Campaigners against a controversial law which could see hospitals across the country shut down with minimal public consultation are preparing to protest outside Parliament tomorrow as it is debated by MPs.
Members of GMB, the trade union for staff in the NHS, are to stage the demonstration against Clause 119, formerly Clause 118, of the Government’s Care Bill - the Hospital Closure Clause.
This clause states that a "trust special administrator" taking action in relation to a hospital trust in financial difficulties would be able to take action "in relation to another NHS trust, which is necessary for and consequential on action taken in relation to that NHS trust".
Campaigners argue this would give administrators, appointed by the Health Secretary, the power to close hospitals near a hospital trust in financial difficulties - as was the case last year with Lewisham Hospital, in southeast London.
A judge ruled that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had acted illegally in proposing the downgrade, to the relief of thousands of residents and campaigners.
Lewisham Hospital protestors outside the Royal Courts of Justice last year. Photo: Simon Way
Clause 119 provides clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) with just 40 days to consult on any changes proposed by a trust administrator, massively limiting the sort of public consultation which health campaigners believe eventually resulted in Surrey Downs CCG walking out on the controversial Better Services Better Value review which threatened Epsom Hospital.
But the clause also states that the views of a CCG could be overruled by NHS England, resulting in local decision-makers potentially losing control over key reconfigurations of their hospital services.
Andy Prendergast, GMB regional officer for the Southern Region, said: "Clause 119 is a toxic addition to the Care Bill as it enters the Commons for the last time.
"It will allow the Secretary of State to close any hospital within 40 days.
"This is the Government’s response to their failure to push through the closure to Lewisham Hospital and represents an attempt to ride rough shod over local democracy.
"This legislation is an attack on our NHS and affront to the principles of local democracy and patient voice that was supposed to underpin the government’s reforms of the NHS.
"That could mean trust special administrators can make proposals to close financially healthy and outstanding hospital services simply because they neighbour another trust that’s in financial distress.
"If this clause becomes law hospitals will be at risk of having services shut down without their agreement, without proper consultation with clinical staff, patients and the public, and without even any agreement from the new GP commissioners."
Liberal Democrat MPs are believed to be formulating a "compromise amendment" to the clause which would see greater consultation and a veto given to local clinical commissioning groups if trust administrators wanted "to do a Lewisham", according to this morning's Today programme on BBC Radio 4.
The Government argues it is necessary to consider the wider health economy because patient care can be affected by what happens in neighbouring hospital trusts and reconfiguration of healthcare services is required to reflect people’s changing healthcare needs.
Epsom’s health campaigners have been vocal in their opposition to Clause 119, but MP Chris Grayling, has said it is a "technical clause" which gives him no cause for concern.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The NHS is currently turning round a number of hospitals in special measures, many of which have had deep-seated problems for years.
"In extremis, when a trust goes into administration, it is necessary to give the administrator enough power to take the difficult decisions necessary to ensure patients get safe care.
"In such situations lives are put at risk if the problem is not dealt with swiftly."
The Care Bill entered the House of Commons today for its final debate before MPs. If the Care Bill is approved by the end of this stage tomorrow, it will then go back to be considered by the House of Lords. If approved by the upper house, it will have been given the green light for Royal Assent - the formality by which it is offically enacted as legislation.
GMB staff will take part in the rally at 11am tomorrow at College Green across the road from Parliament.
What do you think about Clause 119? Contact Hardeep Matharu on the newsdesk on 020 8722 6346 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.