Save The NHS: The Battle Is Not Over – OpEd

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When I think back to the already forgotten scandal of how David Cameron cosied up to Rupert Murdoch, seeking to allow him an unacceptable media monopoly via the planned BSkyB buyout, and when I now hear about Liam Fox’s dirty dealings with his buddy Adam Werritty, pretending to be an official representative of Her Majesty’s Government in MoD-related meetings around the world, I can only reflect on how the same kind of dodgy meetings and corrupt business deals have been incessantly taking placeregarding the Tory-led coalition government’s planned privatisation of the NHS, with consultants like McKinsey and KPMG, and how the sordid realities of political life mean that the government cannot be trusted when it promises that it is trying to save the NHS rather than destroy it.

The Tory-led coalition and its deeply untrustworthy ministers — up to and including the PM — are not the only politicians compromised by their business dealings, because the Labour government was, essentially, no different. But although, in a general sense, almost the entire political establishment is thoroughly discredited through the knowledge that money talks more than principles do, and that we the people (except the richest ten percent) are irrelevant to politicians’ plans (except every four or five years when they want us to vote for them), I find it difficult to sit idly by while the government pushes ahead with its monstrous plans to destroy the NHS in England as a universal healthcare provider.

The death of the NHS may not be imminent — and the planned privatisation certainly only builds on what the Labour government already set in motion — but the Tories’ plans will massively accelerate its demise, leading to a more costly, more fragmented service that will exclude more and more people and will untimately, I believe, be damaged and demoralised to such an extent that it will become a privatised system that, like the US system, is an insurance-based racket that fails to care for everyone and plunges many of its users into lifelong poverty as they pay off extortionate bills.

Today, in the House of Lords, the government survived two challenges to the passage of its much-criticised Health and Social Care Bill, which, like Frankenstein’s Monster, is now a mangled version of health minister Andrew Lansley’s original proposals, with over a thousand amendments made as a result of sweeping criticisms made by Liberal Democrats and the medical profession.

Those who are fundamentally opposed to the BIll — including a majority of those in the medical profession, like the 400 senior doctors and public health experts, who, last week, called on the Lords to throw out the bill, saying that it would do “irreparable harm to the NHS, to individual patients and to society as a whole” — had hoped that an amendment tabled by Lords Owen and Hennessey would put the brakes on the bill, forcing key passages to be discussed by a committee.

In the end, however, neither the Owen-Hennessey amendment, nor a proposal by Lord Rea to block the entire bill, was able to draw a majority of the Lords’ votes, and the bill passed its second reading. The motion by Lord Rea (a Labour peer and a former GP) was defeated by 354 votes to 220, despite a stirring speech in which, urging peers to block the Bill, Lord Rea said:

I have had a tumultuous call from the country not simply to amend the Bill but to reject it in its entirety. I think the Bill is virtually unamendable, certainly in the timetable we have been offered or even if it were to be extended, or Lord Owen’s amendment were to be accepted. Whole swathes of the most senior members of my profession want the Bill sent back to the drawing board, so the National Health Service can get back to work without the sword of Damocles hanging over it.

Later in the afternoon, the Owen-Hennessey amendment was also defeated, by 330 votes to 262. This was a great disappointment, as, despite the hyperbole touted by health minister Lord Howe, who accepted that the House “must have proper time to examine the bill,” but claimed that “the proposal put forward by Lord Owen could result in delay, which could well prove fatal to it,” Lords Owen and Hennessey had raised hugely important questions about the serious constitutional implications of the bill — and, in particular, fears that it will “remove the duty of the secretary of state to provide or secure the provision of health services which has been a common and critical feature of all previous NHS legislation since 1946.″

In response, Lord Howe, as the Guardian put it, “attempted repeatedly to reassure peers that the duty of the health secretary to remain accountable for a comprehensive NHS will not be threatened by the bill, and said he would make ‘any necessary amendment’ to the bill to ensure this was enshrined in statute,” but Lord Howe did not genuinely explain how or why he or his colleagues should be trusted.

The Guardian also provided a breakdown of how the Lords had voted on the Owen-Hennessey amendment, noting that:

Six bishops voted for the amendment, 46 crossbenchers, and 198 Labour peers, 10 others, plus two Lib Dems: Lady Nicholson and Lady Tonge. No Tories voted for the amendment, and Lady Williams, who has been a leading Lib Dem opponent of the bill, appears not to have voted.

193 Tories voted against the Owen amendment, plus 51 crossbenchers, 80 Lib Dems, and six others. No Labour peers voted against.

This is not the end. The bill will now go to the committee stage, report stage and a third reading in the Lords, and will then return to the House of Commons, and, as Randeep Ramesh, the Guardian‘s social affairs editor, noted this afternoon:

That the bill has not been paused to examine its constitutional ramifications does not mean that peers will not have time to examine the bill; the Lords will expect the government to fill in the gaps in policy in the coming weeks before giving their assent. It is here where critics of the reforms hope significant amendments could still be made to the bill. The key areas remain the duty of the secretary of state to provide a comprehensive NHS; focusing the new regulator on the issue of integrating services rather than making them compete; and making the new GP commissioning groups more accountable and less ridden by conflicts of interests.

But it does mark a shift in the politics of the debate. The Lib Dem leadership, which has already signalled amendments will be accepted, have now dipped their hands in the blood of the NHS bill. It might be a stain that is hard to rub off.

The battle to save the NHS continues. Please sign the 38 Degrees petition (which nearly 450,000 people have now signed), and you can also badger individual Lords here. Also keep an eye out for actions by UK Uncut.

For further information, see: Battle for Britain: Resisting the Privatization of the NHS and the Loss of 100,000 Jobs, Save the NHS! Will the BMA Do the Right Thing, and Reject the Coalition Government’s Privatization Bill?, BMA Emergency Meeting Calls on Government to Drop NHS Privatization, Act Now to Save the NHS, as Government Advisor Claims Reforms Will Show “No Mercy” and Allow “Big Opportunity” for Profiteering, Save the NHS: Make No Mistake, the Government Plans to Privatise Our Precious Health Service, Save the NHS: As Lib Dems Vote to Support Tory Privatisation Plans, The Last Hope is the House of Lords and NHS Privatisation: Protest on Sunday, as 400 Doctors Accuse Government of Planning “Irreparable Harm,” and Lords Prepare Opposition.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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