Here’s the tool – now start the job and save our NHS

There must be no horse-trading over the future of the NHS - that is why the NHS Bill presented in parliament today is so important.

Alan Taman
11 March 2015

Parliament was given the tool it needs today to save the NHS. Whether this is dropped or left to rust in a dark cupboard somewhere as the NHS is broken up and sold off, is up to MPs. So it’s up to the public to make sure this precise opportunity is not neglected or conveniently forgotten: the NHS Reinstatement Bill.

The Reinstatement Bill has now gained the support of well over the dozen MPs a Bill can have to be ‘tabled before Parliament’. It attracted the support of MPs Caroline Lucas, Andrew George, John Pugh, Michael Meacher, Chris Williamson, Roger Godsiff,Kelvin Hopkins,Jeremy Corbyn,John McDonnell,Eilidh Whiteford,Hywell Williams and Katy Clark (who have put their names to the Bill), as well as Stewart Hosie, Angus Robertson, Angus MacNeil, Mike Weir, Pete Wishart and Chris Williamson.

Caroline Lucas presented the Bill itself on the floor of the Commons. This consisted of Caroline being asked who is introducing the Bill, reading out the names of the other MPs, and then walking three steps down the middle of the Commons, bowing, taking three more steps, bowing again, and then handing the Bill in at the table. It was then read out by the clerk and formally listed as one of this year’s bills. Hurrah.

A quaint ceremony. But what does it mean? What the Bill’s supporters hope it will mean is that the momentum built up for the Bill - as carefully crafted by Professor Allyson Pollock and barrister Peter Roderick - means it will be debated in the next Parliament as part of the Queen’s Speech.

What it actually means is that it is now regarded as an official Bill, published by Parliament. So it could mean just that – and not much more. There’s little time to actually get the bill on the statute books this side of an election, of course. Even without endless filibustering by whipped Tories to ensure it disappears into legislative oblivion – as has happened to its less sweeping but as well-intentioned cousin, the Efford Bill. Which is about to die in committee. That’s the blunt and broken ending.

But it could quite easily mean that if enough people approach their prospective candidates locally and ask them what they think of the Reinstatement Bill, whoever gets into power will at the very least know (a) this is to be taken seriously, and (b) the NHS is not fair game for horse-trading under a new coalition government. The Campaign has attracted some criticism, mostly from Labour supporters, who are pointing out the risks of confusing the electorate over this bill and the Efford Bill and possibly jeopardising votes as a result. But Allyson Pollock, speaking at the inaugural meeting of Doctors for the NHS, pointed out:

‘One of the things we want to ensure is that there is no horse-trading when it comes to the reinstatement of the NHS. Without the restoration of the duty to provide core-listed services, which the Health and Social Care Act removed from the Secretary of State, we will continue to see the NHS wither away.

‘We will then see a race to the bottom: the blurring of health and social care, more introduction of charges, and marketization.

‘So that’s why we’ve been working so hard on the NHS Reinstatement Bill. We’re been trying to get cross-party support and we have it.

‘What we need people to do is to get involved in the so that if there’s a hung parliament and if deals are being done they know that the NHS cannot be part of the horse-trading, it is absolutely sacrosanct. I hope everyone will support the Reinstatement Bill.’

The Campaign for the Reinstatement Bill is asking people to do just that. It is gaining traction and today’s ceremony can only help. Will it be enough? By targeting areas containing constituencies where the Bill already has support, it is hoped to encourage enough people to make a difference, and get the Bill on MPs’ ‘radar’ for the next Parliament. There was certainly enough support for the Bill outside Parliament: several NHS campaigning groups chose to mark the occasion by assembling on College Green, just outside Parliament, for photos. Several supporting MPs joined them.

The more critical problem, as with any campaign, is answering the question, ‘why should I bother?’ True for any campaign, but in this case with an added irony. There is evidence that those most likely to agree with what the Reinstatement Bill campaign is trying to do are, ironically, also the most likely to be disillusioned and disengaged from the parliamentary process.  

The People, The Parties and the NHS (The Ashford Report) set out five groups of people when analysing what the electorate thought of the NHS. The ‘Founding Idealists’ and ‘Concerned Status Quo’ groups are the most likely to see the need to combat privatisation and make up 43% (28 and 17% respectively) of the electorate: more than enough to make that difference, and keep the Reinstatement Bill alive after the election, and with a clear set of shared values with the Reinstatement Bill’s aims.

But they are also the youngest of the groups, and the least likely to want to engage with their local politicians, and the most likely to be disillusioned with the electoral system anyway. Getting people to approach their MPs to ask them something when they are already cynical about doing so will be a challenge. But it’s one the campaign accepts, and is working for (through the key of social media, for example: @NHSBill2015). It has to. Because unless the law is changed back the break-up of the NHS will continue – whoever is in power.

Parliament was handed the tool it needs to start the job of saving the NHS today. It would be a betrayal of the NHS, and of democracy itself, if that was left unused or squandered in the fierce gladiatorial chaos and bartering that follows after any election, let alone one this close.  This is a Bill that must not die. There is time – please, support this Bill. Let them know it cannot be ignored.

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