HEALTH Secretary Andrew Lansley last night issued a defiant refusal to abandon the principles of his NHS reforms in the face of mounting political pressure from both inside and outside the coalition.
The Government has already announced a “pause” over its controversial package of legislation while it looks for ways to accommodate growing disquiet over the scale of the planned changes.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg put the Bill at the centre of his efforts to demonstrate his party’s influence within the coalition – pledging to vote down the legislation unless there were “substantial, significant changes” made, following the disastrous showing from the Liberal Democrats at the local elections, .
This was followed up by Lib Dem back bencher Andrew George publicly calling for the Bill to be abandoned altogether, issuing a statement in which he said it undermined the “ethos” of the NHS.
Saving the NHS was “more important than saving a few egos in the coalition”, he said.
The row over the reforms was the subject of a Labour-led debate in the Commons yesterday, which the Opposition hoped would further expose intra-coalition tensions.
However Mr Lansley told Mr George the Coalition Agreement “supports essentially all of the principles of the Bill” apart from scrapping some NHS bodies – which had been agreed by Lib Dem Ministers.
And he said he was more interested in improving services for patients than in political argument.
“There will be substantive changes to the Bill in order to deliver improvements for patients. But there is only one issue for me: will it deliver better care for patients?” he said.
“That is why we are going to pursue NHS modernisation, it is why we will stick to our principles and it is, equally, why we are listening in order to improve the Bill.”
Mr Lansley said he was completing “half-baked” reforms started under Labour and accused the Opposition of abandoning support for the changes under pressure from trade unions.
However Shadow Health Secretary John Healey said “setting up the NHS as a full-blown market... is the wrong prescription for our NHS and it’s patients that will suffer in future”.
He urged Ministers to abandon the legislation altogether.
“This is a bad Bill – it is a free market, free-for-all for the NHS. The Government should dump the Bill and start again. People don’t want this for our NHS,” he said ahead of the debate.
During the Commons debate, Labour’s Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central, made an emotional speech paying tribute to “hero” doctors and nurses doctors who cared for his late wife Caroline during her fight with cancer.
“In the last year I have spent long nights at my late wife’s bedside as she battled against cancer,” said Mr Jarvis.
“In my family’s darkest days we saw the true genius of the NHS, a genius based on care and compassion, commitment and dedication, principles and standards.
“While the markets can be a useful tool, there are limits to which it can deliver those values.”
He feared an ideological, free-market agenda would undermine “all that is great about the NHS”.
Former Conservative health secretary Stephen Dorrell, who chairs the backbench health select committee, believed leaving the NHS unchanged “was not an option”.
Downing Street said the listening exercise on the NHS would continue into next month.
“The commitment to the reforms is still strong but what we recognise is that there are some improvements to be made,” a Number 10 spokeswoman said.
Prime Minister David Cameron retained confidence in the Health Secretary, she told reporters amid continued speculation that his job was at risk over the row.