"The tail’s wagging the dog": How outsourcing is eroding NHS services

The battle over outsourcing for Suffolk’s community health services in Sudbury is a warning for the rest of the country - the future of the NHS is going to be fragmented.


The market town of Sudbury, Suffolk (population: 12,080) is not what you’d call a hotbed of political activism. It’s a pretty little place: fringed by the river Stour, the rolling countryside to its south is the setting for some of Gainsborough’s most famous works. But it’s been the epicenter for a battle that’s been quietly raging for several months. It’s a battle which tells us some rather disturbing things about modern government, the health service, and the challenges both will face in the years to come.

Have no doubt - the issue of outsourced medical services will be the only discussion point for years to come. Only this month, Sir Bruce Keogh, the Government's medical director, admitted that some of his colleagues have been using the NHS to further their personal interests. This came after a survey by the British Medical Journal found around a third of doctors in charge of the new clinical commissioning groups have interests in private medical companies.

Our story starts in March 2012, when Serco was awarded a contract, due to begin on 1 October that year, to deliver all of Suffolk’s community health services. For this, it was to be paid £140m for three years’ service. Sudbury WATCH, a local campaign group, understands that it bid £10m less than its rivals. Suffolk Primary Care Trust denied the contract had been awarded purely on cost: the contract stipulated that the original standard of service had to be maintained.

Four weeks after the contract had been awarded. Serco began a consultation, which was issued to its new staff. It was not sent to the county council’s Health Scrutiny Committee, nor to the Local Involvement Network (now Healthwatch). It proposed to cut staff numbers from 790 by 137, but without making any compulsory redundancies among clinical staff.

After receiving disturbing reports from whistleblowers, campaigners began to believe the company was trying to get rid of higher band nurses and therapists. It would leave less experienced therapists doing complex work. They wrote to the Chief Executive of NHS Suffolk in November, and said:

“[It is not] any consolation that job losses will take place through “mutually agreed resignation” or MARS – just another clever way of getting rid of people at minimal cost [...] we are told that staff who refuse to agree to MARS are likely to be given jobs which will require them to drive all over the county as and when required, as well as work to new shift patterns into the evening – an impossibility for staff with young families. This is nothing short of; blackmail’.”

The campaign group received an anonymous letter suggesting that after the contract was awarded to Serco in March 2012, it was subsequently renegotiated over the next few months, in a manner favourable to Serco in breach of procurement rules, and that a substantial sum of money had been paid in September 2012, before the contract started to run in October.

The letter also noted that the company registered with CQC to run Suffolk health services (not Serco but a sub-company called Integrated Clinical Services) was set up a month before the contract was awarded. And that Serco had no track record in running community health services, so NHS Suffolk should have scrutinised the bid more carefully. It claimed the decision was politically driven by the Strategic Health Authority.

In December, Sudbury WATCH took action. It instructed solicitors to issue legal proceedings if NHS Suffolk did not halt the consultation. It argued that, as it involved patient care, the consultation should involve the public. Peter Clifford, the group’s head, told the Suffolk Free Press that he was “not prepared to see Sudbury’s health services wrecked again”. He added: “Combined with the cuts to occupational therapist numbers, community nurses, specialist and district nurses, general health workers and physiotherapists, the end result will inevitably be a serious reduction in the quality of rehabilitation and general care of the elderly.”

Serco claims that the 137 positions has been reduced to 95. However, a spokesman for Sudbury WATCH says: “The number is a red herring. This is about getting rid of experienced professionals. One thing that is for sure is that staff are demoralised. In fact, we understand that at present the company has received too many applications for voluntary redundancy.”

The Acting Chief Executive for NHS Suffolk responded to Sudbury WATCH at the end of last year in a bid to allay concerns. He said: “The CCGs will have the same priority for ensuring good patient care and value for money. Local scrutiny and public input will continue through the usual channels, through the emerging Healthwatch, the Health Scrutiny Committee and the Health and Wellbeing Board. In addition, Serco, like all providers, will be required to carry out regular patient experience surveys to help improve and shape services.”

It did not work. Today the WATCH spokesman tells me: “The legal action against NHS Suffolk and Serco has run into the sand at present because we are up against so much secrecy, fudge and obfuscation. Plus a lack of accountability: NHS Suffolk telling us to ask Serco, Serco telling us to ask NHS Suffolk.”

And all of this is deeply relevant at a national level. First there is a question of how “efficiency” is measured. Serco has already been caught out once this year after the National Audit Office reported it had fiddled its data when reporting to the NHS on targets it failed to meet with its out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall.

Time and again I have blogged on how the target-driven culture of outsourcing contracts doesn’t take into account the human element. In Suffolk Serco claims efficiency savings will be generated through hand-held computers. Sudbury WATCH claims that while there’ll be increased assessments they’ll be carried out by less experienced staff, and so the quality of interaction will diminish. The group says that the company is ultimately relying on crude activity analysis of dubious and unreliable statistics gathered in Suffolk in the past couple of years.

And for the umpteenth time we see a clear issue over the lack of transparency surrounding the outsourcing process. Sudbury WATCH’s spokesman says: “Our biggest problem has been securing information. Before the work was outsourced, the PCT’s job was to consult publicly. They could be challenged, but now commercial confidentiality laws mean It’s been very hard for our lawyers to pin them down over their decision making. There’s a real sense you’re dealing with a private company, not the NHS. Freedom of Information requests are met with commercial confidentiality defense, and Serco isn’t even subject to the act. The tail’s wagging the dog.”

And those who have heard about the Government’s stated aims of increasing integration would be right to wonder at how it’ll work in practice. At present a patient might be welcomed to one of Suffolk’s acute hospitals, then be sent to a non acute bed commissioned by the Clinical Commissioning Group (which has replaced the PCT), which is situated in a care home run by The Partnership in Care (another private business), and then be visited by nurses now working for Serco. Is this the fragmented future of public health?


In response to the claims put forward in the anonymous letter received by Sudbury WATCH, a spokesman for NHS Suffolk told the New Statesman:

“The process to find a new home for community health services in Suffolk was led by a project board. This board consisted of members of the NHS Suffolk board, local GPs, Suffolk Community Healthcare staff, members of patient representative groups, a staff union representative and an NHS Strategic Projects Team.

“Serco was named as the preferred bidder in March 2012 and was chosen as being the organisation that would deliver the best level of healthcare for patients, good opportunities for staff and value for money for the taxpayer.

“The procurement process was run in an entirely proper, appropriate and normal fashion. This process adhered to the guidelines set out by the Cooperation and Competition Panel, which include a formal complaints and appeals procedure. No formal complaints or appeals have been received.

“After being named as the preferred bidder, Serco and NHS Suffolk went through the standard procedure of due diligence and contract finalisation with a schedule of contract payments being agreed. Payments began at the end of September 2012 and have been running regularly ever since.

“Integrated Clinical Services is a company that was established by Serco with the agreement of NHS Suffolk, NHS Pensions and Suffolk Community Healthcare staff as the appropriate vehicle for employing staff and ensuring they retained their proper NHS pension rights.

“Community health services are still being provided by the NHS, delivered free to patients and are subject to the same high standards of patient care and excellence.”

The celebration of the NHS during Danny Boyle's Olympics Opening Ceremony last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.