On Sunday, the Guardian published an article online revealing that private healthcare providers have been advised to get ready for a “£20 billion NHS bonanza” as NHS services are increasingly offered to private bidders after the massive changes when Strategic Health Authorities and Foundation Trusts are disbanded next April under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, and replaced by ‘Clinical Commissioning Groups’ (CCGs).
Under Jeremy Hunt, “a health secretary who bent over backwards in his last job to promote powerful private interests“, the brakes will be completely off, creating an absolute feeding frenzy for private providers at the taxpayer’s expense.
The consulting firm who issued the heads-up to private healthcare providers, Catalyst, said “Landmark contracts awarded to Circle, Virgin Care and Serco demonstrate increasing recognition from the public sector that leveraging the private sector’s ability to invest capital and use more efficient delivery models is necessary for the government to reduce costs while improving the quality of healthcare.”
Now, the nonsense of the idea that private ‘delivery models’ are more efficient has been clearly shown by the G4S Olympic security fiasco, although that hasn’t stopped and won’t stop the government continuing to press on with promoting the idea or implementing privatisation.
However, the statement I want to draw your attention to is ‘the private sector’s ability to invest capital‘. Catalyst mentions Serco, Virgin Care and Circle – none of whom have made capital investments into the projects they’ve won. They’ve won those projects simply by taking over existing NHS infrastructure on the premise that they can do the job more cheaply (which, because they are adding a profit layer into the cost structure, they can only do by reducing health staff wages, cutting services and making fewer drugs and treatments available to the ill). But, as the law currently stands, there’s no mechanism for members of the public to obtain information to see whether claims of ‘capital investment’ are true, or to obtain any information at all that companies don’t feel like releasing.
I’ve written several times recently about the Freedom of Information Act requests I’ve made to various NHS Trusts, most notably with regard to the activities of the cartel that has been formed to force NHS staff in the South-West to accept reductions in pay, terms and conditions.
The South-West Trusts have expressly tried to exempt the information on their activities from the FOI Act via various legal dodges. Some have responded partially, some not at all yet – but there are ways to exert pressure on them to reveal information they don’t want to, and they’re subject to the (at least supposedly) impartial judgment of the Information Commissioner’s Office if they persist in withholding it.
This access to information from public bodies providing key services, such as NHS Trusts, allows us to find out what’s going on behind the scenes, to see the rationale and mechanisms that lead to decisions and actions that can even be a matter of life and death in some cases, and to hold those responsible for the decisions to account where necessary.
But private healthcare providers providing the same life-and-death services – or any other service that is critical to people and to society – are not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act. These companies can use whatever rationale they wish for decisions to, for example, cut services or reduce staff numbers or income – without fear of their discussions ever being held up to public scrutiny.
In a climate of ever-increasing privatisation under an ideologically-driven government that clearly values its ideology and rewarding its ‘mates’ far above the welfare and safety of the British people, this cannot be allowed to continue. If private providers wish to provide public services, they must do so on the basis that they are subject to exactly the same provisions of the FOI Act that a public body doing so would have to face – but without being able to claim ‘commercial confidence’ as an exemption. This is absolutely essential to keep them honest and accountable, and as a ‘brake’ on their otherwise-unchecked profit motive.
For this reason, I’ve started a petition on the government e-petition website to demand that the FOI Act be extended to apply to any private company providing public services. Please use the link below to sign the petition – and then publicise it via Twitter, Facebook and any other means to get as many people as possible to sign it. We need to reach the required 100,000 signatures well before April 2013, to raise the profile of this issue, increase pressure on the government and influence public opinion before the changes are implemented to allow private providers to descend like vultures on our NHS, while remaining completely unaccountable to anyone except their own shareholders.