Image: NHS Bill supporters outside parliament. Image: NHS Bill Now.
Last Friday saw a fantastic day of action in support of the NHS Bill. Campaigners should be proud. Tens of thousands of people contacted their MPs to make sure the NHS Bill was across their desks. We saw demonstrations up and down the country in support. At a rally outside the Commons, speaker after speaker got up to say what a public NHS means to them. Toots of support from taxis, lorries, cyclists and cars didn’t stop.
I only wish the activities inside Parliament could have matched that spirit. A tiny group of clown-like backbench Tory MPs deliberately prevented the NHS Bill from being debated. For four and a half hours, they bored on about a crass two clause Bill (brilliantly criticised here), that they’d picked off a shelf to stop any real debates going forward.
As a result, the NHS Bill received only 17 minutes of debate.
There was good support in the Chamber from both the SNP and some individual Labour backbenchers, including Rachael Maskell, Valerie Vaz, Liz McInnes, Andrew Smith, Jim Cunningham and others who made their support clear. However, we needed far more Labour backbenchers to join them if were we to have any chance of putting a ‘closure motion’ to stop the filibustering jokers on the opposite benches.
Getting 100 MPs to cancel long-standing constituency engagements on a Friday in the face of Tory fools isn’t easy, and whilst it was very frustrating that we didn’t get the numbers on Friday, I believe we can mobilise that support in the future. There is huge and growing support for the Bill to keep our NHS public. The Bill’s backers include the BMA, Unite, (with 100,000 members in the NHS), the President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, as well as great activists like Harry Leslie Smith, a raft of famous faces and many, many local NHS campaigners. The response on social media on Friday was enormous.
And we have made some progress with the Shadow Health team. As a result of Friday’s day of action in support of the Bill, the Official Opposition has now said, they are “supportive of the overall objectives of the Bill” but have concerns about reorganisation and would amend the Bill. This represents progress, albeit with a worryingly vague caveat.
It is absolutely right to ask whether the Bill would represent yet another top down reorganisation that NHS staff simply cannot take. The answer is that this is an essential ‘bottom-up’ simplification exercise to restore the NHS as a publicly provided, funded and managed service. Health Boards would be designed by and made up of the very people working in the NHS bodies they would replace. In answering the reorganisation question, it cannot be overstated that the National Health Service in England is being broken up and disorganised on a daily basis. It is being tendered into a mess and the Bill brings back coherence in order to preserve the NHS for the future.
Secondly, Scotland has undergone a similar process with minimal disruption, so we can do the same.
The heart of the NHS Bill is to stop the competition and bring back collaboration; to move on from the internal market, to learn from it and treat it as a failed experiment, and bring back coherence to our NHS. What we can usefully ask now, is whether or not the amendments that the Shadow Health Team have in mind would remove the guts of the Bill. I’m hoping they will meet with me to discuss this.
As for what next, technically the Bill is still live and is scheduled to be debated again on 22 April. As it has 25 bills ahead of it, there is no chance of it being debated on that date, but I have no doubt the Bill will be back after the Queen’s Speech. In the meantime, I will be meeting cross party supporters to discuss next steps, which makes it more vital than ever for campaigners to keep talking to their MPs.
As for the Government, no doubt they were perfectly happy for a handful of their ranks to steal the debate from the public. One way we can prove that this is an issue that the public cares about is to sign this petition against the dullard filibusterers– it has taken off with tens of thousands signing after Friday’s Tory antics. Parliament should be a place for proper debate, not time-wasting tactics. This Bill isn't going away. We will not sit back and let the Tory privateers get away with this vandalism of our Health Service.