"The NHS is being hollowed out from within; that's not efficiency." Photo: Getty
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NHS reform and the hollow marketisation myth

A metamorphosis is taking place; a mutation of the NHS from a public service into a lucrative marketplace.

When the chief executive of NHS England produces a 39-page, 15,000-word rescue plan for the health service that, a senior doctor later told me, “doesn’t even mention the real problem in the system”, you know something is up.

Not that it’s any great surprise. Simon Stevens isn’t likely to agree with my source that the real problem in the NHS is a prevailing ideological dogma that “private is good and public is bad” among top brass, nor that the aggressive marketisation programme currently underway is all based on a myth. The private healthcare man turned NHS-saviour has only been in his post for seven months after 10 years at global giant United Health Group, and old habits die hard.

But the real paradox at the heart of Stevens’ five-year plan is that he calls for ruthless efficiencies and then turns a blind eye to the sort of “grotesque financial waste” that consultant clinical oncologist and National Health Action Party (NHAP) co-leader Clive Peedell says is crippling the system.

Peedell says: “Wasteful internal markets, commissioning support units, management consultancy fees, the cost of procurement of clinical services, profit-taking by private providers, the cost of fragmenting pathways due to outsourcing components to private contractors, and PFI deals bankrupting our hospitals; they are draining billions from frontline care in our NHS”.

A metamorphosis is taking place; a mutation of the NHS from a public service into a lucrative marketplace. None of this is particularly new – but since the Health and Social Care Act kicked in two years ago, trusts have been legally obliged to compete with private providers over contracts, and take on the extra administrative costs of doing so. Allyson Pollock, professor of public health research at Queen Mary University of London, says: “It’s quite clear that the government wants to contract out as much as it can before the general election, but there’s no data about the costs for trusts such as lawyers and management consultants in doing this”.

And after a slow start, the scrum has really kicked in now. Campaign group NHS Support Federation has recorded five times more contracts coming onto the market between July and September this year, a cool £2bn’s worth, than in the first three months of life under the Health and Social Care Act when only £266m was up for grabs. Bound by competition laws, NHS trusts find themselves in the position of having to spend tens, maybe hundreds of thousands bidding to carry on running services they already deliver, or, even worse, to then lose out to private providers that have cherry-picked the contracts and put all of their corporate weight behind winning them.

Take Cambridgeshire and Peterborough for example, where a million pounds of taxpayer money was wasted on the procurement process of older people’s healthcare and adult community health services before the CCG finally decided that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust should carry on running the service.

Why are such tremendous burdens being overlooked by Stevens? Or the hideous levels repayments for the same PFI loans he advocated when he had Tony Blair’s ear back in the noughties? Why no mention of the £4.5bn a year that Calum Paton, Professor of Public Policy at Keele University, conservatively estimates is the cost of administering an internal market he describes as “costly and of dubious effectiveness”, or the extortionate legal fees just being in that market forces trusts to stump up?

GP and anti-privatisation campaigner Dr Bob Gill says: “A market doesn’t work in healthcare; the administration of it just drives up costs. The NHS is being hollowed out from within, assisted by people from banking and the private sector who are dumbing down the service and delivering everything as cheaply as possible. That’s not efficiency”.

Neither is, Gill argues, a system in which a hollowed-out NHS has to pay when those private companies fail in their duty. Private companies like Vanguard Healthcare, which had its contract with Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton terminated after a series of post-surgery complications, leaving Musgrove medical director Dr Colin Close admitting, “any financial responsibility would rest with us”.

How is all this playing out? Kathryn Anderson is a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital and NHAP general election candidate – in Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency. She says that far from bringing in greater efficiency or care, these new wasteful costs are having the opposite effect in the wards. “All that money comes from the frontline,” she says. “It comes from nurses and HCAs and doctors’ pay, and from drugs that don’t get purchased. You can’t run the NHS and expect it to perform if you flush the money out of the system, it just doesn’t work. We see this every day and it’s getting worse”.

The Conservatives are keeping very quiet about all this, perhaps wisely. With one hand Lansley and Hunt have enforced pay freezes on frontline staff claiming the pot is empty, and with the other, enforced an extortionate tendering process that has wasted vital funds. Just the cost of the top-down reorganisation alone, which a senior Tory MP recently described as the party’s “biggest mistake” in government, is estimated at £3bn.

On the pretext that the NHS is an egregious waste of public money – despite the fact that in 2012 the UK spent less on healthcare as a percentage of GDP than any other G7 country – the system has been altered from within. The result is a conduit to a £100bn-a-year pot with an NHS stamp on the side, which through some alchemy turns taxpayer money into private profits.

Stevens’ five-year plan is full of hope and some entirely sensible ideas to improve the system. But with no mention of any of the debilitating costs of running the new marketised system, which Unite head of health Rachael Maskell says could be as high as £1bn by the time of the election, nor the outcry from the profession about marketisation which the BMA itself is campaigning to see reversed in law, it seems a little hollow to say the least.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?