There is no escaping the fact that the role of the private sector in the national health service is one of the most contentious issues to arise when discussing or debating the health service. Some people would suggest that there was no appreciable difference between the policies of the Labour Opposition and the Conservative Government, especially on the use of private companies to deliver services.
I believe that there is a huge chasm of difference, which has been borne out by this debate. It comes down to this: what we saw under previous Labour Governments was the private sector being used to add grit to the system. It operated in the system with strict limitations, and it was deployed, for example, to drive down waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks. In tandem with targets, the private sector offered a means of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the NHS, delivering choice and quality to patients. That is where our policies and those of the Government diverge.
It is clear that the intention of the Conservative-led Government is completely different. The NHS is under siege from the Government, who regard the private sector as a means to undermine and weaken the NHS. For all the rhetoric of the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary about their love of the NHS, I would assert that their actions have shown only that they do not fundamentally believe in the principles, values and ethos of the NHS. Those actions attack its very purpose and everything that people hold dear in that world-revered service.
The Government are pushing ahead with their Bill in the face of widespread opposition. Along with the majority of health professionals and the British public, I believe that the Bill should be stopped. Let me make it clear: nothing that I have heard from Health Ministers is reassuring for anyone who has fought to save the NHS. When the Government talk about a regulated market for the NHS people are, and should be, filled with fear.
There will be an increasing role for the private sector, and organisations can be both providers and commissioners. Any A-level business student could explain that that leads to a conflict of interest, and it contradicts and inhibits the notion of introducing genuine competition in the NHS, if that was the intention. I think that the Health Secretary may be mixing up words beginning with “c”. Instead of “competition”, I believe that the word he has been looking for is “cartel”. However it is dressed up, there is one thing I am certain of: allowing such a situation to develop is not in patients’ best interests. There are many questions that need answering. With the private income cap set at 49%, what guarantees are there that hospitals will be able to deliver choice and meet waiting times? What assurance can the Secretary of State give the House that private providers will not cherry-pick the best income-generation services, leaving cost-intensive services such as—