Safe in their hands? Coalition changes law to make it easier to cut services at Lewisham Hospital

Lewisham_Hospital_Victory - July 2013In 2013 proposals to savagely cut services at Lewisham Hospital –  downgrading Maternity and A&E services and selling off a large chunk of land – were twice defeated by the High Court, which ruled that the Government was acting outside of its powers with its plans, thanks to an energetic community campaign.

But damaging cuts to Lewisham may yet emerge by the back door, and this is a threat we need to remind voters of in the run up to the May elections. Clause 119, hastily tacked on to the coalition government’s Care Bill, will make it easier for Trust Special Administrators (TSAs) to  close down hospital departments with little meaningful consultation on proposals until it’s too late.

The clause was voted through on Tuesday evening (March 11th), opposed by Labour but with only six Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat MP voting against. As the Save Lewisham Hospital website reports: “The vote was lost in Parliament this evening – with Labour’s amendment of a strike out of the clause being voted down and with Lib Dem Paul Burstow withdrawing his support for his own amendment in weasly fashion at the last minute”.

Some concessions have been made – GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) will have more of  say over hospital closures than the clause originally proposed – but it is now a lot easier for the government to close down hospital departments in the teeth of huge local opposition, as a good report on the OpenDemocracy website explains. If the new clause means that cuts to Lewisham are pushed through again, local Lib Dems and Conservatives will have a lot of explaining to do.

The Greenwich Labour banner on the march to save Lewisham Hospital,  January 2013

The Greenwich Labour banner on the march to save Lewisham Hospital, January 2013

While the clause was being debated in Parliament on Monday night, Labour held a public meeting in Greenwich to discuss the ongoing Tory threat to the NHS. All the meeting’s speakers – including two who work in the local NHS, QEH Midwife Debbie Jordan and Lewisham GP Brian Fisher  – said that the huge improvements that Labour made to the NHS between 1997 and 2010 are now under threat. When the Tories were last in government in the 1990s, they introduced a 18-month target wait for hospital treatment which the NHS struggled to meet because of a lack of resources: even a two-year wait for a heart operation was common. Under Labour, the maximum wait for hospital treatment was reduced to just 18 weeks.

Two factors have caused a perfect storm for the NHS. Firstly, budgets are being savagely cut. Under Labour, NHS budgets rose by 4% a year on average, but now they are increasing by just 0.25% a year: a cut in real terms as budgets need to increase by 4-5% a year just to meet demands form an ageing population. Co-payments – allowing the rich to jump queues by paying extra – are now on the agenda, something that would have been unthinkable under the last Labour government. “The Government is almost delighting in criticising the NHS,” said Philip Hunt, a Labour Health spokesman in the Lords who spoke at the meeting.

Secondly, David Cameron broke his pledge that would be no major reorganisations in the NHS. Instead he embarked on the biggest reorganisation in the NHS’s history, with devastating effects on staff morale and a 40% reduction in staffing in some parts of the NHS. The Tories proudly claim to be putting “doctors in charge” but the Tories forget that the NHS should be run for the benefit of patients: sadly a small minority of doctors have always opposed the NHS. For example, in the 1990s some consultants opposed a new 18-week target wait for operations as it would hit their private income: patients would no longer have to go private to get quick treatment.

Attacking “NHS bureaucrats” makes for good headlines but skilled managers in the NHS are needed more than ever, to make sure that services are run for the benefit of patients, not doctors or private contractors.  But NHS London has been scrapped and there is now no NHS body planning services across the capital: instead there are lots of NHS Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups  that have been ordered to compete with each other, not collaborate.

In Staffordshire, where the NHS is struggling to recover from the Mid-Staffs scandal in which rising death rates went unchecked, current Government policies are only making matters worse: all cancer services in the county are currently being contracted out to the private sector. All over the country, private corporations are being lined up to take over services, and even start running entire hospitals. Monitor, an Orwellian new quango, can force local NHS bodies to put services out to tender.

In Greenwich, the latest reorganisation – a merger of Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Lewisham Hospital to create a new hospital trust – was unnecessary but seems to have been made to work well, and several people at the meeting said they hoped that Labour would not start yet another reorganisation if they win the 2015 election: sage advice indeed. Rather than completely reorganise the NHS yet again, Labour’s alternative is threefold: to restore confidence in the NHS, reverse the Tories’ privatisation, to link up services rather than fragment them, and to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, which encourages all services to be opened up to “any willing provider” including American corporations. As Aneurin Bevan warned in the early 1950s, the NHS has always been opposed by vested interests who never wanted it to be set up in the first place.

 It is sometimes suggested that the proposed cuts to Lewisham are all Labour’s fault, as they are supposedly needed to meet the debts arising from the Queen’s Elizabeth Hospital’s Private Finance Initiative rebuilding fifteen years ago. But this PFI deal had in fact been negotiated by the then-Tory movement before 1997, and while it was signed after Labour was elected in 1997, there was little way of unpicking it. Of course Labour has a lot to learn from all such PFI deals, but we mustn’t forget that a Labour government would never contemplate the wholesale privatisation of the NHS that has now begun.

The Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, which has mustered 15,000-strong protest marches and a 50,000-plus petition, continues (see, with the wholehearted backing of Labour in Greenwich.


One Response to Safe in their hands? Coalition changes law to make it easier to cut services at Lewisham Hospital

  1. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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