Give way on NHS competition, urges Lib Dem president Tim Farron

Hospital nurse dispensing drugs The health bill calls for the NHS to be opened up to greater competition

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Lib Dem president Tim Farron has urged the government to make more concessions on the controversial health bill.

The bill, overhauling the NHS in England, is having a difficult passage through the House of Lords where peers have tabled a number of amendments.

Mr Farron told ITV the bill should have been "massively changed" or dropped earlier and he wanted plans for more competition in the NHS to be dropped.

Ministers say the bill will empower doctors and increase patient choice.

The Health and Social Care Bill's proposals include giving GPs control of much of the NHS budget and opening up the health service to greater competition from the private and voluntary sector.

'All to play for'

These have proved controversial, with critics - including some Lib Dems - warning of "back-door privatisation".

Lib Dem activists are preparing an emergency motion for their spring conference next month, which calls for the "whole competition chapter of the bill" to be defeated.

Mr Farron, who is president of the junior coalition party but is not a minister, echoed those concerns in an interview with ITV Granada's Party People on Friday.

He said: "What I want is for the Lords to introduce changes that will remove the new competition elements from the bill and I would like the government to give way on those things. It's all to play for."

The bill has passed through its Commons stages but its progress has been delayed in the Lords, despite the government tabling more than 100 amendments. Peers will continue to debate the bill next week - with competition in the NHS expected to be a sticking point.

A series of groups representing medical professionals has come out against the bill - most recently the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

'Abolish bureaucracy'

Mr Farron told the programme: "Lots of us are guilty for allowing it to get as far as it has done now. Basically this should have been dealt with far earlier in the cycle."

Asked if he meant it should have been dropped, he replied: "Dropped, massively changed."

Another senior Lib Dem backbencher, the party's deputy leader Simon Hughes, has also raised concerns about the bill, telling the BBC that, even with Lords' amendments, it was still "not the bill we would have wanted".

Continued criticism of the reforms from the health profession has led to speculation about Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's position - although he has been backed by David Cameron.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has warned the prime minister the issue threatens to become "his poll tax" - a reference to the hugely controversial policy seen as helping to hasten the end of Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the Conservatives.

But Mr Cameron said on Wednesday the bill would "abolish the bureaucracy that has been holding the NHS back" and said reform was needed to deal with the challenges of an ageing population and the rising costs of medical treatments and long-term conditions.

In an interview with Parliament's House magazine, Earl Howe, the minister responsible for piloting the bill through the Lords, acknowledged there were "worries about the competition law which we've got to sort out, and I believe we can".

But he said much of the concern about competition was "unnecessary and unwarranted".

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