I adore Shirley Williams, always have, always will. She's one of my political heroines. The way she has fought for women's rights and helped emerging democracies to develop shows a truly liberal and compassionate spirit. So that's my declaration of interest out of the way. But I'm not alone. I'd say most of us in Gateshead this weekend feel the same way.
The future of the NHS is not something that you can pin to personalities. That's why I was not best chuffed when Nick Clegg said this afternoon that you were either on Shirley's side or Andy Burnham's. We are and always will be on the side of the patient. As a party our vision is for people centred public services, flexible enough to give each individual as close a fit to what is best for them as we can manage.
Nick was, however clumsily, alluding to Labour's shabby record on the NHS. He spoke about how the Coalition has put an end to the quarter of a billion quid of sweetheart deals Labour had done with the private sector. Labour didn't tackle the problems that there are within the NHS, where elderly people are often caught between an NHS and a local Council, neither of whom will take responsibility for giving them the care they need. They get called names, bed blockers, when in reality they are the victims of a system that fails them when they need it.
I know of cases where friends have been let down by failures of diagnosis and when those errors happen, the NHS is very slow to accept responsibility and in fact can turn pretty hostile in its defensiveness.
I have to say that by far the majority of health professionals I know are amazing. The nurse who comforts a patient Norovirus knowing that her presence in the room is a virtual certainty that she'll be suffering herself within hours. The physio whose patient hours of expert help give Stroke victims their lives back but those individual efforts can be compromised by the way the service is organised.
There needs to be reform and in some areas a fairly major cultural shift.
I remain far from convinced that the Health and Social Care Bill will deal efffectively with all the challenes and shortcomings within the NHS. It will not, however, mean a privatisation. The NHS will be sticking to its founding principles of being free at the point of need. I am concerned about the cost of the change and worry that the removal of tiers of management will not save money for patient care. I suspect a lucrative market in consultancy services to GP consortia will develop.
There has been a whole load of scaremongering about the effects of the Bill. I don't have an ideological opposition to private companies providing some services, and I certainly don't object to voluntary sector specialists being involved if they can provide a more tailored service.
I've been talking to lots of people about this around the Conferene and even some of those who can be relied upon to be very pro the Coalition have worries about it. This Bill is way out of our comfort zone, and rightly so. It has, however, been substantially changed because of the work that our peers, led by Shirley Wiliams, have done.
Today Conference representatives chose to debate the motion that's become known as the Shirley Williams motion over the motion calling for the Bill to be dropped. How good is it that our party allows ordinary members the freedom to make these sorts of choices, by the way?
The proposers of that motion have to be very sensitive to the fact that more representatives gave the drop the bill motion their first preference. I would suggest that their tone should be respectful, understanding and persuasive.
Let's look at the options before Conference tomorrow. On one hand there's the emergency notion from the Lords team and others which says that the peers will only support the bill if the required changes are made in terms of the Competition Commission and Foundation Trusts. Or we hae the status quo which means that they'll be whipped to support it as is, without these changes. That's the reality of the situation.
Conference effectively made its choice on how it wanted to handle this today, albeit by the narrowest of margins, by choosing not to debate the withdrawal option.
The way I see it is that the Protecting the NHS motion is the better of the two options available. Voting against it will potentilly deprive a bill that will inevitably pass of some vital changes. It's not a choice I think many people would make with huge amounts of enthusiasm, but it's necessary.