"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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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