Nick Clegg backs NHS reform changes
Nick Clegg has given his backing to further changes to the Government's controversial reforms to the NHS in England in the hope of heading off Liberal Democrat anger over the shake-up.
In a joint letter with Baroness Williams - the most prominent Lib Dem critic of the reforms - the Deputy Prime Minister endorsed amendments to limit competition in the health service.
Downing Street indicated that Prime Minister David Cameron had been consulted on the letter and was happy to sanction further changes to the flagship Bill in order to provide "reassurance and clarity" to his coalition colleagues.
The PM's official spokesman said the Government would not accept any more "significant" changes to the Bill, which has already been subject to numerous amendments after running into stiff opposition from health workers.
But sources close to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said he was "relaxed" about the changes sought by Mr Clegg, which he did not believe would substantially alter the impact of the legislation on the way the NHS operates.
Labour dismissed the letter as a "panic move" by the Lib Dem leader to save him from confrontation with activists at the party's spring conference at the end of next week. It was a Lib Dem rebellion at the same gathering last year which prompted the Government to pause the legislative process and listen to critics' concerns.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said that the "cosmetic" amendments accepted by the Lib Dem leader fall well short of Lady Williams' earlier demand for the section of the Bill which deals with competition to be dropped in its entirety. He repeated Labour calls for the Bill to be scrapped.
The moves came as the Royal College of Physicians, which has so far been engaging with ministers, agreed to hold a formal survey of members' views on the reforms. Polls suggest they will vote to join several other Royal Colleges in opposing the Bill.
Mr Burnham said: "This stage-managed letter is clearly part of a face-saving exercise for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. It is a panic move in advance of the spring conference and will convince nobody.
"In effect, it is a huge admission of Liberal Democrat failure. Clegg has had the best part of two years to sort out his position on this Bill. He must accept his share of the blame for the mess that has been created and the damage caused to the NHS."