Hopes that the House of Lords would delay and check the government's controversial Health and Social Care Bill were disappointed yesterday.
After heavy lobbying by Lord Howe on behalf of the coalition, a majority of peers refused to rock the political boat and voted two key amendments off the agenda.
In particular, they voted 330 to 262 against the proposal put forward by Lord Owen and Lord Hennessy, which would have referred sections of the bill to a special select committee for further scrutiny.
Conservative peer Lord Howe had warned that further delays could jeopardise the legislation passing into statute by the deadline of April 2012.
"The House must have proper time to examine the bill, but the proposal put forward by Lord Owen could result in delay, which could well prove fatal to it," he declared.
Health campaigners believe that would have been a positive outcome, given the serious damage they believe the bill could do to healthcare in England.
A further amendment to block the Health and Social Care Bill altogether was dismissed by 354 votes to 220. But the scale of opposition was still high.
Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham described the vote as “a sad day for the NHS,” and said that “the opinion of the country is clear,” including that of GPs and other doctors.
“I am just sad the House of Lords didn’t listen,” he declared, saying that the fight against damaging elements of the bill would go on.
Dr Hamish Meldrum, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Council, confirmed that the BMA remains opposed to the bill, and will continue to highlight its concerns.
He said: “The BMA continues to have many areas of concern, including the need for assurance that increasing patients’ choice of provider for specific elements of their care won’t be given priority over the development of integrated services and fair access.”
“We also need to see an explicit provision that the Secretary of State will retain ultimate responsibility for the provision of comprehensive health services. In addition, we continue to have significant concerns over the arrangements for public health and education and training and we will be looking to see improvements made in these areas, too,” said Dr Meldrum.
The trade union UNISON's Head of Health, Christina McAnea, added: “We are bitterly disappointed that too many Lords failed to listen to the groundswell of opposition from the public, health professionals, charities, staff and unions to the dangers of the Health and Social Care Bill. It was a missed opportunity.
“They should have voted to throw it out, or at the very least, supported the Owen amendment and referred the Bill to a special select committee. The NHS is too precious to rush through this Bill without the scrutiny the public wants and deserves,” said Ms McAnea.
"Whether ministers can push the Bill through Parliament with only minor changes may depend on the level of public opposition," commented Savitri Hensman, an associate of the thinktank Ekklesia.
* 'Health and Social Care Bill: privatising healthcare?', by Savi Hensman - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15533