The Government has broken a critical promise on the NHS

A new regulation means that every service commissioned will have to be open either to competitive tendering or the Any Qualified Provider system.

“The NHS is safe in our hands”, the government has been proclaiming - and it promised last year that it wouldn't be forcing competition into the new system for commissioning services.

Yet, surreptitiously, Jeremy Hunt has introduced in the National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) Regulations 2013 (S.I., 2013, No. 257) - a regulation that does just that. Every service commissioned, with a very small number of exceptions, will have to be open either to competitive tendering or the Any Qualified Provider system. These are bureaucratic, dull-sounding, words, which could have a huge impact.

Unless there's a big public and parliamentary outcry, this fundamental change to the NHS will open almost every aspect of the NHS to the foreign multinational healthcare companies and money-draining, staff-exploiting ways. And it is a massive broken promise. A widely publicised letter from then Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on 16 February 2012, issued as the Health and Social Care Bill struggled to get through parliament, said: "It is a fundamental principle of the Bill that you as commissioners, not the Secretary of State and not regulators, should decide when and how competition should be used to serve your patients’ interests."

Jeremy Hunt has just spectacularly broken that promise - and he must not be allowed to get away with it.

Under his plan the regulator Monitor will be able to decide when commissioners have breached competition regulations, will be able to set aside contracts and impose competitive tendering and the offer of Any Qualified Provider. Green MP Caroline Lucas is with Ed Miliband jointly proposing a “prayer” (that’s the official form – and a further argument for modernisation of parliamentary procedure), that if it wins sufficient parliamentary support could at least force parliament to debate the regulations. (Please email your MP to ask them to back it – EDM No 1104.)

Public opposition is also going to be important – please sign the 38 Degrees petition.

If allowed the come into effect, the damage caused by these regulation will be almost irreversible, since once our much-valued local hospitals and services are broken up, it would take an immense amount of money to re-establish them.

Moving towards an American-style system, immensely expensive, profit-driven, which doesn't put the needs of patients first, is an ongoing disaster (we’ve already gone far too far down this road, and been seeing the consequences) and this is a big step on the accelerator towards that.

I’m delighted that Green Party spring conference last weekend strongly backed an emergency motion opposing Jeremy Hunt’s regulation, and restating our commitment to a publicly owned and publicly run NHS.

The Hunt regulations are part of a broader government direction that’s clearly driven by ideology. This government has a simple mantra – private good, public bad. Despite the fact that we know that outsourcing is a disastrous, expensive model that delivers poor services and slashes wages, this government is wedded to this ideology – just as is far too much of the top bureaucracy of the NHS, who either come from the private health sector, or are the glossy recipients of mediocre MBAs, who’ve learnt a few neo-liberal management mantras and know nothing else.

The NHS is a world-admired system, which despite the damage done by the marketising trend that started under Margaret Thatcher and was enhanced by Tony Blair’s Labour, still provides for the vast majority of Britons superb quality healthcare, which they receive independent of their financial status. The system is under strain, with our ageing population, increasingly expensive medical technology and massive drug company profits. And it is under attack from a rightwing media that’s backing the privatising agenda.

We do need to make improvements, particularly to focus more on prevention than treating people when they’re ill, and ensure that perverse incentives and bad management don’t produce more Mid Staffs, but bleeding off billions in profit to multinational health companies is not only financial madness, it will also result in huge damage to the service we all receive – and all need.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.