Clegg drags NHS reform bill back to committee stage

By Ian Dunt

Nick Clegg has offered major concessions on NHS reform, suggesting the bill will be delayed for months as it goes back to committee stage.

In a speech in central London the deputy prime minister also promised to maintain the health secretary’s duty to provide a comprehensive service for all – a major sticking point for critics of the bill.

He also confirmed there would be no forced timetable of change towards GP commissioning, a concession that had been widely expected.

Nick Clegg NHS speech in full

The speech came as Labour’s John Healey warned that he would table a recommittal motion for the bill. Such a move would submit it to fresh scrutiny and delay it by a year. It could also find widespread support from Lib Dem MPs, who want to prove to constituents that they are on top of what has become a highly controversial bill.

Any such move would fatally undermine the position of health secretary Andrew Lansley and give opponents more time to plot a complete defeat of the legislation.

Even without a recommittal, experts are increasingly convinced that little of the bill will survive the parliamentary process. Labour has submitted a total of 40 amendments to the bill.

Mr Clegg’s decision to take the bill back to committee – which has still not been confirmed by the Department of Health – will see MPs go through the proposals line by line in a process that will slow down its progress for months.

Coming so soon after the government’s pause, many Tories are growing increasingly suspicious that they will never see the bill’s proposals implemented.

“People want choice – over their GP, where to give birth, which hospital to use. But providing that choice isn’t the same as allowing private companies to cherry-pick NHS services,” Mr Clegg said.

“It’s not the same as turning this treasured public service into a competition-driven, dog-eat-dog market where the NHS is flogged off to the highest bidder.”

“I’ve heard people suggest that our reforms could lead to politicians washing their hands of our health services, because of the way the bill is phrased. So we need to be clearer – the secretary of state will continue to be accountable for your health services.

“This is your NHS; funded by your taxes and you have a right to know there is someone at the very top, answerable to you – with a public duty to ensure a comprehensive health service, accessible to all.”

The deputy prime minister also admitted the government “didn’t get all of the substance right” in the bill.

In a well-received speech this morning, shadow health secretary Mr Healey argued the listening exercise itself was a sham.

“David Cameron is a PR man looking for a PR answer,” he said.

“He must accept the problem is not the presentation of his NHS plans but the full-blown free market ideology behind them.

“This Tory ideology is totally at odds with the ethos of the NHS and the essential way it works.”

Meanwhile, the British Medical Association (BMA) finally offered its response to the government’s listening exercise by insisting that the bill should be withdrawn, saying it was “fundamentally flawed”.