Nick Clegg vows to protect NHS from 'profit motive'

Nick Clegg The vote increases pressure on Nick Clegg over coalition health plans

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Nick Clegg has vowed not to let the "profit motive drive a coach and horses through the NHS" after Lib Dem members voted to reject government reforms.

Delegates at the party's spring conference backed a call to halt a "damaging and unjustified" shake-up of GP services in England.

Mr Clegg vowed to look at the call "in detail" - but insisted he was not at odds with party members on the issue.

"Yes to reform of the NHS - but no to the privatisation of the NHS," he said.

The deputy prime minister, who was taking part in a question and answer session at the party's spring conference, was attempting to reassure delegates that their concerns would be taken seriously by ministers.

He claimed the changes the already made to the Health Bill went "with the grain" of activists' concerns, as they would increase accountability and transparency.

Earlier, delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment calling for radical changes to the government's Health Bill - including an end to "top down" reorganisation of the NHS and limits to opening up services to more private competition.

Former MP Evan Harris, who tabled the amendment, said: "It is now incumbent on Nick and his ministerial team to deliver the major changes to the government's health policy and the significant amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill that the Liberal Democrats have overwhelmingly called for.

"Because the health reforms were not in the coalition agreement, today's vote is the only view expressed by the party on the subject."

Lib Dem activists are angry about what they see as Conservative plans that were not included in the coalition agreement.

Mr Harris earlier told delegates he did not want to contribute to the "retoxification of the Tory brand".

He said the vote sent a message to the Conservatives that "we will not accept market reform of the health service, any fragmentation or destabilisation of NHS services by new private providers or the lack of accountability for the spending of public money envisaged in the model of GP commissioning promoted in the bill."

Mr Harris's amendment urges "the complete ruling out of any competition based on price to prevent loss-leading corporate providers under-cutting NHS tariffs".

Protesters at Lib Dem conference Protesters outside the Libdem conference venue in Sheffield

The former Lib Dem leader in the Lords, Baroness Williams, was among senior party figures supporting the amendment, saying the government's proposed reforms were "lousy".

The government's plans will pave the way to hand control of 80% of NHS budgets in England for commissioning services to GPs, and introduce more private competition into the provision of care.

Response

Start Quote

Paul Burstow

The party has shown its mettle by setting out areas for improvement in the Bill”

End Quote Paul Burstow MP Health Minister

Lady Williams said she did not want to damage Mr Clegg or the coalition. But she insisted the deputy prime minister was allowing the health service to be put at risk.

She described the plan as a "massive reorganisation... which will fall within a period when many of our fellow citizens are worried about whether they will keep their jobs and how they will pay for petrol and food."

She claimed private companies would be looking to "cherry pick" profitable services rather than treat patients in the most need.

After the vote, Lib Dem Health Minister Paul Burstow said he would be "taking those concerns back to government."

"The party has shown its mettle by setting out areas for improvement in the Bill."

Rethink

Defending the plans during the debate, Mr Burstow told delegates "stripping out layers of needless management and capping administrative costs (means) we'll be able to make £5bn of savings over the next four years - all of which we will plough straight back into patient care".

And he said the government had already changed the legislation to prevent "cherry picking" of the most profitable services by private companies.

Activists hope backbench Lib Dem MPs will now vote against the bill.

If Labour also opposes the Bill in the Commons, it could force the government into a rethink ons some aspects of it, they believe.

Mr Clegg was speaking as about 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside Sheffield City Hall, where the conference is being held, to demonstrate against government cuts.

Protesters - some waving placards of Nick Clegg as Judas or Pinnochio - chanted "shame on you for turning blue" and other anti-Lib Dem slogans.

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