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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Citizen Reid tries to woo the popular front
By Jackie Storer
BBC News Online political staff in Bournemouth

It was a speech that would have made Citizen Smith proud - the concept of giving power back to the people, giving the poor a taste of what the rich have taken as their right for decades.

That was the impression Health Secretary John Reid tried to give a bunch of fractious delegates, unhappy with plans for foundation hospitals.

He tried to soften up the crowd by telling them he'd been off the fags for a full nine and half months. He then went into his full sales pitch.

In my last speech to conference, I ask you to defend the NHS ... make a retiring old man very happy
Sir Bill Morris

Dissenters were urged to become "pioneers in our time", willing to have the same open mind about change and ways of developing healthcare for the benefit of ambitious working people, using the same ethos as Nye Bevan, founding father of the NHS.

He appealed to "Dave", as in Prentis, general secretary of the health service union Unison, who denounced foundation hospital plans as being "parachuted in" and had asked him to "think again", describing the policy as "ill-conceived".

Dr Reid retorted loftily that while Mr Prentis may have spoken for his 240,000 members, "this government has to speak for 60 million people".

'Back of an envelope'

The health secretary's argument cut no weight with many of the delegates who aired their views ahead of Dr Reid's short speech, which gave little mention of the F-word - foundation - hospitals.

Sir Bill Morris, the outgoing general secretary of the T&G union, used his last address to the Bournemouth conference to argue that it was not what the Labour movement had campaigned for - to "hand over" extra resources to the private sector.

If your child, or your mother was in pain and the means to relieve it quicker were available free at the point of need - would you refuse it?
Dr John Reid

He asked where the policy had come from, deriding it as having been "written on the back of an envelope in the back of a taxi on the way back to Newcastle railway station" - a reference to Dr Reid's predecessor, north east MP Alan Milburn .

He appealed: "In my last speech to conference, I ask you to defend the NHS ... make a retiring old man very happy."

Francis Prideaux, from Regents Park and Kensington North, described the plans as a return to the Tory internal market, arguing that whoever had "dreamt it up" must have been "mistaken".

'This air' policy?

Sharon Holder, from GMB, said: "This is just one small step away from fall blown privatisation. This bill will make it easier for the Tories to dismantle the health service ...

"This bill was picked out of thin air - no discussion, no debate."

To big cheers, she turned to the health secretary to add: "Pilot this John to see how it works best for us."

Another delegate from Holborn, the constituency of former health secretary Frank Dobson, urged delegates to follow the lead of the 145 MPs opposed to the plans, warning: "If foundation hospitals go ahead, there will be no way back."

Heckling

But not everyone was against the plans. Sue Rothwell, from north west Durham, an NHS speech and language therapist with a voice like a fingernail scraping across a blackboard, said foundation hospitals "would really make a difference to the healthcare of this country".

Willie Sullivan, from Dunfermline West, was heckled as he tried to make the point that "the principles behind foundation hospitals are socialist principles".

Martin Weldon, from Mitcham and Morden, near the home of the Tooting Popular Front so immortalised by Citizen Smith, stressed that foundation hospitals would empower local residents, give local choice and decisions, and therefore give power back to the people.

Dr Reid was with him there. "We are taking those health assets which have hitherto been monopolised only by those who were rich enough to buy them and we are turning them to the benefit of the ordinary citizens of this country."

With a ping of the heart strings, he added: "If your child, or your mother was in pain and the means to relieve it quicker were available free at the point of need - would you refuse it?

"I wouldn't. And if I wouldn't refuse that relief to my family, then I'm not going to refuse it to any other family in this country."




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