NHS crisis ‘open goal’ for Lib Dems

The NHS is an “open goal” for the Liberal Democrats who could win over millions of voters as the only party standing up for the health service, Steve Webb said today.

The Lib Dem health spokesman said that with 1.4 million people working in the NHS, there was a huge electoral advantage to defending the service against Labour’s reforms.

“The Tories have no credibility on the NHS and Labour is losing it. There is a huge electoral dividend for a principled party that stands up for the NHS,” Mr Webb said.

His comments came amid a heated debate about the government’s health reforms, which have seen jobs cut around the country as NHS trusts struggle to slash combined deficits of more than £520 million by the end of the financial year next April.

Delegates at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton today told of how their local hospitals were affected by squeezed budgets, with one, Chingford and Woodford Green councillor John Beanse, noting his local trust was ill-prepared for the winter.

“Already my hospital was on red alert this summer – what’s going to happen in the winter, particularly as they’re closing the elderly persons’ ward? What would happen in a flu outbreak?” he asked conference.

Yesterday health secretary Patricia Hewitt reaffirmed her commitment to the government’s reforms, in particular the use of the private sector to deliver NHS treatments, which she insists are necessary to ensure extra funding is properly used.

Speaking this afternoon, Mr Webb said the Lib Dems had supported the extra money invested in the NHS since 1997, and said much of it had been well spent, for example on employing more nurses and in paying them more.

“But a lot has been wasted because of Patricia’s tinkering. We need to let people who know about patient care to take the decisions, not Whitehall,” he said.

The Liberal Democrats have yet to draw up detailed policies on how they would fund the NHS – a policy review under Baroness Liz Barker is due to report back to next year’s conference on a whole range of issues, including the NHS.

She told reporters this morning: “We will not necessarily say that more money is needed but that it may well be better spent, such as in reconfiguring some services.”

Baroness Barker denied that this idea of reconfiguring was very similar to the government’s – last week, the head of the NHS announced 60 “reconfigurations”, which have widely been interpreted as ward closures.

And trade and industry spokesman Ed Davey made clear that continuous reforms to the NHS introduced under Labour would not be a feature of Lib Dem policy.

“All the reforming and restructuring, this perpetual revolution, is incredibly costly,” he said.

Baroness Barker added that any policy would be evidence-based, saying: “Patricia Hewitt’s announcement that the private sector will be given greater share of the health services for ideological reasons seems to us to be absolutely absurd.”