Labour would make free access to the NHS a constitutional right, report reveals

Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, left, and Sir Keir Starmer, the current leader, announce Labour’s report on the UK’s future - Jane Barlow/PA
Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, left, and Sir Keir Starmer, the current leader, announce Labour’s report on the UK’s future - Jane Barlow/PA

Free access to the NHS would be made a US-style constitutional right under proposals championed by Sir Keir Starmer.

The Labour leader has unveiled a new plan to outlaw reform of the service towards a European-style health insurance model.

It would prevent hospitals from charging patients for care, as was recently floated by under-pressure bosses in Scotland.

The proposals are contained in a report drawn up by Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, which calls for radical constitutional change.

It says the NHS needs to be permanently protected from the “hostile” Tories who have put access to free healthcare “under threat”.  The blueprint says four “basic rights” should be given a special legal status meaning they cannot be repealed by future governments.

Doing so would create a new written constitution for the UK for the first time, modelled on those used in countries like the US and France. Free and universal access to the NHS, schools and the welfare state would be protected alongside a new right to “decent” housing.

“A key aim for us… is to safeguard rights which we perceive currently to be under threat,” says the report endorsed by Sir Keir. “The present government has been seeking to legislate to restrict civil and political rights, and for over a decade or more has been hostile to social rights.

“The case for enunciating and protecting certain basic social rights is a strong one.”

Free at point of need

On the NHS, it says: “Every person entitled to healthcare in the UK will receive it free at the point of need,” and access must never be “based on ability to pay”.

“Every child shall be entitled to free primary and secondary education, wherever they are in any part of the UK,” the report proposes for education.

In a section on poverty, the authors put forward a new constitutional right “so that no child, family or elderly citizen need live in poverty”.

“Every person legitimately present in the UK shall be entitled to social assistance in relation to periods of unemployment, disability or old age,” it says.

On housing the dossier adds: “Every person shall be entitled to decent accommodation, in accordance with the relevant law relating to housing and homelessness.”

The report says the four rights would be “embedded” in a new constitution to “entrench them against future threats of removal”.

“For example the law presently says that NHS treatment is provided free, but as things stand there is nothing in law to hinder ministers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast promoting legislation to change that,” it adds.

What is free health care?

The authors acknowledge that even with the new law there would be a debate about “what exactly does a right to free health care imply”.

Such questions “can only be answered in practice by governments and parliaments responding to circumstances as they change”, they say.

The new constitutional rights could in time be extended to cover areas like employment, culture and the environment, they add.

Elsewhere, the report proposes granting councils the ability to put up local taxes as part of a drive to devolve powers from Westminster to the regions. It says authorities should also be able to “retain some of the savings they generate in taking people off benefits and into work”.

Sir Keir unveiled the plan at a joint press conference with Mr Brown in Leeds on Monday.

Abolishing the House of Lords

It includes proposals to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected upper chamber, and to move 50,000 civil servants out of London. The Labour leader said he hoped to scrap the upper house within his first five-year term but stopped short of explicitly committing to do so.

Elsewhere, the dossier says local authorities should be handed sweeping new powers over areas including transport, further education and jobs centres. Sir Keir said that centralising control in Westminster - which “smugly thinks” it knows how to spend money better than regional councils - has failed.

He said there will be a public consultation on all the proposals in the report “so they can be tested, refined and made ready for implementation”.

Those that make the cut will then be included in his manifesto for the next general election, the Labour leader added.