Privatisation: Tories plan unlimited private sector role in NHS

Debate reveals stark differences in political parties' respective stances on role of private sector.

Labour is the only major UK political party which wants to limit the privatisation of the NHS, it has emerged.

At a New Statesman roundtable debate, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen made it clear that they favoured opening the health service to 'any willing provider'.

Only Labour's public health minister Dawn Primarolo demurred, arguing that most NHS care should remain in public sector hands.

Broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, who was chairing the discussion, said: 'Some might detect a serious ideological division between Labour and the other two parties.'

The three MPs were asked whether they favoured any bar on private providers in the NHS.

Ms Primarolo said that, although the government wanted to use private providers to supply extra capacity, it opposed an 'all-encompassing' role for commercial health companies. 'The NHS is a public service buying in expertise,' she added.

But Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said he did not believe in 'a state monopoly'. Instead he backed a mixed economy with an expanded role for social enterprises, he said.

'The issues that matter are quality of care, access without charge and value for money,' he said. 'I do not have any difficulty with other providers playing a role ... and I do not think it would make sense to have a quota after which you stop,' he added.

His Conservative counterpart, Andrew Lansley, said he was 'in the same place as Norman on this'. He also criticised Labour plans to limit the independent sector's role to extra capacity.

'That is not the way it works,' he said. 'You create as level a playing field as you can and then you allow NHS clinicians to access services in the best possible way on behalf of their patients.'

Ms Primarolo replied that her opponents saw the NHS as 'just a list (of) what needs to be delivered.

'It is much more complex than that,' she said.

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