THE Government's reform programme for the NHS cleared a crucial hurdle today as it received a second reading in the House of Lords.

Peers rejected by a margin of 330-262 an attempt by former SDP leader Lord Owen to delay the Health and Social Care Bill by referring it to a special committee.

They earlier voted down a bid to kill off the legislation altogether by refusing it a second reading, defeating an amendment from Labour's Lord Rea by 354 votes to 220.

Lord Owen denied his amendment was designed to block the Bill by preventing it clearing Parliament by the end of the session next spring.

He insisted that a special committee was the only way to ensure the complexity of the controversial changes - which will see responsibility for the vast majority of health spending handed over to GPs and clinicians - was properly examined.

But health minister Lord Howe yesterday wrote to peers warning that any delay could well prove fatal to the legislation, adding: "This is not a risk that I believe this House should take."

Today's votes clear the way for the Bill to continue through the committee and report stages of the Lords before being passed into law.