“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.