You wouldn’t know if from the news coverage, but the other night the NHS was effectively privatised. The vote in the Lords was carried by 254 votes to 146. The following morning, the dangers of fizzy drinks made it to the BBC radio news, but the privatisation of the NHS was not newsworthy enough and was only a minor link on the BBC news website.
The National Health Service is a treasured institution in this country, as Owen Jones eloquently detailed here. That the Health Service has been privatised is scandalous enough. That it was voted into private ownership by Peers (including Labour Peers)that have business interests in healthcare companies that stand to benefit from a privatised NHS is nothing short of a national scandal. In any other country, we would call this corruption. In private sector business this is referred to as a “conflict of interest” and is strictly banned by companies with even the most tenuous grasp of ethics. Lords and MPs have a duty to register their business interests in the Register of Members Interests, but there seems to be nothing to prevent them from voting on issues in which there is clearly a conflict of interest. The BBC coverage doesn’t mention this conflict of ethics.
Even during the debate, Health Minister Earl Howe said “There is no Government agenda to privatise NHS services – quite the contrary.”
The Oxford Dictionaries defines “privatize” as “transfer (a business, industry, or service) from public to private ownership and control”. Whilst you could argue that the NHS remains, for the moment anyway, in public ownership but if private companies are providing the services and equipment, they almost certainly have control.
It is a commonly heard statement made by politicians of all parties about the NHS remaining “free at the point of delivery”. This is a point that may be a comfort to the public. However, “free at the point of delivery” does not mean “not for profit”. Private healthcare is free at the point of delivery if you are a member of a private scheme. Just to illustrate the pointlessness of this phrase; water, gas and electricity are all free at the point of delivery. Whilst some people still have pre-paid gas and electricity meters, I don’t think there’s anyone pushing 50p into a tap to get water out of it.
I have never understood the logic behind outsourcing, let alone privatisation. I simply do not see how it can be cheaper for one organisation to outsource work to another, for the second company to make a profit, than it was for the first organisation to do the work in the first place. This seems to be based on the myth that the public sector is slow, bloated and inefficient, whilst the private sector is lean, fast and efficient. I’ve worked in the private sector for over 20 years now, and I’ve volunteered in the public sector. Yes, there is a degree of waste and inefficiency in the public sector, but it is a fallacy to think that it does not exist in the private sector. The Olympic security farce involving G4S should have banished this view. In a previous piece, I wrote about how public services need to be effective first, and efficient second. Nowhere is this more true than in health.
The central concept of the NHS was clear. The Health service will be available to all and funded entirely from taxation. When Bevan created the Health service in 1948 – at a time when national debt was more than twice as high compared to GDP as it is now – it was never intended to make a profit, not least for the people who voted to introduce competition. Last week, the Lords effectively voted to stuff public money into their own pockets.