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Jon Ashworth MP & Lord Falconer: Broken legal commitment to waiting time target shows how little the Tories care about the NHS

4 min read

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth and Lord Falconer write for PoliticsHome, admonishing the Government for breaking the law by giving up on waiting time target.

The government is consumed by Brexit.  It has no other priorities.  It allows domestic delivery to deteriorate dramatically.  It disregards its promises casually.  Now it breaks the law guaranteeing the public minimum standards of health care.  


In their manifesto on which they won the 2015 general election the Tories said:


"We will implement the NHS' own view to improve health care even further: the Five Year Forward View"


That document  contained as an existing baseline, a commitment to a patient being seen by a consultant within 18 weeks of referral by a GP.


And that commitment was not a promise for the future.  It was a legally binding obligation of the government contained in secondary legislation passed in 2012 which requires every health service provider to ensure that 92% of patients are seen within that time.


Its a legal duty to meet this figure, and its not a legal duty to do their best to see 92%, if they have enough money to do it.  It an absolute duty to ensure the figure is reached.  Not having enough funding is no excuse.  No ifs, no buts they have to meet their legal obligation.


 Last Friday the NHS "updated" its vision for the next five years.  The update contained an express abandonment of the promise that patients would be seen within 18 weeks from the referral by their GP to a consultant.  They hope to start meeting it again in 2020 but sorry folks not in the meantime.  


To announce this key commitment is to be abandoned  without even acknowledging they are breaking a promise made in the manifesto and breaking a legal commitment shows  how little the Tories care about the NHS or the patients who depend on it.  


Theresa May's government of course has form on breaking key manifesto promises. They broke the promise not to increase national insurance contributions - first they rewrote the promise and then they asserted it didn't apply to what they had done.  Well and truly caught they eventually conceded after wriggling and pretending for a week.


We hope now they have been caught on breaking yet another manifesto promise they will reverse this decision too


But this broken promise is different from national insurance because the promise is legally binding and could be enforced by the courts by judicial review. 


On sunday of this week we asked to the Secretary of State to publish the legal advice he received which justified departing from this legally binding commitment.  He hasn't responded yet.  


Labour will continue to press the Secretary of State to explain why he has broken the manifesto promise and the law.  If he thinks this is the right way to exercise stewardship over the NHS then let him try to persuade parliament of this.  We would be surprised if his own backbenchers thought it was the right thing to do to abandon these commitments.  Labour certainly would not support their abandonment.  


We will fight politically to hold the government to its election promises, and to proper standards of care.  We hope the government has learnt its lesson from brexit and will not waste time in the courts.  When a government has been revealed to have broken a promise the best thing to do is to go into reverse gear and preserve the public's trust.  That is unquestionably best for patients


It is completely unclear whether the decision to reverse the 18 week promise has been made in ignorance of the legal and the political commitment.  Or whether it has been made in the hope they can get away with it. Whichever it is, the quicker the government reverse the decision the quicker it will be clear we have politicians we can trust who accept the rule of law. 

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