Last chance to save the NHS in the House of Lords

A new raft of privatising measures will be voted on tomorrow.

Tomorrow there will be a debate and vote critical to the future of the NHS in England. Labour Lord Philip Hunt has laid a fatal motion to try and kill the "Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition Regulations" that the government have issued under the Health and Social Care Act. The Regulations open up England’s NHS to competition on an unprecedented scale by putting the market at the heart of commissioning decisions.

When the government first released the regulations in February I wrote an article with Dr Lucy Reynolds explaining that they betrayed the political promises and assurances given when the government were struggling to get their Health and Social Care Bill passed. Public feeling against the regulations exploded. 38 Degrees launched a petition against them which now has over 360,000 signatures. This pressure, combined with strong criticism from the medical profession, Labour and even Liberal Democrats, forced the Department of Health to rewrite the regulations.

Unfortunately the revised regulations are little improved. The word "integration" was inserted a few times to address peoples’ fears that competition would increase fragmentation of services. However Regulation 5 dictates that a contract must be advertised for competition unless commissioners are satisfied that there is only one provider capable of providing the service. This is a narrow legal test vulnerable to challenge. Private companies could contest that they are "capable" of providing a service and entitled to bid for that business. Knowing this, commissioners are likely to cautiously avoid the potential for legal challenge by opening services to competition.

The regulations still break the promises given when the government were fighting to push the Health and Social Care Bill through parliament. Andrew Lansley promised prospective Clinical Commissioning Groups that they would decide "when and how competition should be used". Earl Howe promised that commissioners would have a "full range of options" and would not be under any legal obligation to "create new markets, particularly where competition would not be effective in driving high standards and value for patients".

The truth is that it will not be up to commissioners to decide if, when and how to use competition. Far from these reforms freeing GPs to do what’s best for patients, these Regulations bind them to an expensive bureaucratic market system of evaluating commercial tenders as advised by competition lawyers. David Lock QC, commissioned by 38 Degrees to provide a legal opinion on both sets of regulations, said that anyone who insists that they allow commissioners discretion to decide when and how to use competition is parroting "disingenuous nonsense".

"Disingenuous" is an apt word for the politicians here. Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones (who originally opposed the regulations and now supports the new ones) told me that the regulations simply apply EU procurement law and that commissioners are being given the maximum discretion possible within that framework. My contention is that the framework is a straitjacket and, as the politicians always intended EU procurement law to apply, it was thus utterly wrong to pretend that commissioners would have more freedom than this law allows. It makes those promises cynical, misleading and deceptive from the outset, as the necessary caveats would have rendered them meaningless.

The rationale for the reforms is a belief that market competition will drive up standards of care. But as others have pointed out, this faith in the market, like all faiths, lacks evidence. Commercial interests introduce perverse incentives that detract from the focus on duty of care and trust between doctor and patient. This isn’t evidence-based policy-making. This is an ideologically driven experiment being legally enforced before being tried and tested.

If we discover, as many fearfully predict, that these regulations serve to erode and undermine current NHS providers, leading to increasing privatization, rising costs and a reduction in quality of care, then how will we change course? Attempting to undo these reforms is likely to be extremely expensive and politically difficult, giving rise to claims from companies who could sue for compensation. There is a puzzling prioritisation of process here, rather than outcomes. The only guaranteed beneficiaries of this approach are those who will profit from winning new business.

Politicians may say that their hands are tied by EU laws, but make no mistake, this is a choice. Scotland and Wales have made different choices and are organizing their services differently, keeping the market out. There is something profoundly undemocratic about the English case. The NHS reforms were not outlined in the 2010 election, they didn’t appear in any party manifesto and they didn’t even feature in the Coalition agreement. Nobody voted for these changes. The Health and Social Care Act was extremely controversial, pushed through after many political promises were made and these Regulations prove that those promises were highly misleading.

Despairingly for our democracy, all three main parties have played their role in getting us to this point. The last New Labour government laid the path for the current regulations with their Principles and Rules of Cooperation and Competition, though the coalition now go further by turning suggestions into requirements. For all the talk of patient choice, people have been denied the choice that really matters - the choice of a citizen to collectively determine the provision of their national health service. Politicians have pushed through monumental reforms covertly, not by winning the argument openly, honestly and democratically. Peers will have the chance to vote in the Lords chamber tomorrow and the public are telling them how they feel. Will the politicians rise above party political point-scoring and have the big honest debate that all who rely on the NHS deserve?

NHS activists outside Parliament. Photo: Getty Images.

Nicola Cutcher is a freelance journalist and researcher.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation