UK Politics

Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman clash over NHS changes

Nick Clegg has been urged to drop his support for planned changes to the NHS as he clashed with Harriet Harman at Prime Minister's Questions.

Ms Harman told the deputy prime minister - standing in for David Cameron in the Commons - that he could stop the changes if he wanted to.

Mr Clegg responded by accusing Labour of giving private health firms "sweetheart" deals while in government.

Labour's deputy leader said this was "absolute rubbish".

The row came after a call by rebel Lib Dem MPs for the government to drop plans to overhaul the way the NHS is run in England was defeated on Tuesday.

With Mr Cameron on an official visit to the United States, the Lib Dem leader answered questions from MPs including Ms Harman - who was deputising for Ed Miliband.

The session was dominated by the proposed NHS overhaul, which is opposed by many health professionals as well as Labour and some Lib Dems.

The government wants to pass the Health and Social Care Bill, which will abolish strategic health authorities and primary care trusts, and give greater power over care budgets to new clinical commissioning groups, before the end of the parliamentary session in May.

'Cost a fortune'

Mr Clegg says Lib Dems had helped amend the bill to put limits on competition, but party members refused to back the changes at their spring conference last weekend.

"People are against this bill because it has not changed one bit," Ms Harman told MPs. "It is still a top-down reorganisation. It will still cost the NHS a fortune. It is still going to lead to fragmentation and privatisation."

She urged Mr Clegg to "instruct" Lib Dem peers to vote against the legislation when it was considered for the last time in the House of Lords next week.

"Even at this late stage, it is within his power to stop this bill," she added.

"He did not need to sign the bill but he did. He could stop the bill but he won't. He says the Lib Dems make a difference but they don't."

Inequality

In response, Mr Clegg claimed that Labour had once backed reform of the NHS but were now opposed, and would also "starve" the NHS of resources.

He attacked the last government's record on the NHS, saying it had passed a law in 2006 giving the private sector access to millions pounds worth of deals that amounted to "arbitrary privatisation" of the NHS.

"They don't believe in more money for the NHS, we do. They indulged the private sector with sweetheart deals which we are making illegal in this bill.

"They want sweetheart deals with the private sector, we do not. They presided over inequality in the NHS. We are making a statutory obligation in this bill to deliver a more equal outcome in the NHS which they failed to deliver in 13 years in office."

Ms Harman said Mr Clegg's claims were "absolute rubbish" and she was "proud" of Labour's record on the NHS.

Wednesday's session was the fourth time Mr Clegg has stood in for Mr Cameron at PMQs. The last occasion was in November 2010.

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