Cameron calls for NHS independence

The Conservatives have today put forward their plans for an NHS independence bill which would take politicians out of the day-to-day running of the health service.

Leader David Cameron also committed the party to an increase in real terms spending on public services, saying: “All parties support increased funding for the NHS.”

Speaking to the King’s Fund think tank this morning, Mr Cameron repeated his pledge to make the NHS a priority and ruled out any move towards an insurance-based system.

But he said it needed a “new direction” and must no longer be micromanaged by politicians from Whitehall. To this end, he promised to end the “pointless and disruptive” reorganisations, scrap central targets and increase independence for GPs and trusts.

“The NHS matters too much to be treated like a political football. Let’s work together to improve the NHS for everyone,” Mr Cameron said.

“Let’s give the NHS fair funding, and let’s give taxpayers better value for money by getting rid of the targets and bureaucracy and pen-pushing that’s all about politicians’ priorities, not the needs of patients.”

He called for an NHS independence bill that would set the statutory framework for the health service, where politicians set health outcomes and funding levels but left the allocation of resources and general management to independent professionals.

“If implemented by spring 2008, it would give the NHS the best possible 60th birthday present,” Mr Cameron said.

The new structure outlined in the NHS bill would see an independent board created to take responsibility for allocating resources, commissioning services, ensuring equality of access and increasing standards of care.

Healthcare providers – whether private or public – would be monitored by a quality inspectorate similar to the existing Healthcare Commission, and have their tariffs set by an economic regulator. This body would also ensure availability of services.

In addition, there would be an organisation to provide a voice for patients. With the working title ‘Healthwatch’, this would have the power to intervene through the regulator when services were failing, and influence decisions on the provision of drugs.

“Legislation of this kind is clearly in the interests of the NHS. It can entrench NHS values,” said shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley.

The idea of NHS independence was mooted by Gordon Brown last month, but today the Tories insisted the idea had been theirs – and challenged the chancellor, who is expected to be the next prime minister, to work with them to achieve it.

“He has been responsible in the past for a raft of central targets, and for blocking freedoms for foundation hospitals,” Mr Lansley said.

“But if he is serious about NHS independence, not just looking for a short-term political fix in the run-up to a Labour leadership contest, then he and [Tony] Blair should agree to work together with us.”