Labour confirmed yesterday that it would be staging a last ditch attempt in parliament on Tuesday to strike out the deeply unpopular “Hospital Closure Clause”.
The Clause - from which, as Burnham says, ‘no hospital will be safe’ - has caused uproar amongst NHS supporters. Campaigners from across the country assembled last week in Westminster to hear Burnham and others denounce the clause to a packed committee room of public and clinicians, deep in the Palace of Westminster.
Remember the wave of joy and relief following the victories in the fight to save Lewisham’s hospital last summer? The tide seemed to be turning in the right direction – people power could win through. But deep down everyone knew Hunt would be back. Such a determined operator, with such a grand plan in mind, will not be put off by little things like legal hurdles.
Hunt said he would look at the law that protected Lewisham - and he did. He hit back with Clause 118 (now 119) tagged on to the Care Bill - a subtle but formidable tool that gives Trust Special Administrators (TSA) and the Health Secretary greater powers to close services, wards and hospitals anywhere in the country, even if their own finances, care and public support is strong.
The move was emphatically condemned by NHS supporters as a back door to hospital closures and a license to issue centralist diktats.
It seemed a direct contravention of the 2010 Coalition Agreemnent which pledged not just to end “top down reorganisations” but also specifically to:
“stop the centrally dictated closure of A&E and maternity wards, so that people have better access to local services.”
Furious at the betryal, campaigners have fought since last summer. The ‘hospital closure clause’ had to be stopped , or we might just have to forget those summer highs ever happened at all.
Clause 119 is now just days away from being as good as law. In the packed committee room last week the atmosphere was tense - news had just broken that time was running out, with a vote on Tuesday 11th March.
The day started at Downing Street. The crowd marched to the Prime Minister’s door to hand in a 150,000 signature-strong petition urging his government to rethink the clause. Then on to College Green to gather at the foot of George V’s statue and hear leading NHS campaigners speaking out.
Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith, said it was nothing less than a “phoney sham”.
“It will allow the government to close hospitals on a whim,” he said. “The motivation behind this is privatisation. We need to denounce this; every time they try a new trick like this we should denounce it”.
Lewisham campaigner Jill Mountford said: “We’re here for the young, the old and the in-betweeners. We need to speak out; our NHS is in dire straits. It’s in a critical condition”.
Inside Parliament the speeches continued. From Dr Louise Irvine, our own Caroline Molloy, BMA deputy chair Kailash Chand, Lord Phil and on and on, all scathing against Clause 119, all determined to do something about it.
So when Andy Burnham stood up and announced what the whole crowd had been waiting to hear – that Labour was mounting a campaign to get it deleted from the Bill - the energy rose in the room.
“It was never meant to be a back door route to reconfiguration of services,” he said. “This is an abuse of the parliamentary process…I don’t see how it can be justified. The government has gone back on its word; it needs to be stopped”.
When the Care Bill goes back to the Commons next week, sparks are likely to fly. Not least because, as Burnham explained, Labour is whipping MPs to vote with a special motion it is tabling to have Clause 119 removed.
“We will put everything we’ve got into defeating it,” he said. “We need to win that argument”.
But he was also frank about the fact that without a majority, Labour alone can’t defeat Clause 119. He urged the gathered supporters to put pressure on MPs of all colours.
No politician wants to see a hospital closed in their constituency, especially not one with a slim majority. If Lewisham proved anything, it’s that people will come out to defend their hospitals. Arguments about financial failings elsewhere in the system mean little to people when the hospital that saved their lives, that delivered their babies, is facing the chop.
Lib Dems and even Conservatives must be enlisted. If we can’t appeal to their consciences, we can certainly appeal to their majorities. Almost as soon as the committee was called to an end, a new wave began.
A lobby outside parliament has been called for 6pm Monday evening and again at 11.30am on Tuesday, the day of the vote. “Bring pots and pans to make a noise”, people are told.
Petitions abound, the unions are rallying, leading medics and campaign groups like Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) and the National Health Action Party have written to the papers and their MPs urging them to see Clause 119 for what it is - a radical change to how hospital decisions are made, allowing fast-track closures of even well-performing hospitals.
Perhaps somewhat spooked by the backlash, Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow has tabled an alternative amendment which proposes giving some power back to the Clinical Commissioning Groups, who can - his amendment says - then decide whether they want to consult the public, or not.
But Labour will be fighting to strike it out altogether .
One of the founding fathers of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan once said: “The NHS will survive as long as there are folk with the faith to fight for it”.
Bevan is long gone, and the world has moved on. Are there enough folk with the “faith to fight”?