Liberal Democrats – you have been warned

(This is the unexpurgated version of the speech I was proposing to give to the Lib Dem conference in September 2011. C.W.)

Well, Conference, I don’t know what to say. I feel a bit like Cassandra who was blessed with the gift of prophecy, but cursed by the fact that no-one listened to her.

I have been warning of the risks to the NHS from fragmentation and privatisation for years. Conference supported an amendment from me at Liverpool in 2008.
Again you overwhelmingly supported my amendment in Sheffield this year.
But today Conference is to be denied the opportunity to make a clear statement on he NHS.

I have been warning of the risks of Lansley’s proposals for over a year. If the Party had debated my motion a year ago perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess now.
I have been warning for over six months of the damage that this could do to the Party.
Make no mistake, the NHS will feature large in the next General Election and if we are found to have been party to its demise the public will never forgive us.

Now, if we had been debating my motion at Conference, I know what I would be saying. I would be saying “Well done Conference. The Sheffield Amendment made the government pause.” I would be saying “Well done Nick. You and others used the pause well to negotiate real and substantive changes to the Health Bill.” And I would have pointed out that we still had work to do. But now I can’t say any of that.

Conference, we have missed a unique opportunity. We could have taken a unique position on Health. We could have been the only party to promote an integrated, coordinated cooperative NHS that put equity, equality, effectiveness and efficiency before gimmicks and dogma, before competition, fragmentation and perks for executives, shareholders and ex-government ministers.

They say they are not privatising the NHS, because it will still be free at the point of use. What has that got to do with it? Prisoners don’t pay to go to a private prison, but it’s still private. There was a paper in the British Medical journal that quoted five widely recognised aspects of privatisation and Lansley’s plans fit all five. And don’t let Labour lecture you about privatising the NHS. Maggie may have started the rot with the internal market and competitive tendering, but Labour did vastly more to break up the NHS and sell off bits to the private sector. Labour brought us Independent Sector Treatment Centres and Darzi clinics. They put us £60 billion in debt to Private finance Initiatives, they gave GP practices to an American multinational company that has defrauded the insurance companies and employs Tony Blair’s special adviser in Health. And they even had plans just before the election last year for handing over the PCTs’ commissioning role to a bunch of private companies. Privatising the whole of NHS commissioning at one fell swoop.

One of our parliamentarians said to me that they are suffering from Health Bill fatigue. Well, yes, we all are, but that is no reason to pass a bad bill.

Imagine that you are building a ship, and you find that there are some holes in it. You start to patch up the holes by welding new sheets of steel in the inside. You then discover that while you were doing that someone has drilled a few more behind your back.

Because that is what Lansley seems to have done. Yes, Nick negotiated major changes, they have even implemented some of them, some they say they will look at later, and in some they changed the words, but the substance remains the same. I won’t give you a list, Simon Hughes doesn’t like shopping lists and anyway I haven’t time, but take my word for it there are still major, major problems with the Bill. Did you notice, by the way, that as soon as Parliament went into recess Lansley issued instructions that all PCTs were to put three more services out to contract, potentially offering an extra £1bn to private providers.

So your ship still has holes in it, but it is near the end of the day. What do you do? Do you just pass it on the the Lords and hope that they will fix some of it?

This is still a leaky ship, it is now heavy too with all the extra bits of steel stuck on like sticking plaster, and it’s as bent as a banana. If it sails at all it will go in the wrong direction, more likely it will sink. My fear is that the NHS will sink with it, and probably the Liberal Democrat Party will go down as well.

Conference this is a Bad Bill. We have negotiated in good faith, but if we can’t fix it we need to throw it out.

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