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March 17, 2014 / politicsbitesize

Clause 119: the death of the NHS?

HuntNHSA big blow to the future of the NHS was dealt in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.  MPs voted through the controversial Clause 119 of the Health and Social Care Bill by a majority of 47.  The amendment gives power to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and his Trust Special Administrators (TSA) to close or downgrade any hospital or A&E department in the country with just 40 days’ notice.

Despite concerted opposition by MPs and pro-NHS pressure groups, the so-called ‘hospital closure clause’ was introduced into the House of Lords by the back door.  The amendment came after a High Court ruling found that the Health Secretary had acted outside his powers when, in October last year, he decided to cut back the maternity and emergency units at a Lewisham Hospital in order to save the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

In July 2012, the South London Healthcare trust that ran Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich went into administration.  Andrew Lansley, then Health Secretary, replaced managers with government appointments in an attempt to get the hospital’s budget under control.  In January 2013, only a few months after Jeremy Hunt replaced Mr Lansley, the trust was broken up and services at nearby Lewisham were scrapped in order to save money.

At that time activists rightly stood their ground and argued that a well-performing local hospital should not be forced to pay the price for failings elsewhere.  The High Court ruled in the campaigner’s favour, but the passing of Clause 119 this week signals that this defeat for the government was a one-off.

The clause, now that it has been passed, will enable TSAs and the Health Secretary to take over any failing NHS trust in England and push through whatever local changes they consider necessary.  Any decisions to reconfigure services in one hospital can encompass a neighbouring trust, regardless of its financial situation (such as in the case of Lewisham).

Critics of the amendment, such as Grahame Morris, the Labour MP for Easington, say that clause 119 could be a Trojan horse to privatise our hospitals.  Andy Burnham MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said:

With more and more hospitals in financial difficulty, this move could hit every community in the land and leave them voiceless in the face of changes to their services.  Labour is clear: changes to hospitals should be driven by clinical, not financial, reasons with local people involved every step of the way. That is why we believe these plans are dangerous and wrong.’

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