Few Liberal Democrat MPs support the coalition's plans to let private firms play a bigger role in the NHS, according to research. Many Lib Dems are closer in their views on the NHS to Labour than their Conservative partners in the coalition, which could lead to tension as the plans pass through parliament, a poll of 151 MPs suggests.
More than half the Lib Dems questioned (56%) said the NHS should not outsource more of its work to the private sector. That is likely to happen under plans by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, to let "any willing provider" – part of the health service, a private healthcare provider or a charity – be paid out of NHS funds to treat NHS patients. That is one of the most keenly-contested issues in the health and social care bill, which will impose the most radical restructuring on the NHS in England since it was created in 1948. Only 24% of Lib Dems agreed with the proposal.
Their views are closer to those of Labour MPs – 12% backed the idea while 83% opposed it – than to Tories, of whom 84% supported it and just 10% did not. Only 34% of Lib Dems agreed with the plan to let private companies work alongside new GP consortiums across England, paid for by the NHS, while 45% were opposed. Among Labour MPs, 64 were against it and 26% for, while 90% of Tories were in favour and only 2% against.
The MPs – 49 Tories, 81 Labour, 13 Lib Dem and eight others – were quizzed by the polling agency ComRes on behalf of the lobbying firm Westminster Advisers. It said: "The aligning of the Liberal Democrat and Labour party views indicates that health services may be a fracture point for the coalition government, possibly provoking tension in the future and indicating a key battleground at the next election."
Of the Lib Dems' 57 MPs, 21 did not attend last Monday's vote on the bill's second reading, two of whom – Andrew George and John Pugh – raised concerns about it during the preceding debate.
The shadow health secretary, John Healey, who recently wrote to all Lib Dem MPs urging them to examine the bill in greater detail, said: "This shows a serious simmering concern among Lib Dem MPs. The harder they look at the detail of David Cameron's high-risk plans for the NHS, the more they understand that this is purely Conservative policy in its design and intent."