A vultures’ conference on Wednesday 29 February will dramatise what the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill means.
It is a briefing session (at £354 a head) for private profiteers dealing with the NHS, run by a communications firm, GB Communications PR, whose bosses Geoffrey Bowden and Roy Lilley have strong NHS connections and a background in NHS-linked jobs.
The speakers include Mark Simmonds, Tory MP and shadow Health Minister 2007-10, probably the highest-placed Tory able to speak on the issue without the constraints of a current government position. Simmonds is paid £50,000 a year, on top of his MP’s salary, to work just 10 hours a month as “strategic adviser” to Circle Health, which on 1 February became the first private firm to take over the running of an NHS hospital, Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire.
Lilley prides himself on having been chair of the first NHS establishment to push its workers into a no-strike deal.
As NHS experts Alyson Pollock and David Price have written: “up to £100 billion annually of taxpayers’ money is likely to be handed over to large corporations that will run and operate our NHS services for profit...
“The winners will be shareholders, CEOs and directors of new companies while the losers will be the poor, the elderly and the infirm — those whom the health service was designed to protect... The reforms mean that the NHS will remain as a brand name only with health services will be run on US lines by, and largely for, shareholders and profit.”.
The 29 February conference is about profiteers positioning themselves to get their slice of the £100 billion.
Prime minister David Cameron has reaffirmed support for the Health and Social Care Bill, while Tim Montgomerie, described by the Observer as “one of the most influential Tories outside the cabinet”, declares that the Bill should be dropped just weeks before the end of its almost-three-years journey from White Paper to law.
The Bill is clunky and cumbersome, says Montgomerie; “nearly all of the necessary efficiencies [cuts] could have been delivered with existing powers”; and it could be as discrediting for the Government as the poll tax was for Margaret Thatcher in 1989-90.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is scurrying to stop a debate on the Bill at Lib Dem conference on 9-11 March in Gateshead, while Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes has said that health minister Andrew Lansley should be sacked.
The Bill can be killed. But that will take mobilisation — mobilisation on the streets, not just e-petitions.
The Bill abolishes the NHS as a coordinated public service, and replaces it by a health market. For now the main purchasing-power for the market will come from Government funds channelled through GP clinical commissioning groups, but the ground is prepared for a switch to private purchasing-power with, as in many countries, a “social insurance” back-up.
NHS hospitals will all be transformed into businesses operating independently in the market, where they are not put under private bosses outright, as at Hinchingbrooke. They will compete against new private-profit health-care outfits for “business” (treating patients).
The “private patient cap” which now limits the proportion of income which NHS hospitals can draw from private patients will be abolished.
NHS hospitals will be able to treat any number of private patients they like, even if that is to the detriment of NHS patients. And, of course, if the private patients pay well, they will have an incentive to take more.
As well as the £100 billion honeypot, the profiteers attending on 29 February will also be concerned by the Government’s planned yearly cuts of at least £4 billion a year in the NHS.
New Labour’s NHS reorganisations were damaging enough, but they were driven through together with a large rise in NHS budgets to soften their effects. The current reorganisation is being rammed through together with cuts.
The Bill is currently at its last-but-one stage in the House of Lords.
In March it is due to go to its last stage in the House of Lords, the “third reading”. Then it goes back to the House of Commons, for the Commons to consider amendments passed in the Lords, and the Government’s schedule is to finalise it to become law some time in April or May.
Thus Labour leader Ed Miliband has called for a campaign to “save the NHS” over the next three months, up to May. Local Labour Parties are being encouraged to get out and campaign.
The Unite union has called a protest against the Bill on 7 March (from 1pm at Parliament), and the TUC has called a rally the same day (6pm at Central Hall, Westminster).
More active, on-the-streets, rank-and-file mobilisation is also urgent. A loud and colourful protest at the 29 February vultures’ conference (from 8am at 11 Cavendish Square, London W1G 0AN) is being planned, and there are moves for a “save the NHS” protest as part of the demonstration at the Tories’ local government conference in Leeds on 25 February (assemble Woodhouse Moor at 10.30, march to City Square).
The run-up to those protests should include dozens of local street stalls and stunts, and they should be followed by a large and concerted campaign of street action.
Activists in London are working to assemble a mobilising committee. Watch this space.
Handovers sneaked through already
Alongside the demand to “kill the Bill”, campaigners must now demand the reversal of those large parts of the Health and Social Care Bill which have already been implemented by administrative action.
The BBC reports that the 151 primary care trusts, which are losing control of the NHS budget to GPs under the plans, have already been merged into about 50 clusters, shedding thousands of jobs in the process. The ten strategic health authorities have been merged into four super hubs.
Enough GPs have come forward to set up new commissioning groups, which will take charge of the NHS budget from April 2013, to cover 97% of the country. Some are even commanding the budgets ahead of time.
The national board to oversee the NHS under the new regime already has a chief executive, a medical director, and an interim finance chief has been appointed. Seven other members are being recruited with salaries of up to £170,000, to be in place by March, before the Bill is law.
Campaigners should demand:
• Kill the Bill.
• Reverse the marketisation of the NHS — not just the pre-emptive implementation of this Bill, but the prior marketisation pushed through by New Labour.
• Stop the cuts in the NHS.
• Liberate the NHS from the extortionate payments due on PFI (Private Finance Initiative) deals.
Hold Labour to its NHS pledge
At the Labour Party National Executive on 24 January, health front-bencher Andy Burnham pledged that a future Labour government would reverse all this Government’s changes which increase marketisation in the NHS.
That is not enough, because the NHS also needs to be relieved of the marketisation imposed by New Labour and the PFI payment burden. But it is a more definite commitment to undo Tory/ Lib-Dem damage than any other yet made by the Labour front-bench.
Labour and trade union activists should demand that the pledge be publicly reaffirmed — and honoured by the next Labour government.