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Lib Dems and Tories turn both barrels on Burnham over private sector block

By Gareth Iacobucci

The Liberal Democrats have joined the Tories in condemning health secretary Andy Burnham's pledge to treat the NHS as the ‘preferred provider'.

Speaking at private firm Circle Health's conference in Bath last week, Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said the move to give NHS providers at least two chances to improve before allowing alternative providers to run services would severely hamper attempts to ramp up productivity in the NHS.

Mr Lamb said providers should be judged on quality, not on their status, and accused Labour of being in the pockets of the unions.

The move aligns the Lib Dems with the Conservatives, who have vowed to open up the market to more providers if elected, and, as Pulse revealed last week, have already begun talks with a host of private firms.

Mr Lamb said: ‘I strongly disagree with the secretary of state's provider pledge; it is a stitch up with the unions. It will set back the task of improving productivity; you need that challenge to existing providers.'

He added: ‘You need that insurgency [from new providers]. It's never the traditional providers coming up with the innovative ideas. The test should be quality.'

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, also speaking at the event, accused Labour of back-peddling on its reform agenda, but said his party would push ahead with stimulating competition.

He said: ‘Not only was wave 2 of ISTCs abandoned, but Andy Burnham's pledge is being interpreted as abandonment of any willing provider. The reform process hasn't been pursued, and isn't coherent. I will pursue any willing provider. As far as we can we should create a level playing field, and realise the benefits of competition.'

The views of both opposition parties were backed by Ali Parsa, chief executive of Circle, who urged the next Government to lower the drawbridge to all potential market entrants, and not waste time protecting existing providers.

He said: ‘We have a fundamental challenge. We now have to focus relentlessly on improving quality while reducing cost. Do we gamble on incumbents to make these changes? I don't think they will be successful.'

‘My appeal to politicians is to bring down the barriers to entry. Do not waste your time and energy backing the British Leylands of this world. Let the talent come through. We have wasted billions of pounds supporting incumbents. Create the policies that lower the barrier to entry. It costs us nothing.'

Andy Burnham's pledge to treat the NHS as the 'preferred provider' has come under fire Andy Burnham's pledge to treat the NHS as the 'preferred provider' has come under fire

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