Labour is challenging the Liberal Democrats to speak out against the government’s plans for the NHS, a day after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg vowed to block the Health Bill if it is not improved.
Mr Clegg has made the NHS legislation the first test of his promise to deliver a “louder Lib Dem voice” in the coalition government, following the party’s humiliation in last week’s elections.
Unless there are “substantial, significant changes” to health secretary Andrew Lansley’s proposals, Mr Clegg has said he will tell Liberal Democrat MPs and peers to vote them down.
“I am not going to ask Liberal Democrat MPs and peers to proceed with legislation on something as precious and cherished … as the NHS unless I personally am satisfied that what these changes do is an evolutionary change in the NHS and not a disruptive revolution,” said Mr Clegg, who promised he would not allow the reforms to usher in “back-door privatisation” of the health service.
Labour has called a debate on the Bill - which gives billions of pounds of commissioning power to GPs and expands the role of the private sector in NHS provision - on the floor of the House of Commons on Monday.
The debate comes in the middle of a “pause” ordered by prime minister David Cameron for consultation on the Bill with health professionals and the public, after mounting unease on the Lib Dem backbenches over Mr Lansley’s plans.
Shadow health secretary John Healey last night called on Mr Cameron to shelve the legislation, and said today’s debate would offer Mr Clegg an opportunity to show whether he is serious about asserting his independence in government.
“For all his tough talk on the NHS, Nick Clegg is up to his neck in the Tory-led government’s Health Bill and the Lib Dems have backed it so far at every stage in Parliament,” said Mr Healey.
“I’m glad Lib Dems are starting to make the arguments Labour has been making since the early autumn. This is a bad Bill and if Nick Clegg is serious he must spell out exactly what his bottom line is.
“But in truth this is David Cameron’s call, not Nick Clegg’s. If the prime minister wants to prove to NHS patients and staff that his ‘pause’ is not just spin, then he must shelve the Bill as it stands and make radical changes to his NHS reorganisation plans.”