Ukip's message on the NHS is inconsistent. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ukip's high command remains confused about the NHS

To outsource or not to outsource?

As Ukip hoovers up increasing support, and a few MPs along the way, it is starting to face a certain level of scrutiny regarding its policies.

The party's lack of consistency on the NHS is a particularly sore subject, following the revelation around the time of last month's by-election of Nigel Farage's enthusiasm back in 2012 for an insurance-based system run by private companies. As his party is now openly attempting to pick up Labour voters, Farage's former thoughts on NHS funding are damaging. So much so that he had to hastily insist that he would keep the NHS free at the point of use, without handing control over to "faceless private-sector companies".

But it's clear confusion about its approach to the health service endures among Ukip's high command. Writing in a column in the Express, Ukip deputy chairman Neil Hamilton suggests he would like to see more NHS outsourcing. He refers to "hopeless public sector procurement practices" compared to the efficiency of running a business in the private sector, and decries the "bloated budget" of the NHS. He concludes:

Unfortunately every time a private sector company produces money-saving ideas Labour and trade union dinosaurs start shroud-waving about NHS privatisation. We need to fight back because NHS inefficiency costs lives. One of them might be yours.

This approach to running the NHS sounds entirely at odds with Farage's recent defensive insistence against outsourcing. He told LBC in September:

The government aren’t just privatising the National Health Service, the Labour government following up the coalition, are privatising, or shall I say outsourcing, virtually everything . . . I actually think the bits of our life that government departments control should actually be controlled and run properly by government departments and not outsourced. So I am against outsourcing, I think we need a massive rethink about the way we’ve outsourced the National Health Service and much, much of what the state used to be competent to do in this country.

What does Ukip's inconsistency on the NHS mean for the election? First, it's clear from the need for Ukip to clear up its policy that Labour is so far successfully making the NHS a key electoral battleground. It is also good news for Labour because enthusiasm from key Ukip figures for outsourcing can give its "Ukip is more Tory than the Tories" attack line credence.

As for the Tories, although it is difficult for them to make popular statements on the health service, it will help them to some extent to have a party to point towards as less trustworthy on health reforms than they are so often accused of being.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.