"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?

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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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.