Health secretary Andrew Lansley’s promise to “pause and listen” to concerns over his planned NHS shake-up were dismissed as a smokescreen to protect the coalition from an electoral backlash in the run-up to next month’s polls.
Shadow health minister Diane Abbott said Mr Lansley was determined to “get away with as little substantive change” as he could to the Health Bill, despite the launch of a listening exercise in response to growing resistance to the plans.
Mr Lansley told the Commons the government was united in its aim of strengthening the NHS.
The health secretary has come under sustained attack from health professionals over his plans to hand more power and financial control to GPs and the radical reforms have also strained relations between the coalition parties.
But Ms Abbott insisted that the consultation exercise was designed to protect the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats during next month’s elections to councils and the devolved institutions.
She said: “If Lib Dem MPs were seriously opposed to this reorganisation, they could have voted against it at second reading.”
She asked Mr Lansley how he could “expect the public to take these discussions and the listening exercise seriously”, adding: “Aren’t they just a device to get the coalition through the May elections?
“Aren’t you determined to get away with as little substantive change as you can manage?”
Mr Lansley told her: “My objective, that of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, all of the government, is to further strengthen the NHS.
“We will use this opportunity to ensure that the bill is right for that purpose.”
He told MPs: “We are taking this opportunity to pause, listen, reflect and improve the Health and Social Care Bill.
“A total of 119 events have already been organised centrally, and the regional and local NHS will be organising many more.
“These events will allow us to hear a full range of views, from professionals to public and patients.”