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Senior Lib Dem warning on 'shadowy' wording of health bill changes

The 'ambiguous' wording of the Government's proposed changes to the health bill must be clarified to give a cast-iron duty to provide a comprehensive health service says a prominent Liberal Democrat peer.

The warning from Baroness Shirley Williams - a key opponent to the health bill in the House of Lords - indicates that more changes will be necessary to win the junior coalition party's parliamentary support.

Though critics won the battle to have the bill amended, Baroness Williams told the NHS Confederation conference that even the amended bill is ‘confusing, obscure and ambiguous.'

She said: ‘Despite the new clause on the Secretary of State's duty to promote a comprehensive health service, it remains far from clear whether this amounts to a duty to provide or secure the provision of health services,' adding, ‘he will have no default duty to provide these services himself.

'In other words we are still in a shadowy area where nothing is clear; legal advisers tell me that the current bill's words, enticing though they may be, do not add up to a duty to provide a comprehensive health service as laid down in the 2006 NHS Act. It is vitally important that the position is made unambiguously clear.'

She added that it is ‘odd' to follow the pause with ‘a rushed parliamentary response in which all the amendments and recommendations have to be dealt with in just five days.'

The baroness, who was a key player in forcing the ‘listening exercise', also warned: ‘Every week that passes makes the achievement of the necessary efficiency savings more difficult. The NHS goes on losing good staff, and paying people for redundancy. It is today a shell of its former self.'

On competition, Baroness Williams said: ‘I am concerned about the removal of the cap on private beds in foundation hospitals, not least because the mixture of NHS patients with private ones provides a better basis for the training of young clinicians, as well as ensuring outstanding medical practice to less advantaged patients.' 

Previously the conference heard health secretary Andrew Lansley insist it was time to ‘regain the momentum' on the changes saying that already 97% of the of the population was covered by pathfinder clinical commissioning groups.

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