Jos Bell reports on the debates on the health and social care bill at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference as the battle to save the NHS goes on.
This was the weekend of Gateshead Sage, where the Liberal Party machine, accompanied by a posse of NHS campaigners, flooded the banks of the Tyne for the party’s annual spring conference. But would wisdom prevail? Would it be yet another Liberal Democrat ‘believe what we say, not what we do’ facade?
One thing is for sure: the weekend did not disappoint in terms of drama – even if it may yet disappoint in outcome, and yet again where ‘the bill’ and all things related are concerned, we certainly found ourselves walking into yet another new dimension.
Would the Liberal Democrat grassroots reflect the government stance or would they demonstrate a clear difference of opinion with Clegg and his Westminster bill-minders? Would they be persuaded that the health and social care bill is ‘a Baroness Jolly good thing’.
The conference was indeed been almost entirely dominated by debates on the NHS.
On Saturday, four Motions were proposed for debate on the Sunday – one of which could be chosen. Notably, the voting at Lib Dem conferences has yet to turn the 21st-century electronic corner, so by a Beveridge era serial show of hands would hang the future of the NHS.
It is perhaps worth a quick ponder as to whether results would have differed had voting technology been rather more confidentially sophisticated. Defiance is there for all to see, so it does require a sizeable swig of personal bottle to take a stand.
In this relay race of the yellow and orange teams, the two motions relating to the NHS came first and second, however due to the second preference rule, the one which came second became the one selected for debate. Thus to the disappointment of the majority, the Shirley Williams Motion (which caused much gastroenterological mirth to the many medics present) followed through.
Clegg had presumably ensured she had taken her fortifying whipped mustard shakes beforehand, but the noble lady certainly did not look comfortable in her role.
With the unusual decision not to live stream the debating hall other than on Sky News, those who are equipped only with the reluctant BBC, were able to rely upon Andrew Sparrow on the Guardian Liveblog and a few Tweeters inside the Sage – some of whom were party members, clearly against the bill.
It soon became clear the ‘Shirley Williams Motion’ was grounded in their latest incarnation of an approximate truth – i.e. an astonishingly blatant lie that the bill is actually designed to stop privatisation – which was apparently “introduced by Andy Burnham”. This was again re-iterated on Sunday morning by Simon Hughes MP – who batted both eyelids as he belied the fib.
The message: to vote against the bill would be to support Labour. Just like the disabled children whose vital support has been snatched away, the NHS has become an irritating sideline in a barrier to the lust for power.
To establish the reality: Firstly the bill patently opens the doors to a free market express train of the external market, knotting what would remain of the NHS into a spaghetti junction of destructive European Union competition law entanglements. Secondly, Andy Burnham was the health minister who called a halt to the advance of the market, fully understanding the differential of the risk which comes with the internal and the external markets.
It is also worth noting that there has been an element of the private sector within the NHS since its inception – but always under control and never vice versa. (See Fatally Flawed and Still Fatally Flawed).
Overnight, to counter the second preference win, former MP Dr Evan Harris produced a cheeky genie out of his re-breather equipment. Having previously worked with Baroness Williams to alert Lib Dem conferences about the bill dangers in 2011, then subsequently adopting the surgical scrubs of invisibility when Shirley turned, he threw them off last week to come out firmly against the bill.
Dr Harris produced a clever secondary William Beveridge Motion which both supported the one selected but at the same time rejected it by calling for conference “to delete the call for support of the bill in current form”, which was backed by 314 to 270. (See Kill the Bill – Liberal Democrats against the health bill).
The questions came thick and fast on Twitter. What did this mean – both to the bill and to the Liberal Democrats? Why again was the BBC slow to pick any of this up? Surely this meant the party had to oppose in Parliament? Is it possible to firmly sit on the fence? What would happen in the Lords and the Commons this week?
Essentially would the Westminster Liberal Democrats choose to reflect the wishes of their party or continue down the Clegg route. It quickly became clear when Paul Burstow MP announced to the BBC’s Norman Smith that Saturday’s second preference vote – ‘Shirley’s Motion’ – would be party policy.
Thus blatantly ignoring the fact that two out of three voting outcomes were firmly against the bill, and also the final result. If this continues, a schism between Liberal Democrats Westminster and Liberal Democrats the party will be visible from outer space.
Indeed, for those who have been tracking the progress of the bill closely it is clear Liberal Democrat claims they have sizeably changed the bill are false – see pdf.
Meanwhile, Dr Charles West – who wrote on Left Foot Forward last September that the current bill “dismantles the NHS” – and who until Saturday tweeted as @West4MP, changing it to @West_GP shortly after the outcome of the voting on his motion to drop the bill, Tweeted:
“#HealthBill will allow CCGs to withdraw services in 20 categories, introduce new charges & deny some people treatment altogether.”
He has since announced that he has been told he has lost favour with party big wigs. Does this mean that open debate – always the watchword of this party – is seemingly also to be stifled?
Democratically the Liberal Democrat Party should and could adopt a new policy which reflects their party view. One which both honours their own grassroots view and which neatly knits into Lord Owen’s call for a halt in the third reading until the Transitional Risk Register contents are revealed.
This is due in the Lords on what is fast emerging as NHS Super Tuesday – when both Commons and Lords will debate the bill simultaneously. Given David Cameron’s stance on the Risk Register, the Parliamentary Liberal Democrats could save their multifarious faces by supporting Lord Owen and Simon Hughes. Should the High Court order the Register to be revealed they will very publicly find themselves on the side of the law – and on the side of medical ethics.
In a further twist, by Sunday evening we heard of an email circulating which demonstrates that deputy leader Hughes is paying more than a passing glance at the feasibility of dropping the contentious Section 3 (the clauses which involve competition). The Guardian also reveals that he will ask Clegg to demand the publication of the Risk Register in a sign that he is paying at least some attention to his own party.
Clegg’s end of conference speech called for “pulling together”, which given the circumstances, unsurprisingly met with audibly half-hearted applause. This should come as a warning to his powerbubble of oblivion. Clearly the majority of the party did not swallow his fabrications with respect to the bill – nor that it was all Set-Up Shirley’s idea.
He then flew in the face of all the evidence by maintaining “the Liberal Democrats are a one nation party”. If the laughter in the Sage was inaudible it was surely ricocheting cross-country between Tynebank and the Thames. The only way for this to be a more accurate self-assessment would be for Clegg to support the securing of a one nation health service.
Andy Burnham has called for supporters of the NHS to put aside party differences and build a new coalition to protect the NHS.
Go on Mr Clegg – surprise yourself, support your party’s wishes and save the NHS – and possibly also your party itself.