LABOUR leader Ed Miliband called on NHS staff and patients today to hold the Government to account for difficulties resulting from its controversial reforms to the health service.
In a speech to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) conference in Harrogate, Mr Miliband launched a Labour initiative called NHS Check which will allow people to report online on problems faced by hospitals, clinics and family doctors arising from Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s shake-up.
Seeking to capitalise on the coalition’s fraught relations with NHS workers, Mr Miliband hailed nurses as “the defenders of the health service” against market-oriented reforms which he said would divert resources from the front line and lead to disruption, fragmentation and longer waits for treatment.
After Mr Lansley was heckled and jeered by the RCN conference yesterday, Mr Miliband accused ministers of refusing to listen to legitimate concerns.
Despite the reservations expressed by nurses to the NHS shake-up, the Government had “ploughed on regardless”.
Mr Miliband urged NHS health and wellbeing boards - which will have strategic oversight of local commissioning - to resist new charges for treatment and ensure patients come before profits.
“The Government have been acting like they are the masters, not the servants, of the NHS. They are not the masters. Not this government. Not any government,” he said.
“It’s owned by the people of Britain. Our health service is owned by patients, professionals and the people. And their voice - your voice - deserves to be heard.
“I can’t promise that we will always agree about everything. But what I will never do is what this Government did: dismiss you as just a ‘vested interest’. You were not a vested interest. You were the defenders of the health service.”
Mr Miliband said he wants to “forge a partnership” with the RCN to address the long-term challenges facing the NHS.
Mr Miliband’s speech comes after Mr Lansley received a rough reception from the RCN yesterday.
He was laughed at by members of the audience after saying nurses should tell superiors if staffing levels were not safe.
Some in the crowd shouted “liar” after the Health Secretary claimed clinical staffing levels had increased on his watch.
David Cameron’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister had full confidence in Mr Lansley.
The spokesman said: “Whenever you are trying to reform a bit of the public sector and make changes, you should expect some opposition to that.
“But we think it is important to reform the NHS. Although we are protecting the NHS budget, an ageing population and increasing costs of treatments mean that we need to reform the health service.
“We want to work with healthcare professionals as we do that.”
Mr Miliband received a standing ovation from audience members as he concluded his speech.
Cheers and applause rang out through the auditorium as the Labour leader said: “Britain would not be getting out of bed in the morning if it wasn’t for our NHS.
“As a country, let’s celebrate the values of our NHS.
“Let’s celebrate the people who work in our NHS.
“Let’s celebrate that we have an NHS.
“And let’s together make sure we protect, improve and modernise our NHS so it’s fit for the future.”
Mr Miliband, who was wearing a navy blue suit and purple tie, stayed for 10 minutes longer than scheduled to answer questions from the audience.
And RCN members rose to their feet for a second time as he left the platform.
During the question and answer session following his speech, Mr Miliband promised to meet with student nurses to discuss the future of the profession and made a direct appeal to David Cameron to work with him on the issue of care for the elderly.
After the session, Mr Miliband met members of the congress in the cafe area, joining them at tables to discuss their issues.
Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, asked Mr Miliband if he would work with them to reduce the retirement age of 68 for nurses and health care assistants.
Mr Miliband said: “I totally understand why there’s such anger about this issue of people having to work to 68 in incredibly hard, back-breaking work.
“Of course we will negotiate. I’m not going to make promises on the hoof. We will negotiate about these issues.”
When asked how he would reduce costs in the NHS, Mr Miliband said: “The first thing I would do is not waste billions of pounds on this reorganisation. It’s totally undermining the principles of the NHS.”
He said he would stop the reorganisation, stop making nurses redundant and would work with the RCN in any way possible to stop the “worst aspects” of the Health and Social Care Bill.
“It’s only stubbornness, obstinacy and ideology that’s making this Government carry on,” he added.
Mr Miliband said the next Labour government would have to “get to grips” with the issue of caring for the elderly and said he had written to the Prime Minister asking him to work together on the issue.
“I renew my appeal to him,” he said. “We have got to make progress with this issue.”
Answering questions from student nurses, Mr Miliband said changes needed to be made to make sure students had jobs to go to after training and to make sure people wanted to train as nurses.
He promised to meet a selection of students to discuss issues.
As Mr Miliband spoke to people after the session, he was given a badge for the RCN Foundation - a benevolent fund for nurses in need - which he said he would wear to show his support.
Robert Sowney, chair of the RCN Foundation, said: “What he could do, from today, to start supporting nurses is to wear that badge.”
Mr Sowney added: “After today, I think he’s won a lot of people over.
“I think he came and he listened and he answered the questions and he didn’t give empty promises.
“I think he’s won lots of hearts and minds here today. I think people who would not necessarily have had an alliance towards Ed Miliband before today will now.”