Labour will today force a crucial vote in the Lords on the Government's NHS competition regulations, amid growing evidence of accelerating NHS privatisation.
Last year, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act, ministers gave repeated assurances that doctors would have final say over whether to open NHS services to the market.
However, Royal Colleges have joined Labour in warning that the regulations, brought forward under Section 75 of the Act, mandate market tendering on the medical profession in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
The British Medical Association joined the Royal College of General Practitioners last week in calling for the regulations to be re-written. Marie Curie and other voluntary organisations have warned that mandatory competition will damage patient care.
Last month, under pressure from Labour, the Government was forced to withdraw and re-write the regulations. However, the independent Lords Scrutiny Committee has said that the new regulations are “substantially the same” as the originals.
The debate comes as new evidence emerges of the pace and extent of NHS privatisation.
A huge increase in the use of private ambulances – including for blue-light calls – was revealed at the weekend.
In the last two years, the London Ambulance Service has increased spending on private contractors from £400,000 to £4.2 million – a ten-fold increase. During the same period, the LAS has cut 900 front-line NHS jobs.
Andy Burnham MP, Labour's Shadow Health Secretary, said:
“NHS privatisation is already proceeding at an alarming pace. If passed, these regulations will let the privatisation genie fully out of the bottle.
“David Cameron promised to put doctors in charge and let them decide. He is now mandating the medical profession to carve the NHS open to full competition. The Prime Minister has mis-sold his NHS reforms and the Lords should not let him get away with it.
“Having been caught out trying to privatise the NHS by the front door, ministers are now trying to sneak in the same rules by the back. They are insulting the intelligence of Parliament and risking a crisis of trust amongst medical professions.
“The House of Lords has a chance today to stop this relentless march of privatisation to the heart of the NHS. The Prime Minister needs to be reminded that he does not have permission from the British people to put their NHS up for sale.”
Lord Philip Hunt, Labour’s health spokesperson in the House of Lords, leading the debate, will say:
“These regulations will create a culture of defensive contracting, where commissioners will go to tender if there is any doubt that a failure to do so will expose them to a possible damages claim. They are part of the Government’s drive to shift the culture of the NHS from a public service into a public marketplace, and of a piece with a number of other ominous developments which send the NHS along the same path.
“Out there in the NHS, a market is unfolding oblivious to any assurances given by ministers to Parliament, and these regulations are a crucial vehicle for its delivery. That is what makes the regulations so dangerous and so different from the guidance issued in 2010.
“If the regulations are not struck down, decisions about who provides services to patients in the new NHS are not going to be made by clinicians. Instead, Clinical Commissioning Groups will be guided by advice they receive from their lawyers as to when CCGs should go out to tender – advice that in the vast majority of cases will be to do so to minimise the very real risk of legal challenge if they don't.”