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Simon Burns MP: Don't let Labour wreck the health bill in the Lords

Simon Burns is the Minister for Health and Member of Parliament for Chelmsford.

Screen shot 2011-10-11 at 17.51.27 Yesterday, the Health and Social Care Bill went into the Lords. Delivery of the Bill is critical to our plans to modernise the NHS – to put the entire NHS truly on the side of patients and the doctors and nurses who care for them. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure and improve the NHS for everyone.

The Bill is essentially about something very simple. That it shouldn’t be bureaucrats in a remote system who make decisions about the treatment you get. It should be you and your doctors who have the power and the freedom to get the best possible care the NHS can offer.

And we know people want this. A new independent survey published yesterday by the Department of Health confirmed that 80% of patients want more choice over how they’re treated and where they can get NHS treatment from. The Bill will make sure this is delivered fairly, safely and sustainably.

As long as care is free and can meet NHS prices and standards, it shouldn’t matter if the NHS, a charity or an independent provider provides it – what matters is that it’s free, it’s on the NHS and it delivers the care patients want.

The way Labour approach this Bill will be watched closely by the electorate. It is a Bill that has had more scrutiny and consultation so far than most in recent history. If Labour play politics with the NHS, by using delaying and blocking tactics in the Lords, then they will rightly face the anger of the NHS and the public.

The Bill is needed to help the NHS overcome the problems Labour left us with – a NHS which suffered a decade of declining productivity, and which has left some parts of the NHS struggling for cash under the burdens of debts and PFI repayments.

We are turning that situation around. By cutting waste and investing £12.5 billon more at the front line, productivity is going up and waiting times are remaining low. Rates of MRSA have fallen to the lowest on record. The number of people put on mixed-sex wards has fallen 90 per cent. And our new cancer drugs fund is giving 5,000 more people access to life-extending drugs they would have been denied under Labour.

But make no mistake that this Bill is needed to ensure the NHS improves because we still lag behind the rest of Europe on key areas like cancer survival. The NHS must become more accountable to people’s choices and we must free resources for the front line by removing needless tiers of management.

Many doctors have come out in support of this. Earlier this year, a group of the country’s leading doctors, nurses and NHS experts - the "NHS Future Forum" - consulted with the public and NHS staff over every detail of the Bill to improve it. They made their recommendations and we accepted them all.

Labour and vested interests in the union establishment oppose the progress we want to achieve because it shifts power away from the state to patients and front-line staff. They know they will lose the argument on its facts, so they put about ridiculous myths.

There are claims that the Secretary of State will no longer be responsible for a comprehensive universal NHS. This is wrong. There is no weakening at all of the Government’s legal obligation to do this.

They say we’re creating a free market that exposes the NHS to European competition law. Wrong. The Bill creates a level playing field for providers to end the scandal that under Labour saw private firms paid 11% more than the NHS to do exactly the same work.

They say the Bill will "privatise" the NHS. This is a lie. If patients want to be treated by a charity or another provider, then we will not stand in their way – but the services will be NHS services, provided free at the point of use and based on need and not ability to pay. We will never, ever, privatise the NHS.

Labour’s Andy Burnham has now made an “offer” as the Bill goes into the Lords: we’ll help you put GPs in charge of commissioning NHS services if you drop the rest of the Bill. We reject it for two reasons. First, the Bill isn’t just about commissioning. It is about helping the NHS become strong and sustainable, tackling the causes of preventable ill-health, taking politicians out of the NHS and putting doctors and nurses in charge, and it is about giving patients the freedom to choose the best possible care.  Second, as Health Secretary, Andy Burnham inherited a policy of GP commissioning and left it – in the words of his own adviser – as a “corpse”. So Andy Burnham’s offer is no offer at all.

The Lords must be allowed to do its job as a revising chamber. But people can be assured that the Bill will modernise and secure the NHS, while holding true to its founding ideals: a comprehensive and high-quality service, free to all and based on need, not ability to pay.


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