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Lords failed to improve the NHS Bill – we must step up the campaign

The government won every vote in the Lords but one. We must make our voices heard.

Initially I was optimistic that the House of Lords would amend the worst parts of the Health and Social Care Bill. The House of Commons had washed its hands off the Bill with a resounding Coalition support in favour voting 316 for, to 251 against, but the party arithmetic in the Lords is more balanced. There are 218 Conservative, 239 Labour, 91 Liberal Democrat, and 53 “other” peers and bishops. Although Coalition peers outnumber the official Opposition peers, there are 186 “crossbench” peers who do not take any party whip. But their votes on the Bill were evenly split so the effect is the same as if they had not voted.

The Bill is substantially the same as when it was introduced into the Lords. Part of the reason is the Lords accepting that they exist to amend bills not to wreck them. So when the crossbench peer, Lord Owen, suggested that a Lords Select Committee should be created to examine the role of the Health Secretary he explicitly limited the report date of the committee so that it did not affect the Bill timetable. The government still claimed that Lord Owen’s amendment would delay the Bill and the House voted against it.

During its passage in the Lords the Bill had seven divisions, and the government won all the votes but one. The only success was an amendment over whether charities should pay VAT. The voting record shows that, with a few notable exceptions, Lib Dem peers have consistently voted with the Conservatives. This orchestrated bloc voting by the Lib Dems has delivered the government an 85% success rate on its votes in the Lords compared to around 70% during the previous government. 

There is now a rumour (from Lord Toby Harris) that the Prime Minister intends to create 60 new peers, 55 of them Coalition peers giving the government a permanent majority of 120 over Labour in the upper chamber. If the rumour is correct, rebellions in the House of Lords will be a thing of the past and the Lords will acquiesce to whatever the government wants. Of course, Nick Clegg’s suggested reforms of making the Lords an elected clone of the House of Commons will have a similar effect.

The Bill still has an estimated two-week Lords Report stage. This is longer than usual because after Lord Owen’s suggestion was rejected, the government decided to move the contentious clauses in the Bill to a separate Lords committee (just as Lord Owen requested!). This committee has since reported and recommended that the accountability of the Secretary of State should not be reduced as suggested by the Bill, but the clauses still need to be debated in the full House. A complicating factor is that this is the longest Parliamentary session for 150 years and Bills have to be passed before the end of the session. There are three large, important bills in the Lords and the government needs to get them passed before the Queen’s Speech.

Clearly the only way to oppose the Bill now is extra-parliamentary. There is far more need to write to your MP and to peers to express your opposition, but since local authorities will have a greater role in running the NHS you should also express your opposition to your local councillors. With the British Medical Association, NHS Consultants' Association, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives and Royal College of General Practitioners all against the Bill the government cannot say that the medical profession supports the Bill. Now we have to make sure that politicians know the public doesn’t either.

False Economy will be posting more details of actions against the NHS Bill soon. If you are organising a local protest, please add it to our action map.

Richard Blogger writes about the NHS and social policy at NHS Vault.

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