Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature NHS reform

Shirley Williams: still a rebel

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 04 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6359
  1. Rebecca Coombes, features editor
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. rcoombes{at}

Can one of England’s most redoubtable peers rid the NHS bill of some of its more toxic aspects? Rebecca Coombes meets Baroness Williams

The ill starred government bill to reform the NHS in England staggers into one of its final phases in the UK parliament next week.

And as it reaches the House of Lords on 11 October, eyes turn to the leading health rebels among the peers to clear up what critics see as the bill’s many flaws. Chief among these rebels is Liberal Democrat grandee Baroness Williams. At 81, Shirley Williams, one of the four founders of the now defunct Social Democratic Party in 1981, remains a serious political voice and is long enough in the tooth not to fear straying from the party line now and then. Sitting in her Lords office, her body language is business-like: leant forward, arms on knees, and strong eye contact.

Baroness Williams aside, the Liberal Democrats have so far failed to exercise a moderating influence on the technocratic, competition embracing bill to shake up the NHS. It took them five months to wake up to the radical nature of health secretary Andrew Lansley’s plans. Only then did they force an eight week parliamentary hiatus to allow for a listening exercise, which produced some concessions. An expected Lib Dem rebellion in the House of Commons last month came to naught. There is rising anger, especially among English doctors, at the bill’s provision to increase competition and the role of the private sector in the NHS. So can they really expect much in the way of salvation from the Lords? …

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