Health Bill debate at conference: live blog

Liberal Democrat Voice at Conference

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Welcome to our live blog. Updates added at the foot.

No, the packed hall isn’t here to see my questions to the reports of the Parliamentary Parties (shocking, I know). It’s people filling up the hall early ahead of the big debate of conference: the NHS.

First up, moving the motion is Judith Jolly: “No one thinks this bill is perfect … but it is a hugely better, safer bill because of Lib Dems”. Shirley Williams is presumably waiting in the wings to make the last speech of the debate. She goes on to detail many of the doors opened to privatisation by Labour that Lib Dem amendments are closing. Ends with an appeal to back Shirley Williams over Andy Burnham.

Next up, Evan Harris. He’s moving a separate vote on the words that refer to voting for the Bill’s third reading. In other words, don’t vote down the motion but instead remove its support for the Bill’s final passage. A smart procedural move as it means he’s not seen to be opposing the motion’s praise for the changes Lib Dem peers have secured. In response to the motion’s title, he calls his request for a separate vote, “the William Beveridge” request. Gives a long list of detailed objections to what the Bill currently says.

Prue Bray is the the third speaker. She opposes the Bill, citing the lack of support from health professionals. “Let’s make sure we let people know it was Labour that decided to pay private companies at premium rates”, she adds.

Kelly-Marie Blundell also opposes the motion. Says she was made redundant by the Health Bill’s changes – but made redundant before it had been passsed and before the changes Lib Dems secured. The Lib Dem concessions are being ignored on the ground she says. “If you’re in a hole, stop digging”.

Julian Tisi speaks in favour of the motion: the Health Bill is “a completely different beast” from the one the Conservatives wanted. The Bill won’t break up the NHS or introduce American-style privatisation. He defends it as an example of how coalition government should work – to a very mixed response, heckles and applause, from the audience.

Martin Tod opposes the motion. As with Evan, he praised Shirley – taking a very different tone from some of the motion’s Lib Dem opponents have taken on social networks. A smart move if you want to persuade people to make up their minds your way. He attacks the Bill’s structure for the NHS, including how local commissioning would work. “It’s the enormous complexity and bureaucracy” he objects to. “It’s worse than tuition fees” he says.

At the start of the session, the chair explained the speeches would reflect the balance of the speaker cards submitted. It’s becoming clear why she announced that as the next speaker is Ann Morrison who also supports the separate vote, opposing the motion too. So too does Rachel Coleman-Finch.

Chris Lucas is up next. Talks of his mother’s career as a nurse – and the key principle for the NHS he learnt from that, that it must be free at the point of delivery. The NHS needs to adapt he says, whilst keeping that principle – which is why reform is necessary and the heavily amended Bill should now be supported.

David Rendel starts, “I’ve been married to a GP for a very long time … and I dare not support this Bill”. His judgement is that the Bill damages rather than improves the Bill. “This was not in the coalition agreement. We do not have to support it.”

So far, the speeches against the Bill/motion have gone down very well. However, applause in the conference hall has not always been a sure guide to final votes in previous controversies. And there’s still the final speech from Shirley Williams to come.

Andrew George MP is the penultimate speaker: “I don’t relish crossing swords with a deity… especially on a Sunday”. Attacks view that the Bill has been hugely changed – says it has not been.

Now, the final act: Shirley Williams. “This debate is not about me. Whether I am a semi-deity or a monster is for you to decide”, but people should not decide the motion on the basis of personalities. Compliments people such as Andrew George and Evan Harris for helping secure many changes, but then warns against under-rating about what the party has achieved in changing the Bill, including in the last week. Attacks “one piece of false information after another” about the Bill. Emphasises recent change changes and more coming next week.

She gets stuck into the detail of the Bill, responding to the details citied by Evan, Martin and Andrew. It has however been a debate mostly light on such details and instead conducted with broad headlines.

“We have stopped the process of privatisation” says Shirley Williams.

Now it’s the votes. Counted vote on the deletion of the lines calling for the third reading of the Health and Social Care Bill to be supported.

Result of separate vote in 314-270 to remove the lines on supporting the Bill’s 3rd reading. The amended motion is then clearly carried.

(Note: it was 270, not 217. I’ve confirmed this with Andrew Wiseman, chair of the Federal Conference Committee.)

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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22 Comments

  • “Andrew George MP: “I don’t relish crossing swords with a deity… especially on a Sunday”.”

    Nice one, Andrew!

  • Well, I never thought I’d say this, but I have a lot more respect for the way David Owen has behaved over this issue than I have for the position Shirley Williams has got herself into.

  • He will, henceforth, be re-named as Andrew ‘Saint’ George for his taking on of the cuddly dragon 🙂

  • Can someone please explain what has happened.

    The BBC are saying that the Liberal Democrats have voted against Shirley Williams proposals to support the Bill.

    But the Guardian says

    ” The Lib Dems have refused to fully endorse the health bill. After a short debate dominated by activists criticising the bill, the conference voted by 314 votes to 270 (it was 270, not 217) in favour of an amendment that neutered the pro-bill Shirley Williams motion. It did so by taking out a line in the original motion calling on “Lib Dem peers to support the third reading of the bill provided such further amendments are achieved”. The Lib Dems are not officially saying that their MPs and peers should vote against the bill. But this vote shows that they cannot bring themselves to back it either”

    What does this all mean in reality, what have you told the Lords they should do next week??????

  • David Rogers 11th Mar '12 - 10:52am

    Parliamentarians – especially non-elected ones! – cannot be mandated in this way.

  • @Matt

    In reality an absolute, utter political mess, caused by the stupidity of the leadership writing the script for Williams to deliver like a poodle, having furiously lobbied to have the real debate and motion which would have cleared the air one way or another yesterday to be put off for this horrible fudge.

  • Ian Willmore 11th Mar '12 - 10:59am

    Excellent coverage of the debate, thanks. Statement from anti-Bill campaign follows

    Keep Our NHS Public
    Public Health for the NHS

    Media Release
    For Immediate Use: Sunday 11th March 2012

    Liberal Democrat Conference: Health Bill

    Liberal Democrat Spring Conference has voted by 314-270 not to support calls on Lib Dem Peers to support the Health and Social Care Bill at its Third Reading. There will now be increased pressure on the Party leadership to end its attempts to push the Bill through Parliament.

    The Party leadership has claimed that changes made to the Bill made after the joint Clegg/Williams letter have transformed it into something workable and acceptable. This claim is false (see below). The Bill remains an ugly and damaging mess. The pernicious competition chapter has not been dropped. It will still remove the legal duty on the Secretary of State for Health to provide free and comprehensive healthcare for all. And it will still allow fewer services to be provided to fewer people, the introduction of charges for services currently free, and even the exclusion of groups of people from healthcare altogether.

    Commenting on the result of the conference vote, Professor Wendy Savage of “Keep Our NHS Public” said:

    “Everyone who care about the future of the NHS will be delighted that the Liberal Democrat conference has seized its last chance to stop the Health Bill in its tracks.

    The conference clearly realised that claims that changes to the Bill promoted by Mr Clegg and Baroness Williams have transformed it are simply false. Now Mr Clegg must listen to his own Party, to health professionals and to public opinion, and put this awful Bill out of its misery.

    If Mr Clegg decides to ignore his own Party he will pay a very heavy price. The idea that public opposition to this Bill will fade once it becomes law is deluded. If he allows it to pass, this Bill will haunt him and his Party until the next Election and beyond, and the campaign to defend the NHS will only grow in strength. ”

    A detailed analysis by Professor Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health Research and Policy at Queen Mary’s London, David Price, Senior Research Fellow at QMH, and public interest lawyer Peter Roderick, shows that the key problems with the Bill still remain. A full copy of the analysis can be read at http://bit.ly/zKL7de

  • So conference has declined to back the Health and Social care bill but allows the Liberal Democratic leadership to proceed on the view that yesterdays votes against instructing the leadership not to drop the bill was the one that mattered.

    Apart from some embarrassment for the leadership, and indication that the majority of the membership will be very uncomfortable on the doorstep defending this bill on the doorstep, does this actually change anything and was there any point in the motion ?

  • Keith Browning 11th Mar '12 - 11:47am

    Lib Dem peers now ‘allowed’ to weigh up the evidence and make up their own minds.

    Shock.. horror… we have Parliamentarians…. let’s trust them instead of trying to manage them.

  • Jack Timms, the party did not vote “against instructing the leadership not to drop the bill”(sic). The party voted (after transfer of preferences on an STV system) to select the congratulatory motion on the NHS rather than the anti Health and Social Care motion, or either of the other two motions on offer. As I see it, and Evan Harris has briefed to this effect, the rejection of the congratulatory motion means that a majority of Conference Reps are against the bill, and the leadership should take account of that, by withdrawing formal whipped support for it

  • Martin Pierce 11th Mar '12 - 1:10pm

    Excellent synopsis Mark. Matt – both are right, Guardian just has more detail. The parliamentarians (rightly) cant be mandated by conference but if the LD peers vote Yes next week they know they’ll be doing it in the teeth of confirmed opposition by the grassroots, not once but twice (last years Spring Conf too). In reality it’s a request/mandate to get more concessions (or scrapping it altogether and starting again if they’d prefer)

  • Martin Pierce 11th Mar '12 - 1:14pm

    One interesting point is the weight of pro/anti speakers called to reflect balance of requests put in (which FCC members were clearly indicating they would do last night. Surprising that having made such a huge effort to get the bland do-called Williams motion rather than Kill the Bill debated in the first place, they didn’t see it through by ensuring their people all put in enough cards to balance the debate. Perhaps they figured Shirl was all they needed

  • For all the talk about “tough decisions are needed in the coalition”, when called upon, we’re still capable of a real, old fashioned, LibDem Fudge….

  • Keith Browning Mar 11 – 11:47 am
    “Shock.. horror… we have Parliamentarians…. let’s trust them instead of trying to manage them.”

    Uh, why should we trust parliamentarians? Didn’t parliamentarian David Cameron promise us no more top-down reorganisations of the NHS”?

  • Tim. Thanks for your comment.

    Not sure what the effective difference is though in the scheme of things. Conference had an opportunity to really advise strongly the leadership and MPs about their feelings on the Health & Social Care Bill. As far as I can see the leadership can proceed as they see fit and it is clear what those views are. I.E voting through the bill into law.

    I’ll try to explain my understanding (correct me if you feel, I am mistaken).

    The motion to advise the leadership to block the Health and Social Care was blocked to support a motion that was a congratulatory bill for the NHS, (but was in effect designed to head off objections to the changes in the NHS). That congratulatory motion was supported but with the line to remove a line calling for peers to back the final stages of the health and social care bill taken out.

    Conference voted to show the leadership that do not like the bill but allowing the leadership enough space for the m to proceed with voting the bill through in any case ? They do not have to listen to conference. Or is the Lords and MPs advised not to vote the bill through ?

    Democratically, elected officials from the Liberal Democrat party take advice from Conference as they are mandated by the electorate ? ( I am trying to understand here). Whatever the case it appears that the MPs will vote for the bill as they have over the last 2 years ?

    Someone help me out here.

  • Tony Greaves 11th Mar '12 - 2:25pm

    Well, last night I thought I would be resigning from the party some time this summer if I voted against a conference decision to tell me to vote for the Bill. I am let off the hook – thanks, conference.

    Tony Greaves

  • It seems pretty clear that having tied her name to the motion (not a trick we’ll see again any time soon, I reckon), the platform left Shirley on her own. The defence was almost non-existent: few cards in favour, no MPs or other heavyweights, no one at all arguing specifically against the deletion. And with Shirley herself not on form and conceding few either understood or liked the Bill, isn’t the real surprise that the vote was still so close?

  • Tony Greaves: we found ourselves in the same boat. As my job depends on my party membership, I was staring into oblivion over night. I am relieved with this outcome but the party leadership need to stop pulling these stunts to try to “shape” our internal democracy and “manage” our opinions when they cannot properly manage the message or the policy.

    My party membership still hangs by a thread. That thread is the need to feed my child.

  • Ian @3:46 – the close result is no real surprise. Conference is full of many types. Among them are those who see their career in politics meaning they should play follow the leader. Given the ballot on the emergency motions, I am more surprised the machine failed to bulk out the questions and avoid the deletion.

  • SURESH CHAUHAN 12th Mar '12 - 10:48am

    Nick Clegg says that the NHS Bill has had a 1000 changes, many of them by the LIb DEms Peers.
    If that is the case, as surely it is, why did he endorse the original bill in the first place. Did he not read it or did Paul Burstow not fully appreciate it?

    REgards,

    ac

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Mar '12 - 12:25pm

    Parliamentarians cannot be mandated, but someone who has been given the position by the party as a whole to be its lead spokesperson surely can be mandated in this capacity.

  • This is a considerably better summary than the one in Lib Dem News which would have done Pravda proud

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