UK Politics

NHS changes 'won't be a market free-for-all'

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has insisted that the government's plans to overhaul the NHS will not mean a "market free-for-all" in healthcare.

He told MPs that the Health and Social Care Bill, which has met large-scale opposition in Parliament, was about driving up standards in England.

The comments come after Deputy PM Nick Clegg published a letter suggesting changes to allow the bill to pass.

Labour accused the coalition of being in "complete disarray".

Mr Lansley later said his belief in the benefit of competition in the NHS has changed since he first became shadow health secretary, seven years ago.

Asked by BBC political editor Nick Robinsonif he had changed his mind since saying in 2005 that "the first guiding principle is to maximise competition", he replied: "Yes I have, I have, because competition is a means to an end - not an end in itself."

But he said the amendments he was working on with the Liberal Democrats did not represent a change to the legislation's underlying principles.

'Foolish'

If passed, the bill would give GPs control of much of the NHS budget and opens up the health service to greater competition from the private and voluntary sector.

It has completed its Commons stages but is having a difficult passage through the House of Lords, which has tabled a number of amendments, and is being opposed by many groups representing medical professionals.

Labour opposes the bill and several Liberal Democrats have raised objections.

On Monday, Mr Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, and his party colleague Baroness Williams published a letter putting forward further amendments for the Lords to discuss, which they said would limit competition and the role of the private sector and allow the legislation to pass into law.

In the Commons on Tuesday, Labour asked an urgent question on the progress of the bill.

Mr Lansley told MPs: "We know change is essential and we will not let the NHS down by blocking change."

He added that the bill would "put patients' interests first" and would not mean "any extensions of charging" for NHS services.

Mr Lansley said doctors and nurses "know that competition on the ground is in the best interests of their patients".

He went on: "Competition can play a role in driving up standards. We will not see a market free-for-all or a US-style insurance system in this country."

For Labour, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "The deputy prime minister called for changes to a foolish bill that he has supported all the way.

"The government appears in complete disarray. What's going on?

"The NHS matters too much for you to allow it to be carved up in the unelected House (the Lords) in cosy coalition deals."

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