A very interesting set of emails has come to my attention. If, like me, you’re passionate about the NHS and have been following developments in the South West region, where 20 NHS Trusts banded together into a cartel to attempt to force staff to accept the degradation of their pay and conditions to the tune of about £1,600 per year for the next 5 years, then the emails are not just interesting but explosive.
The email exchange is between Tony Spotswood, Chief Executive of Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch NHS Trust, and Chris Bown, Chief Executive of Poole Hospital NHS Trust, who has also been acting as head of the regional cartel. The emails show the existence of an incipient plot to bring down the NHS Employers group that represents all employing organisations in the NHS, and to replace it with a different group that is more supportive of the cartel’s attempts to coerce health staff into accepting worse pay, terms and conditions that those to which they are entitled under the ‘Agenda for Change’ (AfC) national agreement.
I have scans of the emails, rather than copyable text, so I’ll insert an image of each one below, in order, and provide some commentary on each as it appears, with a summary at the end. If you have trouble reading them as inserts, you can click on each image for a larger version:
Bown, head of the South West cartel, declares his opinion that NHS Employers (NHSE), of which his Trust is a member, cannot be trusted. NHSE is responsible for the ongoing national discussions with unions about AfC which are attempting to reach a nationally-applicable set of amendments to AfC to help employers meet the ‘Nicholson challenge’ – an ‘efficiency’ challenge by Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS.
Official press releases by the cartel have insisted that it fully respects the national AfC principles and negotiations – so for its CEO to write to a colleague expressing contempt for NHSE and its efforts is in striking contrast to the public statements, and demonstrates the duplicity to which the cartel will readily resort in order to present a less unacceptable front to the public.
By contrast with NHSE, Bown states that the Foundation Trust Network (FTN) is ‘openly supportive’ of the cartel’s aims and actions. The FTN is the body representing all NHS Foundation Trusts – Trusts that have set themselves up according to a specific definition in order to be less bound by AfC. Under the Health & Social Care Act 2012, the government created a new requirement that all NHS Trusts must convert to FT status by April 2013 (which in itself is a sign of the government’s own desire to undermine the national AfC framework).
In a quite astonishingly blatant response, Tony Spotswood replies to Bown outlining:
- His worry that measures implemented by the cartel may be vulnerable to legal challenge if the same changes are not agreed nationally
- a ‘wider agenda’ of having regional cartels replace NHSE, in order to become the body responsible for the national AfC discussions in order to get around the legal-challenge problem
- that this may be difficult because NHSE is part of the NHS Confederation and is the govt-approved body
- a plan to get around that problem by working with the FTN to deliberately undermine NHSE and achieve a vote of no-confidence in the group
Or, in simpler terms, a plan to carry out an extra-legal coup in order to remove the body responsible for national negotiations with staff unions and replace it with a set of regional cartels who will ‘rubber-stamp’ regional decisions to reduce the pay and terms of the hard-working NHS staff unfortunate enough to work for them.
Bown’s response is telling:
No word of surprise or outrage at the idea of such a coup. Not a single one. Instead, he responds with some ‘good news’ that if the Trusts can get individual staff to sign away their rights (as one of my local Trusts, North Tees and Hartlepool, is attempting to do), then those rights are legally lost and no legal challenge can be mounted. Bown also demonstrates thinly-veiled contempt for unions and staff in his “the TU would I am sure make great noise if this [good news] were to happen“.
At this point, the two CEOs appear to realise that they’re on the record and take the discussion offline – either that or any subsequent emails still remain undisclosed.
It’s also worth noting something else that this final email reveals. The Trust has attempted to remove the name at the top of the email by blacking it out, presumably under a ‘section 40’ exemption. However, they haven’t done a very good job of it – the name ‘Pete Nicholas’ can still be read (click for the enlarged image to see it).
Pete Nicholas is the Trust’s ‘Information Governance Manager’, responsible for responses to Freedom of Information requests. That his name appears above a thick, black line means (in this format of email) that the message was forwarded by him to the person who released it.
That becomes significant because Poole Trust – after the date on which these emails were released to someone else – had responded to my FOI request asking for copies of Chris Bown’s emails by saying that it would cost too much to provide them, and it stuck to this decision even after I pointed out to them the cartel’s advice from its own legal advisers, that they couldn’t include time for sorting and redacting emails in the cost-exemption calculation.
They stuck to their decision on 1 Nov – but then released them to someone else.
Clearly, Poole Trust – which is leading the cartel – is perfectly ready not only to lie but even to break the law as interpreted by their own legal advisers, in order to avoid sending sensitive information to me.
Spotswood’s Trust has since left the cartel, reducing its members to 19. While this initially appeared to be good news, Spotswood himself has stated that he took this decision in order to concentrate on a proposed merger of his Trust with Poole – in which case, he can presumably then choose to have the new entity back in the cartel via Poole’s membership.
There is speculation that Bown allowed these emails to be released as revenge on Spotswood for the merger, which may well result in Bown losing his job. I have no way of knowing at the moment whether this is true or not.
What does seem clear, however, is that Bournemouth’s departure from the cartel is not the good news that campaigners (including me) initially thought. A man who is prepared to plot a coup against NHSE in order to push through pay-cuts is not going to simply give up on the desire to cut costs at the expense of his staff.
It looks far more likely that he wants to push through the merger in order to take personal control of the cartel and help further his coup plans. Which means that those who are opposed to the growing mistreatment of hardworking doctors, nurses and other health staff cannot afford to ease our resistance or vigilance for a moment.
On the contrary – we need to work even harder and intensify it. And the campaign should include demand for the resignation of both CEOs for their part in plotting against the officially-recognised negotiating body – along with that of anyone else shown to be complicit.