin. It is all about driving people to go in a direction that they often do not want to go. People might have some savings and feel they have no choice but to use them for private provision because of the fear of long waiting lists in future. That might be the only way people feel that they can get treated quickly. It is all part of the design to change the whole fabric and nature of the NHS. That is the wrong direction in which to head, and I hope that we can retain the private patient cap.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I support amendment 1165. Although I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, his comments did not persuade me. The proposal to remove the cap is an example of the shambolic way in which the Bill has been presented. There seems to me to be very little evidence to back up what the Minister thinks might happen. He thinks that everything will be OK, but the NHS has never been in the position of having to make £20 billion-worth of efficiency savings—or cuts, which is what they really are. I believe that when the cap is removed, trusts will want to increase the income that they can obtain from private patients. My hon. Friend Helen Jones made the good point that when waiting lists lengthen—which we know they are already beginning to do—those who pay will do so in order to receive the medical treatment that they want.

After 1997, NHS waiting lists in Hull fell to their lowest ever level. A private hospital that sat in the middle of an NHS trust—it was then the Hull and East Riding acute trust—was sold to the NHS. It had not been getting enough business, because the NHS was doing so well. We have heard in today’s debate about the high level of support for the NHS and about the current high levels of satisfaction, and I do not think that we should take this step.

Earlier, I spoke of the lack of principles that the Liberal Democrats were exhibiting yet again in respect of the NHS. It was interesting to hear John Pugh say that he was not doctrinaire on the issue. So the hon. Gentleman has no principles, and is not doctrinaire either. I recall that, in 2010, the Liberal Democrats campaigned in my constituency on a platform of saving the NHS, not increasing the number of private patients. I think that when this measure reaches the House of Lords, Liberal Democrat peers must stand up and be counted, because it is a disgrace that Liberal Democrat Members should support it today.

My main concern relates to evidence. Where is the evidence that removing the cap will work? I do not think that the safeguards exist to ensure that NHS patients will be protected, and I know that waiting lists are rising, which means that people in my constituency, and in poorer parts of the country, will not be able to gain the access to health care that they deserve. I believe that removing the cap is entirely wrong.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

It is a pleasure to follow Diana Johnson, but I do not think she did herself or her party any favours in trying to persuade my Liberal Democrat colleagues and me to follow her or her party’s lead by launching a completely unacceptable attack on my hon. Friend John Pugh.

The Minister seemed to be trying to win me over by describing me as “the hon. Member for Cornwall”. His description stimulated my Cornish imperialist tendencies, and I was tempted to change that to “Cornwall and bits of England”. However, I shall leave it for another Bill, perhaps one relating to boundary reviews.

In his response, the Minister said that the cap was a “blunt instrument”. I acknowledged that in my opening remarks: it is indeed a blunt instrument, which does not achieve what I think we all want it to achieve. However, although the current situation is not satisfactory, nor is the proposal to lift the cap. That too is a blunt instrument, as was made clear by many speakers this evening. I do not think the Minister entirely acknowledged that this is a conundrum that needs to be resolved. As I have said before, the Government are right to address the issue and are doing so with the best of intentions, but they have come up with the wrong answer. Indeed, lifting the cap is not an answer at all. Further work is needed, and deleting clause 168 would be a good start.

As I have said, mine are probing proposals. I will support amendment 1165, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Proceedings interrupt ed (Programme Order, this day ).

Mr Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).