Clegg facing grass roots revolt against health service reforms

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joined Liberal Democrats in meeting constituents in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield ahead of the party conference.  Picture: John Giles/PA
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joined Liberal Democrats in meeting constituents in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield ahead of the party conference. Picture: John Giles/PA
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THE Liberal Democrat leadership is today facing a potential grassroots rebellion over the Government’s controversial plans to reform the National Health Service.

Tory Health Minister Andrew Lansley’s sweeping changes have caused considerable unrest among the party faithful and Andrew George, the West of Cornwall MP, called on delegates to reject them at this weekend’s Spring Conference in Sheffield.

The shake-up includes the abolition of primary care trusts and the handover of the commissioning of £80bn of services to GP consortiums.

Although a fiery debate is expected when the plans go before conference later, party sources suggested two amendments should be enough to win over most delegates.

One demands that the NHS, rather than the private sector, should be the preferred provider in the health service.

A second calls for commissioning to be made democratically accountable, and not conducted in private by GP commissioners, as proposed in the health bill.

The amendment was tabled by Charles West, a health expert in the party, and the former MP Evan Harris, a doctor and has the support of Lady Williams, the former party leader in the Lords.

Andrew Waller, Liberal Democrat leader of York Council, said he anticipated a strong debate, and his allegiance was “firmly behind Shirley Williams”.

“We are very conscious of the financial mess that was inherited from the last Government, but we must also have a strategy that can deliver the same services at reduced cost,” he said.

“It can be helpful for GPs to influence what services patients get – they are directly accountable, they get face to face with the people who receive the service. But we have to think through the policy and how it will work. I believe passionately in the NHS being free at the point of delivery.”

As delegates arrived at the conference yesterday, Mr George issued a rallying call for them to stand up against the leadership on health, warning the policy could go “disastrously wrong”.

“It attempts the biggest reorganisation whilst simultaneously seeking the greatest cost savings in the 62 years of the NHS - indeed at a level never tried by any other health system anywhere in the world,” he said. “It opens the door to profit-seeking private companies to run the easier and more profitable bits of the NHS, thus undermining the viability of many of our core public health services and hospitals.

“It introduces ludicrous central management of local services – like each individual NHS dentist’s contract being managed from the new NHS Commission Board in Leeds. And it hands extensive powers, and most of the NHS budget, to a narrow group of private contractors – GPs, most of whom are at best resigned to their fate and at worst horrified at being turned into NHS managers.”

Mr George’s fears echoed those of Lord Willis, the former Harrogate MP who last week told the Yorkshire Post the reforms were “a huge gamble”.

He said the York and North Yorkshire PCT had been working effectively, and had built up a good rapport with GPs and hospitals.

“Now it’s all being dismantled, I just for the life of me cannot see what the advantage of that is when something is working well,” he said. “Why do you, simply for ideology reasons, pull it apart?”

Despite the criticism, Leader Nick Clegg has insisted he is “very relaxed and very positive” about the row, believing much of the party backed the thrust of the changes.