NHS reforms pass Commons by 65 votes

By Ian Dunt

MPs voted by 316 votes to 251, a majority of 65, to pass government reforms to the NHS tonight.

The vote came after an increasingly bitter debate in the Commons.

John Healey spent the afternoon as Labour's attack dog, challenging the facts of the prime minister and publicising slip-ups by ministers while online activists frantically lobbied their MPs to oppose the bill.

A stormy PMQs session saw David Cameron insist that the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Nursing backed the government's NHS proposals, a fact the shadow health secretary challenged immediately afterwards.

"When experts criticise Cameron's health bill, he doesn't just ignore them – he pretends they support him," he said.

Mr Healey also highlighted comments from health minister Lord Howe, who reportedly told private health care companies that "huge opportunities" awaited them once the NHS had been reformed.

"In the coming months and years, the NHS is going to evolve and grow into a very different animal," he is reported to have said.

Labour leapt on the comment as evidence that the private sector would be given a vastly inflated role following reform.

"Time and time again, David Cameron has tried to claim that his reckless reorganisation is not about privatising the NHS – but now his own health minister has exposed the true purpose of the Tories NHS plans," Mr Healey added.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley responded: "No secret plan was unearthed to privatise the NHS, only suggestions put forward to strengthen it."

Even with the bill's more radical proposals substantially watered down, opposition to the plans remains fierce among Labour MPs, campaigners and trade unions.

Unions called the bill a "toxic cocktail of competition, markets and cuts" ahead of a candlelit vigil outside parliament.

NHS staff in uniform were joined by a number of general secretaries and senior union officials at the vigil, which was partly aimed at peers in the hope they will further water down the proposals if they pass the Commons.

"Let me be absolutely clear. There is nothing, nothing, nothing in any of the government's plans which in anyway threaten the basic founding principles of the NHS," Mr Clegg said this week, as he tried to soothe his party's nerves over the issue.

"There is no question, legally or politically, of the secretary of state under these new arrangements being somehow able to wash his or her hands of the NHS."

The bill will be debated this afternoon. It is expected to pass, but will then proceed to the Lords – where Shirley Williams is expected to lead further Lib Dem rebellions on the most controversial issues raised today.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron hinted at future trouble for the legislation when he told Sky News he wanted to see "significant" changes.

The current bill is "far from perfect", he added.