I watched with great interest today the Opposition Day debate on regional pay within the NHS. I had the privilege of some small involvement in the debate, as Andy Burnham’s office – having read my blog on a few occasions – had asked me if I could provide information on which Trusts in the UK were considering moving away from the nationally-agreed Agenda for Change (AfC) terms and conditions. I had supplied information on 31 Trusts, including the south-west cartel (SWC) and the two Teesside trusts – Andy Burnham mentioned 32, so presumably he’d found another from somewhere else, but it was great to feel I’d made a small contribution.
There’s lots to comment on in the debate, from Burnham’s robust defence of the NHS and attack on the government’s duplicity, to Jeremy Hunt’s insistence that the Tories have increased NHS spending in real terms even though their own Treasury office says they have not, and much else in between.
But I’ll write on those another time, because something happened which I think deserves attention all on its own:
Did the government change the official record of a Parliamentary debate in order to cover up its involvement in the setting-up of the South West pay cartel?
My analysis follows – but if you want to read both the Commons debate this afternoon and the Westminster Hall debate this morning, you can do so by following the links. The extracts are just a little lengthy, but please bear with me and read them, because I believe they’re absolutely crucial to understanding the government’s actions and attitudes, and its readiness to take any measure to achieve its aims.
In the Commons debate this afternoon, there were a couple of very interesting and revealing passages concerning the contribution of Under-Secretary for Health Anna Soubry to the earlier Westminster Hall debate, which had been secured by Labour’s Exeter MP, Ben Bradshaw. The first was initiated by Mr Bradshaw early in the debate, as he advised Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham of a key point from the morning’s debate:
Ben Bradshaw: My right hon. Friend may not have been able to catch up with this morning’s Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, but it is more than “silence from Ministers”. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who responded to the debate, admitted that the Department had known about the south-west cartel when it happened, and that she supported it. [Interruption.]
Andy Burnham: This debate is flushing out the Government’s position, is it not? The Under-Secretary of State keeps heckling from the Front Bench, but we now know—[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. [Interruption.] Order. Let me say once and for all to the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has been conducting a running commentary since she sat down on the Front Bench at the start of the debate, “Stop it.” I do not wish to hear it, and neither does the House. The Secretary of State will respond in due course. If the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with what has been said, her right hon. Friend will have a chance to respond. I do not want the sedentary chuntering, the finger-wagging and all the rest of it. The hon. Lady can say “pooh” if she wants, but she will accept the ruling of the Chair, and either behave or get out of the Chamber. I do not mind which it is.
The second, some time later in the debate, was by Labour’s Bristol MP, Kerry McCarthy. Having pointed out independent findings that regional pay would suck up to £9.7 billion out of regional economies, here’s what she said, and what ensued:
Kerry McCarthy: For my constituents, today’s debate is even more important because, as we have heard, trusts in our region have been developing the NHS south-west pay, terms and conditions consortium. This morning, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)whether the Government knew about the consortium before it was established and whether they encouraged the trusts to set it up, and it was interesting that she said, “My understanding is we were involved”—[Interruption.]
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): That is a fascinating answer because it is at odds with the one I received from the Secretary of State during Health questions.
Mr Speaker: Order. Let me say to the Minister once and for all—[Interruption.] No. I say to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—perhaps she will have the courtesy to listen when she is being spoken to from the Chair—that it is not acceptable for any Member of the House to treat the debate as a private conversation between himself or herself and the Member on his or her feet. If the Minister is dissatisfied with what is being said, other people on her Benches can pick up those points. It is totally unacceptable to behave in this way and it will stop straight away. I hope the Whip has noticed it, and I will be speaking to others about the matter.
Kerry McCarthy: There is some confusion. When I wrote to the Health Secretary to get some clarity—I shall try to move on. When I wrote to the Health Secretary, the response I got back was very ambiguous. It referred mysteriously to when the document was first leaked to the public, rather than saying what the Government were aware of in relation to the consortium.
Kerry McCarthy: In the debate earlier today, the Minister definitely said the words, “Yes, we were.” The civil servant behind her was shaking his head and saying, “No, we weren’t. No, we weren’t,” so I hope that we get some clarity on the matter and a firm answer when the Government respond to this debate. To what extent did they know about and encourage the south-west consortium to start?
So, we have 2 Labour members, separately and independently, including the member who secured the debate, both stating, clearly and emphatically, that Anna Soubry admitted, on the Parliamentary record, that the government was involved in the formation of the SWC.
Both of these members would know full well that, if they claimed this falsely, the earlier debate was on the record and they could be censured. Anna Soubry was reprimanded twice by the Speaker for interrupting the Commons proceedings, and could have claimed a point of order had she wished to, in order to get her comments on the record, but declined to do so.
And yet, checking the record of the morning debate tonight, I found the following:
Kerry McCarthy: When did the Department of Health first find out about the formation of the consortium? When I have written to Ministers in the past, all that I have been told by way of response was factual information about when the document was leaked to the press. They have refused to answer that question about whether they were involved in setting up the consortium, or encouraging people to set it up before it was formed.
Anna Soubry: I believe we were not, but I will make further inquiries of my officials, and we will write to the hon. Lady and give her assurances about that. If I am in any way wrong I know that I will be corrected, and will be happy to say so.
Now, Kerry McCarthy’s own Twitter feed tonight says that she and Mr Bradshaw have been to the Hansard office to listen through the tape about 6 times and concedes that Ms Soubry ‘may have said weren’t not were‘.
I’m far from sure that she’s right. I’ve listened to the recording 10 times, and it sounds to me, every time, like ‘were’. You can listen to it (and watch it) here – fast-forward to 11:14:50 on the clock.
Now listen to the following 30 seconds or so of Ms Soubry’s response – and notice how she pronounces her ‘T’s at the end of words. Every time, the ‘T’ is clearly enunciated – Ms Soubry appears to have excellent diction. Yet we’re to believe that – on the one crucial word and only on that word – she opted to turn Cockney and swallow the ‘T’?
Not only that, but re-read the transcript of the debate again. Ms Soubry supposedly pronounced ‘weren’t’ so badly that 2 members of Parliament stated emphatically in the House that she had said ‘were’, and yet the official transcript has a very clear ‘we were not’.
Think about it: Ms Soubry was asked a question by an opposition MP, to which the answer was potentially very explosive – and yet she chooses to say a very sloppy, almost undetectable ‘I believe we weren’ in response, rather than a clear ‘we were not’.
Look at the syntax, too – not ‘I don’t think we were’, or ‘I think we were not’, either of which would have been much clearer. It looks ‘off’.
Hansard Transcripts are typically published about 3 hours after the words are spoken. I’ve re-watched the Commons debate just now, and interestingly, Ms Soubry is on the front bench, visible having a few tete-a-tetes with Health Minister Dr Daniel Poulter, until about 13.20hrs, then disappears – in time to ‘clarify’ her response to the Hansard office before the 3-hour publication deadline. Then, at the end of the debate at around 3.50pm, Dr Poulter rounds on the Labour MPs for their ‘mistake’, saying he has in his hands the Hansard transcript.
Time enough to make the ‘clarification’ and deliver an amended record to Dr Poulter for his closing remarks. Job done.
I’ll leave it to you to look at the evidence and decide for yourself, but personally I’m certain that Ms Soubry said ‘I believe we were’ – it would have been completely out of character for her to swallow the final 2 letters like that, and even more unlikely given the incendiary nature of a misunderstood answer.
Besides, I have it on record that the cartel was briefing health ministers by July at the latest, and they were giving their approval – see this post for more information.
So, what do you think?