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Government backs down and agrees to redraft NHS competition rules

The Government has announced a rethink of its proposed rules on the use of competition by commissioners, following intense pressure from GP leaders and campaigners.

Health minister Norman Lamb told MPs in the House of Commons that the Department of Health was rewording the the controversial regulations based on section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act after they had ‘generated significant concerns about their effect’.

He said the wording of the legislation has ‘inadvertently created confusion’ and claimed that it was not the intention for the rules to go further than those inherited from the Labour government.

The move comes after the chair of the RCGP, Professor Clare Gerada, became the latest high profile GP to call for the withdrawal of the regulations.

Last week, Pulse reported that the chair of the NHS Alliance, Dr Michael Dixon, reported that onerous competition requirements will lead to GPs abandoning CCGs. The GPC also warned that the regulations were a ‘betrayal’ of the Government’s commitment to give clinical commissioners autonomy.

Mr Lamb said the regulations had to be in line with the assurances given to Parliament over the Health and Social Care Bill, including former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s commitment that ‘commissioners, and not the secretary of state, and not the regulators, should decide when and how competition should be used to serve patient interests’.

He said: ‘I fully recognise that the wording of the regulations has inadvertently created confusion and generated significant concerns about their effect.

‘I have therefore listened to people’s concerns and my department is acting quickly to improve the drafting so that there can be no doubt that the regulations go no further than the previous set of principles and rules that we inherited from the previous Labour Government.’

‘Concerns have been raised that commissioners would need to tender all services. This is not our intention and we will amend the regulations to remove any doubt that this is the case and clarify that the position remains the same as at present.’

Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, said there was ‘complete confusion’ about the job CCGs are being asked to do.

‘[The coalition] is in this mess because the “doctors will decide” mantra was always a figleaf for their true ideological purpose of driving competition and privatisation into the heart of the NHS.’

Dr Mark Porter, Chair of BMA Council, said it was urgent that commissioners were ‘completely clear about the rules’ by April.

He said: ‘The new version of the regulations must be crystal clear on the key areas about which the BMA and other healthcare organisations had serious reservations.

‘Commissioners must not be forced into tendering services inappropriately, wasting the NHS precious time and money.’

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the RCGP, told Pulse she was ‘delighted’ by the rethink. She said: ‘I’m pleased we’ve been vinidicated. These regulations have been poorly written and had been completely against what had been promised during the discussions and consultations.’

However, she added she was ‘not confident about anything’ to do with the Government’s intentions and nothing would have changed ‘if it wasn’t for a few brave people creating concern’.

She added: ‘I don’t think this was an error, it was a deliberate attempt to put through regulations that would set in stone forever a privatised health service, with all the expense that would incur and all the damage to patient case it would cause.’

Dr Michael Dixon, chair of the NHS Alliance, said: ‘This is excellent news. One can’t give an unconditional welcome to it until we see exactly what those new regulations are. But the rhetoric of the minister is such that is seems absolutely clear that he understands the problem and is on the side of commissioners in terms of allowing them to do their job.’