Controversial reforms to the NHS have avoided a potentially “fatal” delay in the House of Lords, to the relief of ministers. Amid deep concern in the medical profession and among many members of the public, some peers had tried to have the Health and Social Care Bill thrown out or subjected to detailed scrutiny that would have ruined the Government’s timetable.
It is feared by opponents that the wording of the legislation will remove the Secretary of State’s duty to provide healthcare for all, while plans to widen competition will see the back-door privatisation of the NHS.
But following two days of debate by 100 members of the upper house, and pressure applied by ministers and whips to Tories and Lib Dems, attempts to delay or thrown out the Bill were defeated comfortably in the biggest turnouts seen in the Lords for more than a decade.
A motion by Lord Owen, a former health minister and SDP leader, to let a special committee spend until Christmas studying the constitutional impact of the reforms was rejected by a margin of 330 to 262.
Labour’s Lord Rea had wanted the second reading to be refused altogether but this proposal was lost by 354 votes to 220.
Baroness Williams of Crosby, the Lib Dem grandee who had been among the first to raise fears over the Bill, abstained on the critical Lord Owen vote and went with the Government on the Lord Rea motion.
The results means the Bill, which seeks to remove two tiers of NHS management and give more power to GPs and patients, will now be considered line-by-line in committee stage in the Lords and remains on track to receive Royal Assent by next summer.
It has already survived a rebellion by Lib Dem activists in the spring and an unprecedented “pause” in the parliamentary proceedings for doctors’ concerns to be heard, which led to competition plans being watered down.
But even the Government accepts that more changes will be made to contentious areas.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “The vote today moves us one step closer to delivering a world-class health service that puts patients at its heart and hands more power to health professionals. We now look forward to working with the Lords to scrutinise the Bill during Committee Stage to improve our plans further.”
Labour said it would continue to call for “drastic changes”.
The plans had been criticised in the debate by well-known figures including Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, who described the Bill as “unnecessary and, I’m afraid to say, irresponsible”.
After the vote Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of BMA Council, said: “It remains the BMA position that the Health and Social Care Bill should be withdrawn, or if not that it should be substantially amended, and we will continue to raise our concerns at every available opportunity as the Bill progresses through the House of Lords.
“The BMA continues to have many areas of concern, including the need for assurance that increasing patients’ choice of provider for specific elements of their care won’t be given priority over the development of integrated services and fair access.
“We also need to see an explicit provision that the Secretary of State will retain ultimate responsibility for the provision of comprehensive health services.”