The government has granted ministers greater powers to close hospitals in response to Health Secretary Jemery Hunt’s failure to shut down Lewisham’s A&E services.
In a vote held on Tuesday evening, MPs passed Clause 119 of the coalition government’s Care Bill. This gives the Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt and civil servants control over neighbouring NHS trusts in financial difficulties.
The new power was added to the Bill following the High Court ruling in October that Hunt had exceeded his powers when he decided Lewisham’s emergency and maternity units should be cut to revive a neighbouring trust in danger of bankruptcy.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham had previously pointed to “32 communities at risk of being made voiceless” by Hunt’s policies.
Burnham said : “With more and more hospitals in financial difficulty, this move could hit every community in the land and leave them voiceless in the face of changes to their services.
“Changes to hospitals should be driven by clinical, not financial, reasons with local people involved every step of the way. That is why we believe these plans are dangerous and wrong.”
The Labour Party also opposed the measure, tabling two amendments, one of which would delete the clause altogether.
Burnham also set out an alternative amendment that would have allowed local service providers to have a voice in the running of their health services.
The government insists that these powers have only ever been used as a last resort on two occasions since 2009, adding that these changes will “ensure that patients get safe care.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ”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, including looking at the wider health system locally and our proposals extend the requirement to consult and engage with local people and local doctors.”
Campaign group 38 degrees have been running a petition echoing Burnham’s warning that hospitals in constituencies of all parties will become under intense pressure to make cuts or even close in the run up to the 2015 election.
Jos Bell, of the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, said to the BBC: “No hospital in England will be safe under a clause 119 regime. It could be any hospital, anywhere.
“Hospitals that are successful should never be put in this position. Clause 119 should be thrown out.”