Theresa May refuses to "quantify" cost of "health tourism" as she panders to immigration fears

The Home Secretary glossed over the fact that "health tourism" costs just 0.01% of the NHS budget.

Among the measures included in the government's new immigration bill, which is published today, is the introduction of a £200 charge on all temporary migrants, such as overseas students, to use the NHS and a requirement for GPs to check the migration status of new patients. 

Both policies are aimed at solving the alleged problem of "health tourism", whereby migrants travel to the UK to seek free healthcare, but how costly is this "abuse"? In 2011-12, the NHS officially spent £33m on treating foreign nationals, £21m of which was recovered. This means that just £12m, or 0.01 per cent of the health service's £109bn annual budget, was lost to "health tourists". The cost of administrating the new system could well outweigh the savings (the chair of the Royal College of GPs, Clare Gerada, estimates that staff costs alone will amount to £500m), while also increasing public health problems such as TB by deterring temporary migrants from seeking treatment when they first fall ill. 

Challenged on this point on the Today programme this morning, Theresa May repeatedly refused to "quantify the problem", instead describing it as "a point of principle" and noting that the public believe "there is an issue out there". In other words, the government is making policy based on fears, rather than facts. 

A dose of sanity was provided by east London GP Paquita de Zulueta, who warned that the bill would make it "considerably harder for vulnerable migrants in considerable need to access healthcare" ("if they can't access primary care or they're too frightened to they'll wait until they're really ill," she said) and pointed out that "we're net exporters of patients". 

But to May, the woman who once warned that the Conservatives were seen as "the nasty party", all of this is irrelevant as where UKIP leads, the Tories follow. 

Theresa May speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.