If the Party is still licking its wounds and reeling from the catastrophic loss of public support over student tuition fees and the kicking received in the May 2011 local elections, then please be in no doubt, that the punishment it will receive from the electorate for its perceived co-operation in, and reluctant endorsement of, the demise of a much loved and unified national health service, will be on another planet entirely! And that will be despite the valiant efforts and guerrilla warfare carried out by our Peers led notably by Shirley Williams and others.
Essential to Cameron’s election campaign was the promise to protect the health service – his dishonest break with that commitment will prove toxic, not only for him but also for also for Lib Dems. The public and media will not fail to remind us that the current reforms are in direct contradiction to commitments in the Coalition Agreement’s detailed programme (The Coalition: Our Programme for Government), signed by both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.
Whilst GPs and other clinicians do in fact support the concept of clinically-led commissioning, they believe that this expensive upheaval of the health service fails to achieve that and acts as a distraction from the financial challenge facing the NHS. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) – the UK’s largest medical Royal College supports a greater role for GPs in the planning, design and delivery of services within their local communities – but it does not support a Bill which in their view would damage the care and services that GPs deliver to patients. RCGP Chair Dr Clare Gerada called instead for the ‘consolidation of the current organisational structure, such that PCT clusters remain, with GPs placed as the majority of the Board’.
But it is still not too late for the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg should withdraw our support for the Bill and in doing so halt a damaging, unnecessary and expensive reorganisation with its potential for leaving the poorest and most vulnerable in society to bear the brunt. This position is strengthened through the recently published joint editorial by the Health Service Journal, Nursing Times and British Medical Journal, which predicted the changes would be so destructive that another expensive reorganisation would be needed within five years.
Taking such a bold decision would mark out clear lines in the sand in a public manner, differentiating us from the Tories and creating that vital space for debating our social liberal ideals on the doorstep. As a get out clause, the Deputy Prime Minister could argue that the growing public and professional outcry now shows that the consequences of the bill have turned out to be entirely different from the principles which were originally agreed. This is a plausible position and one which the party grass roots, patients, professionals and wider public will understand and respect.
If we continue along this trajectory, the impact will be disastrous not only for public health services in England, but also for our Party in terms of grass roots de-motivation and further erosion of public confidence in the face of a very difficult General Election campaign in 2015.
* Issan Ghazni is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and former National Diversity Adviser for the Liberal Democrats. Issan blogs here