UK Politics

Milburn calls amended NHS plans 'a car crash'

Alan Milburn
Image caption Alan Milburn said the coalition's agenda was now "more protectionist" than Labour's

The coalition's amended plans for the NHS in England are the "biggest car crash" in the service's history, an-ex Labour health secretary has said.

Alan Milburn told the Daily Telegraph the changes were being driven by "short-term politics" and would leave the NHS more financially stretched.

He also warned Labour against opposing "progressive reform" of the NHS.

But the man who headed a review of the government's NHS shake-up said Mr Milburn was wrong.

An independent panel of experts, the NHS Future Forum, recommended a series of changes, including more controls on competition and a slower pace of change, following criticism of the government's original plans from Lib Dem MPs and unions.

'Less reformist'

Mr Milburn, who as health secretary under Tony Blair came into conflict with then Chancellor Gordon Brown over greater financial freedom for hospitals, criticised David Cameron and Nick Clegg for their handling of the process.

"Many in both camps inside the coalition consider the U-turn a triumph," he said. "But it has the makings of a policy disaster for the NHS and, maybe in time, a political disaster for the government."

While reform was a "constant necessity" in the NHS, Mr Milburn said its cause had been set back by weaknesses in Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's original blueprint, which he described as a "foolish bout of policy-wonking".

He added: "The promise of the coalition was that it would go where New Labour feared to tread when it came to public service reform. There would be no no-go areas.

"In fact David Cameron's retreat has taken his party to a far less reformist and more protectionist position than that adopted by Tony Blair and even that of his predecessor Gordon Brown."

He described the new policy as the "biggest nationalisation" since the NHS was created in 1948 and said overall control had been handed to a body - the NHS Commissioning Board - which was "the daddy of all quangos".

Mr Milburn, who left Parliament at the 2010 election, said scrapping the 2013 deadline for giving GP consortia control of commissioning would result in a "patchwork of decision-making for years to come".

'Open goal'

On the need to make £20bn in efficiency savings, he said it would fall to the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

"It was precisely the situation David Cameron and George Osborne were trying to avoid. Sorry George, but the cash you were saving in your pre-election Budget for tax cuts will now have to be spent on a bail-out for the health service."

He described the current situation regarding public service reform as "an open goal for Ed Miliband's Labour Party" but warned the leadership about its own reaction to the NHS climbdown.

He added: "The temptation, of course, is for Labour to retreat to the comfort zone of public sector producer-interest protectionism - and there were signs of that in the party's response to the government's U-turn this week.

"It would be unwise, in my view, for Labour to concede rather than contest the reform territory. It now has an opportunity to restake its claim to be the party of progressive, radical reform."

'Necessary evolution'

The head of the NHS Future Forum, which examined the government's plans as part of its recent "listening exercise", criticised Mr Milburn's remarks.

"He is wrong and it is time for politicians to get out of the NHS and give us some space to actually get on and run the service," Professor Steve Field told the health select committee.

"I would like to see the bill passed as quickly as possible, amended to make it work."

A government source said: "Eight years ago Alan Milburn tried to reform the NHS but failed to deliver the progress necessary because he was blocked by Gordon Brown.

"Other former Labour health ministers - and many professional bodies - support these reforms as a necessary evolution. We can't afford to miss another opportunity to improve the NHS."

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