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Roger Fox: The Conservative Party in the country should be getting behind the NHS reforms

Roger Fox is Chairman of Tewkesbury Conservative Association.

The Government felt the need to “pause” its Health and Social Care Bill to listen to those who are protesting that the Bill will undermine the NHS to the extent of irrevocable change to its traditional role.

We have since had the Royal College of Nurses conference and a great deal of agitation from some of their delegates. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves what is going on here. Besides its traditional role as a professional organisation, the RCN also undertakes a trade union role. Some of its members took part in industrial action during the “winter of discontent” in early 1979. As a trade union, the RCN finds itself competing with UNISON for members. To attract new members both unions “up the ante” when campaigning for pay rises and campaigning on other issues especially when there is a Conservative Government. It would have been a brave delegate to speak in favour of Government policy last week!

My basic point is that the Conservative Party in the country has failed to support the reforms more vigorously. As has been said elsewhere, it is not Andrew Lansley’s fault that the “pause” has become necessary. The policy was thought through very carefully well before the General Election, it is coherent, continued previous policies such as the purchaser/provider split from the John Major Government and Choose and Book, which enables NHS patients to choose private hospitals, from the Labour years.

For years Andrew Lansley has argued that he wants to give the professionals in the NHS the levers of control to drive it forward because it they who know what is best for the individual patient. The Labour NHS gave the PCT the levers of control to say what the patient could, or could not, have. Numerous examples exist of doctors only been allowed to treat certain conditions in a certain way. The rows over cancer drugs are the most memorable.

More doctors did not speak up because very powerful pressure was exerted by Labour on anyone who spoke out. This is why the Government has proposed GP commissioning. Also, because our basic beliefs have taught us that competition drives up performance, the Government has proposed that other providers can deliver care. Our opponents deride this idea, but it one of the facts of life that private care rather than NHS care could deliver better outcomes. It is worth giving this a try. How many people have had laser eye treatment, paid for it, and been happy with the outcome? It would not still be offered if it were not successful.

Nevertheless, someone will have to engage with the unions with some tough talking. We know that the NHS has to save money from within its Budget to spend extra on patient care, and to reorganise to raise productivity, improve patient outcomes, and cut waste and bureaucracy, and this is absolutely necessary. The alternative is longer waiting lists and worse outcomes for patients.

It took nearly a year for our opponents to get organised and attack our plans. They do not want us to succeed. Stopping the reorganisation would be a terrific political gain for Labour. The attacks have become hysterical: “destroying the NHS”,  “too far and too fast”, the Labour mantra, with the effect of frightening those who may be prepared to give the reforms a fair wind. The current Stafford enquiry into needless deaths shows the worst of the present system, and to Andrew Lansley’s credit he has driven that enquiry into the public domain.

It is us who have to find the way forward. Some of our partners in the coalition are lining up against us. Fortunately the Health Select Committee have written a Report which has some positive proposals which will not undermine what we are seeking to achieve.

But when it comes down to it, it is the Party in the country who have to argue with our opponents, show them to be hypocritical, advance our principles of being honest and wanting a better NHS, and face the diehards down because the most intransigent trade unionists and control freaks will not be convinced by rational arguments. When I walked out of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel the other day to be met with a petition from the Socialist Workers Party entitled “save the NHS” I knew that every militant around will be shouting slogans and misbehaving as they did in the 1970s.


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