Image: Andy Worthington
The Care Bill returns to parliament today, amid mounting opposition to a Clause that allows fast-track hospital closures and reconfigurations to be imposed by the Health Secretary regardless of local wishes.
The sweeping new powers granted by Clause 118 mean decisions about local hospital provision could be taken in as little as 40 days, regardless of how well hospitals are performing.
A committee of MPs will start examining the Bill today, with Clause 118 (dubbed the ‘Hospital Closure Clause’ by campaigners) likely be discussed at the end of the month.
There are already signs that members of the committee will come under strong pressure to remove this Clause from the Bill. The whole Bill then returns to the floor of the House of Commons in February for any further amendments and a final vote.
Labour has indicated stiff opposition to Clause 118, with Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham calling it “an affront to democracy” which “paves the way for a new round of financially driven hospital closures” and which “should send a shiver through every community”.
The Clause would strip away the protections that allowed Lewisham Hospital campaigners to overturn the closure of their hospital - and could be applied to any hospital in the country. Campaigners have expressed alarm, given that the government is already quietly reviewing the future of half the hospitals in the country.
Government MPs are likely to be nervous about voting through the Hospital Closure Clause. The NHS is the number two issue of importance to voters, and even more so in marginal seats, according to polling by Lord Ashcroft.
Opposition is mounting - with the British Medical Association and Royal College of Physicians also expressing concerns, along with the health trade unions. The British Medical Association said Clause 118 would allow the Health Secretary to "force changes through the back door" and the Royal College warned “handing powers to special administrators to make decisions about neighboring trusts is cause for concern.”
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Allyson Pollock says that the clause will "undermine equal access to care in England" and removes "checks and balances designed to ensure that changes are in the interests of the communities affected".
The clash could also be an early test for Nick Clegg’s new claims that the Lib Dems have a “very different vision” from the Tories, and the Lib Dems commitment to localism and democracy.
Louise Irvine, Chair of Save Lewisham Hospital, said,
“Our hospitals and A&E departments are already full to overflowing. We have fewer hospital beds than most of the developed world. But this doesn’t stop the government wanting to hastily close down popular, well run NHS hospitals, so that it can redirect patients (and money) elsewhere in an increasingly privatised system. When they tried this at Lewisham, the courts found that the government had broken the law. So now the government is trying to change the law. If they succeed, no NHS hospital will be safe.”
What can we do? 5 campaign tips
Medical professionals can sign a letter co-ordinated by campaigner Dr David Wrigley here.
People with Tory or Lib Dem MPs can write to their local MP (suggested letter here) asking them to strongly oppose this clause in parliament and get it removed from the Care Bill. You can find your MPs contact details here.
People can also write to their local newspaper (suggested letter here). MPs worry a lot about what’s in their local paper.
A petition organised by Louise Irvine on the 38 Degrees website already has a quarter of a million signatures and is still open to sign.
More events to be announced shortly - watch this space.
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