Lansley's magic trick with NHS waiting times

Whatever we may like to tell ourselves, NHS care is rationed by the amount of money we're willing to

So here's a good one from the savior/killer of the NHS (delete according to taste), Health Secretary Andrew Lansley: the NHS authorities are to be banned from deliberately holding up your operation so they can save a few quid.

From March 2012, PCTs -- the bodies currently responsible for commissioning and paying for your operation -- can no longer enforce "minimum waiting times". Nor can they place a financially-motivated cap on how many of a particular type of operation they'll pay for. If you need an operation, the PCT will be obliged to get it for you, as soon as they can. If it doesn't, its boss will get the sack.

At first glance this looks a bit of a no-brainer. No-one likes waiting for treatment, and the practice of enforcing minimum waiting lists in order to save money is pretty nasty. It was revealed in a rather stomach-churning passage from a report back in July, which warned that PCTs were deliberately increasing waiting times so that some patients would "remove themselves from the waiting list". If they make you wait long enough, the thinking was, you'll get bored and go private; or, you'll die. Either way, you're no longer their problem. Lovely.

It is not exactly clear how widespread the practice was. But the measures Lansley announced on Monday will force commissioners to make treatment decisions based on medical, rather than financial, realities. That's clearly a good thing, so the Health Secretary's announcement has gone down rather well. After the year he's had, that'll come as something of a relief.

What it won't do, though, is stop waiting times from rising. All Lansley has done is to ban PCTs from imposing a minimum waiting time.
Hospitals and consultants -- those actually doing the operations -- can still impose minimum waiting lists, based on an arbitrary number of patients rather than an arbitrary time period. And making patients wait is, from a financial perspective, useful.

Whatever we may like to tell ourselves, NHS care is rationed by the amount of money we're willing to pour into the system. Waiting lists help eke that money out over a longer period. It's no coincidence that they seem to be creeping up while the NHS scrambles to find £20bn of savings. If PCTs really have been letting waiting times grow to save money, it stands to reason that forcibly cutting them back will cost more. That £20bn just got a lot harder to find.

What Lansley's announcement does do, though, is to weaken commissioners' hand over spending decisions, while leaving the power with hospitals. That's the exact opposite of what was promised by the ungainly Health and Social Care Bill, which was meant to devolve power to those closest to the patients. Devolution, apparently, can stuff it.

None of this is to say that minimum waiting times were a good thing, as in most cases they're probably not. But, for most patients, this latest announcement won't cut waiting times. With the NHS still chasing those savings, they're likely to keep creeping up.

It does, though, give Lansley a neat response to all those opposition attack lines about him having dumped Labour's 18-week waiting time target. Now whenever Andy Burnham pipes up with that one, he can just point to this latest statement and blame waiting lists on NHS managers. That won't make him many friends in the health service, but it might win him a few political points.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of EducationInvestor.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.