This first appeared in the Huffington Post UK on 14 March 2016
Written with Peter Roderick, co-author of the NHS Bill
On Friday, the cross party NHS Bill returned to the Commons for its second reading (watch the video). The Bill was filibustered by the Conservatives, and following only 17 minutes of debate, it was adjourned. The second reading is unlikely to continue.
Most people are probably unaware of what’s happening. But increasingly the market is invading. Virgin now has over 300 NHS contracts, and an active litigation department. They have successfully prevented commissioners in Hull from allowing local GPs to run primary care services, and are facing a legal challenge from the local trust in Kent to their £128 million contract because of concerns about patient and staff safety. Meanwhile Monitor the regulator has now issued 114 private provider licences. The amount spent by local commissioners and trusts on non-NHS providers went up from £6.6 billion in 2009 to £10 billion in 2014. Industry analysts estimate the community services market to be worth £10bn-to £20bn annually. Trade unions have described “a surge in privatisation“.
Nick Clegg said in 2010 that “breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do“. It’s a painful irony that this is one of the more successful things the coalition government achieved. Its 2012 Health and Social Care Act, piloted by Andrew Lansley, abolished the duties of the Secretary of State to provide and secure services in accordance with the Act, and to provide listed health services throughout England. The latter was replaced by a duty on over 200 new clinical commissioning groups to make contracts for those services for persons for whom each CCG is responsible and establishing the NHS Commissioning Board (NHS England). NHS trusts were prospectively abolished, with the intention of them all becoming NHS foundation trusts which can now receive 49% of their income from outside the NHS. “Public health” functions were created as two legal categories split between the Secretary of State and local authorities, and carved out of the NHS. Virtually compulsory contractual tendering for providing NHS services was introduced and Monitor’s role as an economic regulator was extended with functions aimed at preventing anti-competitive practices.
But the rot didn’t begin with Lansley’s Act. Ken Clarke started it in 1990 with his great split. He ended direct management of services by health authorities and created “purchasers” and “providers”, turning hospitals into ‘NHS trusts’ with borrowing powers, and their own finance, human resources and PR departments. New Labour built on that by scaling up the exorbitantly expensive Private Finance Initiative, so that for one hospital built we may be paying for two. Alan Milburn paved the way for foundation trusts, and now runs a very profitable private healthcare consultancy, while Lansley advises Bain & Company, which helps healthcare companies with their strategy.
Politicians pushing laws from which they then benefit corrode the political process, and these laws have wasted billions of pounds, year on year. The purchaser-provider split was introduced to open up the market in health services. Providers compete for patients and service income. Lawyers, accountants and management consultants are needed to administer – and challenge – the market, and they can’t do their jobs without pulling clinicians away from theirs. Quantifying the costs of a market bureaucracy is fraught with difficulty, but the costs of a market bureaucracy are significantly more than the costs of a public bureaucracy. The House of Commons Select Committee in 2010 was “appalled” that the four most senior civil servants in the Department of Health could not tell them the cost of the market.The usually-cited figures for NHS administrative costs are about 5% before the 1980s, and 14% by 2005 – whilst in the US in 2009, about 30% was wasted on unnecessary services, excessive administrative costs, fraud, and other problems. Professor Paton puts the extra cost of the NHS market at about £5 billion.
This sickening state of affairs need not continue, but it will unless Parliament passes a law to stop it. The NHS Bill aims to do this, by restoring the duty to provide and returning the NHS in England to full public ownership, as in Scotland and Wales, based on bottom-up proposals developed by current commissioners, trusts and local authorities with patients, voluntary organisations, trade unionists and academics.
The most common criticism of the Bill from those who can’t see the wood for the trees is that the last thing the NHS needs is another top-down major reorganisation. Nobody wants unnecessary disruption, but massive and expensive fragmentation and disorganisation is currently underway and this is appreciated by many who work in the NHS – hence support for the Bill from Unite and the BMA.
Over 62,000 people have signed a petition urging MPs to turn up in the Commons on Friday and to support the Bill. We wait to see whether they are worthy of our trust.