Sunday, 23 November 2014

Saving the NHS shouldn’t mean giving tacit approval to privatisation.

Last Monday I had to take my elderly father to A&E at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, the name may have changed the long wait remains the same.

It took five hours, most of which were spent waiting in the corridor outside the triage centre, before he was seen by a doctor and it was nearly midnight before they found him a bed. Throughout what was a hugely trying experience the staff were exemplars of professionalism and the other would be patients in the queue lived up to their name by being; patient.

What the experience impressed upon me was the need for the NHS, which was created in 1948 and now has to deal with problems and expectations its founder could never have imagined, is desperately in need of reform. The thing that scares me is the form it has been decided that reform should take and how little resistance to it there has been from our political representatives.

Take the case of Stoke Central MP Tristram Hunt and his strangely sanguine attitude towards the outsourcing, privatisation by any another name, of cancer services in the region. A contract worth £1.2 billion to provide cancer services is up for grabs and a number of private companies including Virgin Healthcare are circling like hungry sharks.

In a recent article for the Sentinel he lambasts the government’s ‘disastrous top down reorganisation’ of the NHS, going on to say that it was ‘rammed through’ despite pre-election promises there would be no more such exercises.

He then asserts that preserving the free at the point of use status of the NHS will ‘require tough decisions on both investment and reform,’ this, he pledges, will be paid for under a future Labour government through ‘a clampdown on tax avoidance as well as new taxes on cigarette companies and homes worth over £2 million.’

Cue massed cheering from the cheap seats, well maybe not, because his honeyed words are the prelude to something much less pleasant.

In relation to the outsourcing of cancer services he counsels his readers against passing ‘knee jerk judgements upon new ideas which aim for better outcomes and efficiency.’ This is a long way away from what many of the people who elected him would like to hear him say; which is that he opposes the creeping privatisation of the NHS.

The support for outsourcing is tacit and he leaves himself plenty of wriggle room, but it’s still there all the same. Could this have something to do with the fact that Mr Hunt has been given a research assistant worth £74,000 for seven months funded by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the National Union of Teachers and satirical magazine Private Eye think so, they might just have a point.

Although there is no suggestion that either Mr Hunt or PWC have done anything wrong it seems unlikely that such generosity comes without strings attached, and that is the point at which we encounter the yawning gulf between following the rules and doing the right thing.

PWC, as Private Eye notes, has some ‘fixed ideas about rethinking government’, meaning selling off as much of it as possible to the likes of Capita, Serco and all the other usual suspects. The article goes on to suggest that Mr Hunt already limits his comments as shadow education secretary to attacking the ‘wilder shores’ of government policy, free schools and the like, whilst keeping mum about plans to introduce commercial providers into schools.

Is he going to take the same approach to the creeping privatisation of healthcare? If so that is a shocking betrayal of the people who elected him.

Tristram Hunt is a man with powerful connections and serious ambitions; he is sometimes talked about as a potential future party leader, maybe even prime minister. He has a high media profile and is orbited by a solar system of lesser MPs all of whom would like to be scattered with the fairy dust of success if his time comes. If he endorses privatisation, even tacitly, they will do the same.

This matters for two important reasons. First of all outsourcing and privatisation don’t work apart from as a means of handing huge wads of public money over to private companies, the promised efficiencies and improvements to service quality never arrive.

More importantly the NHS isn’t just another piece of the public service infrastructure to be sold off at a knock down price. It is symbolic of a powerful idea we ignore at our peril, that working people should be free of the fear that falling ill means risking destitution for themselves and their families.

Once upon a time Labour understood that idea, that’s why it founded the NHS along with the rest of the welfare state, then along came Blair and with him the delusion that only by proving itself to be more in love with the free market than the Tories could the party become electable again.

Now we see the outcome of such thinking, crumbling public services, rising inequality and a Labour Party so hopelessly compromised it is fast losing all legitimacy. At the same time the people it should be fighting for are having their lives made nasty and more brutish thanks to austerity and the dismantling of employment rights. If good healthcare becomes once again something only the rich can afford those live may end up being unnecessarily short too.

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