Save the NHS: As Lib Dems Vote to Support Tory Privatisation Plans, The Last Hope is the House of Lords


When the history of Britain’s first modern coalition government is written, it is fair to say that two events in particular will mark the turning point in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, when swathes of the population came to regard them as hypocritical and untrustworthy. The first of these was, of course, the vote last December to raise university tuition fees from £3,290 a year to £9,000 a year, and to withdraw all funding from arts, humanities and social sciences, when, as I reported at the time, 27 Lib Dem MPs voted for the rise in tuition fees (including 15 ministers), while 21 voted against, five abstained, and three were out of the country. Crucially, as I also explained, “The vote was won by 323-302, so just 11 more dissenters were needed for the vote to have been lost.”

Given that the Lib Dems had actively campaigned against any kind of rise in tuition fees, and that this was a major manifesto promise, with the party as a whole going so far as to pledge the abolition of fees, and thereby gaining a large number of young voters, this capitulation was a death sentence for the party’s credibility, and one from which it may never recover.

On Andrew Lansley’s wretched Health and Social Care Bill, otherwise known as the NHS Privatisation Bill, to those of us who think that privatisation, where intended, should be exposed for what it is, the Lib Dems were not faced with such a stark manifestation of hypocrisy and capitulation in voting for the bill on its third reading. This was because they had not made a specific manifesto promise to protect the NHS from the Tories, although they did promise to “protect frontline services such as cancer, mental health and maternity despite a squeeze on the NHS budget,” as the BBC explained prior to the General Election last year.

Even on that basis, however, it could be argued coherently that the Lib Dems should oppose a bill that, despite tinkering, remains, fundamentally, the juggernaut of privatisation conceived by the Tories, opposed by almost all senior health professionals, and by high-profile Lib Dem dissidents such as Baroness Shirley Williams and Lord Owen, in which no aspect of the service is guaranteed to be free from cuts to frontline services. Either there are strict checks on the extent to which competition is allowed, or, as Lansley and the Tories want, anyone with shareholders and a scythe will be allowed in, and as a result, of course, frontline services, like all services, will inevitably suffer.

Moreover, the Lib Dems should not be the only objects of the public’s ire. As Roy Lilley explained in a useful post on on, “Whether you oppose the Bill, or not, here are some things to remember: neither the Bill, nor anything like it was in the Tory Manifesto, nor the Lib-Dems’ or the Coalition agreement” (PDF, page 24), in which the coalition government promised, “We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.” This, of course, is exactly what David Cameron repeats when asked about the NHS, when he is not lying brazenly about the supposed extent of support for the reforms amongst healthcare professionals.

As it is, however, the Lib Dems caved in again yesterday after a combative Commons session, with only four MPS voting against the bill (Andrew George, Julian Huppert, Greg Mulholland and Adrian Sanders), and ten others abstaining. By my reckoning, that leaves 42 others and, with 316 MPs voting for the bill, and 251 against, the majority of 65 could have been a defeat by one vote if 33 of those 42 Lib Dems (including those who value their ministerial positions above all else) had rebelled.

The last hope for the NHS, then, is the House of Lords, where there will certainly be a fight.

In the Observer last Sunday, in an article entitled, “Why this flawed bill threatens the very future of the NHS,” the Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams made a resounding appeal for the continued protection of the NHS, drawing on the important legal advice secured by the campaigning group 38 Degrees, which I mentioned in an article on Tuesday, explaining that Jacqueline Davis, a consultant radiologist in north London, the co-chair of the NHS Consultants’ Association, and a founder member of Keep Our NHS Public, had written in the Guardian:

They [the legal experts] found that the bill does indeed “remove the duty of the secretary of state to provide or secure the provision of health services which has been a common and critical feature of all previous NHS legislation since 1946″. Furthermore, a “hands-off clause” will “severely curtail the secretary of state’s ability to influence the delivery of NHS care to ensure everyone receives the best healthcare possible”. They conclude the government can now wash its hands of the NHS, while the likelihood of a postcode lottery increases and local accountability decreases.

They also conclude that the bill “will increase competition within the NHS at the expense of collaboration and integration and/or make it almost inevitable that UK and EU competition law will apply as if it were a utility like gas or telecoms”. So despite the coalition’s repeated denials, this legal opinion believes that “these plans will lead to a system geared heavily in favour of private companies”.

In her column, Baroness Williams highlighted another compelling part of the lawyers’ analysis, in which they stated:

“Effectively, the duty to provide a national health service would be lost if the bill becomes law.” By passing these duties down to an unknown number of commissioning consortiums, the government … will be “effectively fragmenting a service that currently has the advantage of national oversight and control, and which is politically accountable via the ballot box to the electorate”.

She also explained that she remained deeply troubled about the proposed role of the private sector under the reforms, stating:

Why have so many of our politicians, Labour and Conservative, sought to introduce a market into health? I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovation and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service — complementary but not wrecking. But why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system? I worked in the US for a decade between the 1980s and 1990s and saw the misery of people who could not afford even to insure themselves against the catastrophe of serious ill health.

The answer, of course, is that the endless push for privatisation has indeed “bewitched” politicians, leaving a gaping hole in our political life where those, like myself, who want a brand-new political movement based on the needs of the people rather than the profits of private companies and corporations are endlessly sidelined.

As Baroness Williams also noted, pertinently:

The NHS is recognised by the OECD, the US Commonwealth Fund, most of our own medical organisations and many of those who use it as one of the most efficient, least costly and most effective in the world. It could become more productive and more innovative, especially through greater integration of services and sensitive reconfiguration, ensuring that treatment is undertaken locally or at home rather than in hospitals. But reform need not mean upheaval and disintegration. The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government — of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England — should not be allowed to die.

Another prominent critic, who is expected to provide ferocious opposition to the bill in the House of Lords, is Lord Owen, who wrote an article for the Independent in April, in which he laid out his position:

Like the sailor returning to the sea, so as a doctor writing about the NHS I feel that is where “my heart will always be”. Yet the NHS needs our heads not just our hearts if it is to be saved from the fatal flaws within the 353 pages of the Health and Social Care Bill.

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has no mandate for this legislation. If it were to go on the statute book in anything like its present form, over one, or at most two, decades, in England the NHS would be unrecognisable. During the general election, David Cameron defused the NHS as a vote loser for the Conservatives. He not only promised no more top-down reorganisations, but he convinced people that his heart was with the NHS after the care given to his late son.

Suddenly all that changed and, surprisingly, the Liberal Democrats too abandoned the evolutionary reforms of the past 30 years of an internal market, and instead embraced Andrew Lansley’s external one – a market of price competition, with the EU’s competition policy progressively poking its nose into every nook and cranny of our NHS. Furthermore, the proven democratic control of a rationed health service that maintained record levels of satisfaction among the public was to be abandoned.

So as the bill makes it way to the House of Lords, where, as Roy Lilley explained, it may spend three months or more, returning to the Commons in February next year, we must wait to see if the Lords can do what MPs in the Commons failed to do: protect the organisation that, above all, is cherished by the people of Britain. As Colin Leys, a former professor of political science at Queen’s University in Canada, wrote in an article today in the Guardian‘s Comment is free, entitled, “The end of the NHS as we know it“:

What Wednesday’s vote on the health and social care bill shows more clearly than anything is that many, if not most, of the political elite no longer care whether they are carrying out the wishes of the electorate, and barely pretend that we are any longer a democracy.

After reiterating that the government does not have a mandate for its planned changes, Leys notes a depressing truth about today’s society, placing responsibility on the public as much as on politicians. “The principle,” he writes, “seems to be that if an official lie — such as that the bill does not imply privatisation — is repeated often enough, most people will feel it must be true.”

He adds that, “by using existing powers to abolish PCTs and set up “pathfinder” so-called GP consortia, and making arrangements with foreign private companies to take over NHS hospitals, the government has also pre-empted such debate as MPs are inclined to have. The Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who originally denounced the bill, now says that changes have already gone too far to oppose it any further — a remarkable statement of political impotence.”

As Leys proceeds to explain:

The bill will end the NHS as a comprehensive service equally available to all. People with limited means will have a narrowing range of free services of declining quality, and will once again face long waits for elective care. Everyone else will go back to trying to find money for private insurance and private care. More and more NHS hospital beds will be occupied by private patients. Doctors will be divided into a few who will become rich, and many who will end up working on reduced terms and with little professional freedom for large corporations (the staff of the hospitals that are being considered for handing over to private firms will have noted that the firms in question want “a free hand with staff”).

The costs of market-based healthcare — from making and monitoring multiple and complex contracts, to advertising, billing, auditing, legal disputes, multi-million pound executive salaries, dividends and fraud — will soon consume 20% or more of the health budget, as they do in the US. Neither the Care Quality Commission nor NHS Protect (the former NHS Counter-Fraud Unit) are remotely resourced enough, or empowered enough, to prevent the decline of care quality and the scale of financial fraud that the bill will introduce.

The Tories’ plans, if allowed to proceed, will complete a privatisation project that began under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and was accelerated under New Labour — although it should be noted that the last government threw money at the NHS while stealthily introducing privatisation, whereas all that now remains is for leeches to take without giving.

As Colin Leys explains, and as I noted in May, in my article, “Act Now to Save the NHS, as Government Advisor Claims Reforms Will Show “No Mercy” and Allow “Big Opportunity” for Profiteering,” the key players in this are “private healthcare companies and consultancies like McKinsey and KPMG,” who have mounted their privatisation campaign through “the lavish corporate funding of pro-market think-tanks — the quiet subversion of some of those, like the King’s Fund, that are still rather quaintly described as ‘independent’ — and the deep penetration of the Department of Health and Labour’s senior ranks.”

As Leys laments, and as we all should note, “No countervailing argument has come from pro-public think-tanks, because none exists with resources equal to the task. And how many MPs have actually read through the bill they are in the process of endorsing, or even the explanatory notes that accompany it?”

In conclusion, Leys praises the opposition that has come from “the social media: 38 Degrees, Facebook, expert bloggers and tweeters,” and adds, “Along with the million-plus people who work for the NHS, a steadily growing portion of, especially, younger voters, have been exposed to a different narrative and see through the spin. At the moment most of them may be more cynical than politically active. But if the bill becomes law and the reality begins to be felt in people’s daily lives it is this counter-narrative that will make sense. MPs — and now the Lords — would be well advised to ponder the implications of this.”

Part of me shares his optimism, but the other part — aware that far too many of my fellow citizens have allowed themselves to be distracted by showbiz, or, even more depressingly, by missing the point and blaming immigrants and the unemployed for society’s ills — thinks that the majority of people may not notice until it’s too late.

While I hope that the battle for the NHS will be won in the Lords, and encourage readers to follow the advice of a blogger at Liberal Conspiracy and sign up to the TUC’s “Adopt a Peer” campaign, which involves people adopting a member of the House of Lords and then writeingto them (and an excellent template letter regarding the NHS campaign is here), I also hope that the current dissatisfaction of living under a Tory-led government committed to culling the state, privatising whatever hasn’t already been privatised, and protecting the rich and the super-rich, will provoke people to think about what they really want and need, and to recall that, throughout history, the vast improvements to our lives have not come about through doing nothing, but through actively wresting them from the hands of those who, like David Cameron, George Osborne and Andrew Lansley, don’t actually care about us, and, at present, are actively involved in making life more miserable for all but the top 10 percent of earners.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

20 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’ll digg and share this tomorrow. I’m having difficulty logging in from my IPad.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    The problems we have with technology, eh, George? I’m interested in your thoughts, as I think something that draws together information about the predatory nature of KPMG, McKinsey etc. would be useful. The sources I found for this article (in the Lords and in the medical profession) spoke eloquently about how the business people had “bewitched” politicians — as they usually do, to be honest, politicans being, for the most part, shallow and venal and self-serving — which makes it all the more important to keep exposing the cynical machinations of those who seek immense profits at the expense of Europeans’ health.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Lord “Alf” Morris of Manchester who was Minister for Disabled under Labour was always a great help to me over 20 years on health issues, privatization etc… and many times we took issues to the Lords…

    He is well into his 80s and still going strong despite his own health problems… Alf knows how businesses and companies can corrupt… he saw it in relation to our haemophilia community and is a good one to get on side… and

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to know, Carol. Thanks. Back in the dreadful Thatcher/Major days, I recall that the Lords were often a bulwark against the vile arrogance of the Commons, and I used to reflect then on how ironic it was that the unelected politicians were often our only hope against those we “elected” (to the extent that we genuinely elect anyone under “first past the post”). It’s as hugely important as it was back then when Thatcher was permanently welded to her wrecking ball. I’m actually just watching Sir Gerry Robinson’s very powerful “Panorama” programme about the madness of Lansley’s reforms. Well worth watching:

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Thanks for link…Yes I have had my own run-ins with Lansley and Anne Milton… in fact I boycotted the last meeting arranged with her at DOH… wrote an e-mail instead highlighting why I wasn’t going to waste my time talking to her anymore… Might also be worth e-mailing Ellee Seymour … she blogs a lot on health and worked for Eric Pickles… She has put links to my articles on her blog which is widely read by politicians and would probably link to your articles too… you would get additional coverage in political circles…

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Carol. OK, I don’t know about you, but I have to sleep now! It’s 3.15 am!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I am digging this now, Andy. Then I shall read your article and think about it for a while. This issue is too important for me and the EU for an off-the-cuff response.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. I recommend the Panorama programme, mentioned above, and also “The Health Industry Lobbying Tour,”the 15-minute film on Spinwatch’s excellent site:

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Good Andy. First I shall watch this, and then share your article. I was going to do so with an introduction about how KPMG UK is now part of ATOS ORIGIN, what these are doing, and why this is important for the entire EU. If necessary I will adapt my remarks to fit the film and site.

    BTW for some bad news from FB see my wall. Some friends in the UK and NZ started a page about related stuff several days ago. We are adding the bad news.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George! I look forward to that. As for the Facebook changes, it seems to be part of the general trend towards personalizing the web rather than it being universal — and all, of course, to try and sell us more stuff. It’s wasted on me, as I am immune to advertising and marketing. I should be part of an ad-free social network, and I’m sure many of my friends here would benefit from that too.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I shared it with additional information. Soon I’ll link to this and your previous NHS article on the page of a Swedish healthcare group.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    This is George’s additional information:

    Here is how arrogant ATOS’s EU head can be. Remember that such firms can help determine healthcare policy in any EU country.
    Here is part of ATOS’s international structure:

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Dani Voluntaryist Taylor wrote:

    Are you all forced (mandated) to buy health insurance? Are you mandated to buy car insurance? The reason I ask is that the mandated car insurance has created a new underclass of citizens here. They can’t afford the insurance and get caught driving without it and get fines and then when they can’t pay for insurance and the fines, they go to jail. Then they lose their jobs then their rental houses/apts and then their Childen. They cannot afford additional mandatory health insurance so they’ll begin to be fined and then jailed here for the sin of poverty.

    These are working people who began in the middle class and ended up in perpetual poverty – many homeless with their Children taken from them. Those who still have their Children because they didn’t drive, will be in those same shoes once the mandated purchasing of health insurance before feeding their families or providing a roof over their heads goes into effect. Listening to the video you shared above and then will check out the link. ♥ to ya, Andy.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very depressing, Dani, but a very good explanation of how unfettered profiteering can be used to destroy whole communities.

    In the UK, with spending on health at 8-10 percent of GDP, all life and death procedures are free at the point of entry and free at the point of exit. It’s ALL paid for through general taxation. In the US, where healthcare costs 15 percent of GDP, there’s a healthcare racket with the insurance industry, and poor people excluded or saddled with debts for life if they fall ill.

    We’re not heading there yet in the UK, but we will be if full-scale privatization proceeds, because greed will be allowed to take over from the demands of universal care, and eventually, after the percentage of GDP spent on healthcare keeps increasing because of the greater involvement of these private companies and corporations and their shareholders, less and less will be free.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Andy, one quick point about your last article. I think it would be more understandable to non-Brits, and perhaps to some British people, if you had included the two *requirements* set out in the original remit of the NHS. One was universality and I forget the other right now. These are central and easy to state. But from what I have read, they are qualified or dropped in the new plan. Perhaps they are in your previous article, but they should be stated at any appropriate point. They are that crucial to any decent public health system.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    OK, George. Good point. As I understand it, there were three requirements:

    services were provided free at the point of use;
    services were financed from central taxation;
    everyone was eligible for care (even people temporarily resident or visiting the country).

    Prescription charges and dental charges were introduced later, and not quite everything is free (some ops, for example, are effectively only open to those who are able to pay), but the basic principles remain the same.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Right, Andy. I forgot the first two points. BTW I became interested in tax-based healthcare because *I* was helped for free when I lived in London, June-Sept 71. All went smoothly, from my getting a doctor at an NHS office, through the end of my one visit to the doctor. The matter was trivial. When I, an American visitor, grabbed my wallet to pay, the man took the time to explain how the NHS works and why it is free for tourists (no more though). After that I could not approve of the American plans. It’s one reason why I left in 72. To see such decent schemes getting trashed for no reason except the greed of the rich and their wish to secure an exploitative & authoritarian society (using bad arguments that many accept), disappoints and frightens me.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Very well put, George, and as for not extending care to tourists, that may be true in many ways, but I believe that if you get very ill the NHS will treat you anyway. I recall the outrage from health professionals a few years back when the Blair government wanted the duty of care to be removed from “failed asylum seekers,” as though doctors and nurses were going to let someone bleed to death in Accident & Emergency (A&E), for example, because he or she didn’t have an EU passport. Doctors and nurses poured scorn on that particular proposal, but it’s at the heart of the struggle really, and it demonstrates that what we have is far too important to lose — or to let be undermined fatally UNTIL we eventually lose it.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Malcolm Bush wrote:

    I’m afraid many people will perceive this entry about the NHS on your wall, as a deviation from the narrative of usual postings. I believe it’s another area of the same story; time may allow us to fill in the dots and see this more clearly.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    I haven’t had any complaints about that, fortunately, Malcolm, and I’m glad you see how different topics are interrelated. If we see a further decline in the expenditure of the countries of the West on their own people, and increased unemployment and unrest, it seems very possible that the mentality that allowed the “war on terror” to thrive will turn on other groups. It helps to have lived through Thatcher’s “war” on the miners and then on the new age travellers in 1984-85 to perceive this.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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