As the House of Lords Passes the NHS Privatisation Bill, Labour Secures an Emergency Debate Tomorrow

19.3.12

Despite high hopes that members of the House of Lords would recognise their place in the history books on the side of the people, rather than on the side of David Cameron, Andrew Lansley, their Lib Dem stooges and the corporations who plan to make a killing out of the privatisation of the NHS, the Lords have voted by 328 votes to 213 to dismiss Lord Owen’s amendment, which, in a very reasonable manner, called for passage of the bill to be withheld pending the publication of the transition risk register, which a Freedom of Information tribunal ordered the government to release — for a second time — ten days ago. Not a single Lib Dem peer voted with Lord Owen, and just 27 out of 90 other crossbench peers supported him (see here for the analysis of votes).

The only good news is that, as the Guardian explained, the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham “has secured an additional Commons debate on the Health Bill for tomorrow afternoon on the issue of the NHS transition risk register.”

Announcing the approval of the emergency debate by the Speaker, John Bercow, Andy Burnham said:

Tomorrow’s debate will show the weight of feeling in the country. People care passionately about the NHS and they have a right to know the full implications of the Government’s proposed reorganisation. This Government is insulting Parliament by expecting it to support these plans whilst withholding information that could change the way MPs vote.

Labour has argued from the outset that the Government made a catastrophic error of judgment in choosing to re-organise the NHS at this time of unprecedented financial pressure. This register deals with the very real and predictable risks arising from the Government’s own decision to plough on with this Bill.

This is a minor triumph for opponents of the bill, as it allows the debate to take place “instead of the scheduled final day of the health bill before it is sent for royal assent,” as the Guardian described it, and it also allows concerned members of the public one more day to target Lib Dem MPs, which they can do, very easily, via The Green Benches website.

As the Guardian also explained, the Speaker’s decision to allow the debate to go ahead tomorrow “will probably ensure the bill will not receive royal assent before the information rights tribunal has detailed its reasons why the risk register should be published. With the budget being announced on Wednesday there is a packed parliamentary timetable and little opportunity for government business planners to squeeze in another Commons debate on the NHS.”

So long as the government does not find a sneaky way around this, it is good news indeed, as it means that the bill cannot receive royal assent until after the Easter break, allowing time for opponents to work out how to mount new challenges — and, hopefully, time for the risk register to be published, and to persuade far too many complacent and apathetic members of the public that they shouldn’t be sitting at home or going out shopping when the very survival of the NHS is at stake.

Despite an information rights tribunal ruling last week that the NHS risk register should be published, following a failed appeal that was triggered by a previous order to release the risk assessment last November, “the government has said it cannot decide whether to comply with the ruling until it has seen the reasons behind it,” as the Guardian also explained, adding, “The decision was made by Prof. John Angel, principal judge at the tribunal. He is racing to publish his reasoning. The government can appeal on a point of law, but not on fact.”

As the Guardian also explained:

It would be a serious political blow for the government to have to defer completion of the bill’s parliamentary passage. John Healey, the former shadow health minister who has pursued this issue for months, said: “This would be a big political blow for the government at the very end of the 11th hour of the bill. The Commons would probably have to deal with the bill after Easter.”

Even so, the Guardian reported that the government “has not ruled out using its special veto on publication (only used once before, to veto release of the attorney general’s legal advice on the Iraq war).” If ministers were to do so, it is difficult to see how the public would accept this as necessary, and not as a decision to hide disastrous portents that should be known, but it would be unwise to assume that this arrogant government will be stopped by anything.

More persuasive, perhaps, are ministers’ protestations that “they cannot release the risk register because they fear it will jeopardise civil servants’ forthright confidential advice to ministers.” On this point, the former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson, in the Daily Telegraph, warned that publication would lead to officials being forced to “pull their punches” when advising ministers, and could do “lasting damage” to the civil service. Lord Wilson may be correct in general, but on the NHS the wisest course of action to preserve secrecy would be to drop the bill, because people are only calling for the risk register to be released because of the strength of feeling about the NHS, and the absolute conviction of the NHS’s supporters that, despite amendments, it remains an essentially unmitigated disaster that will destroy the NHS as a universal healthcare provider, and will oblige it to be replaced by a dysfunctional market that only provides profits for competing providers.

To this extent, another fear of the government’s, mentioned by the Guardian — that “the public will not understand the risk register and will mistake a worst-case scenario for a prediction” — does not ring true at all, as it is clear from the warnings of health professionals with better knowledge of the NHS than either the government or the civil service that the worst-case scenario in the risk register is far more likely to reflect the truth than anything else.

It’s time to drop this wretched bill once and for all — and if tomorrow’s emergency debate delays its passage from Parliament to the statute book, then that is something to celebrate. In response, defenders of the NHS, and those who work for it, need to think seriously about how to create the biggest protest in living memory to kill the bill over the Easter holidays.

Note: The photo above is by Bimal Sharma, from the Demotix website.

POSTSCRIPT: The amendment by Baroness Thornton was also defeated, by 95 votes. The amendment stated: “this House declines to allow the bill to pass, because the bill does not command the support of patients who depend on the National Health Service, the professionals who are expected to make it work, or the public; will not deliver the promised objectives of genuinely empowering clinicians in the commissioning process and putting patients at the heart of the system; will increase bureaucracy and fragment commissioning; will allow Foundation Trusts to raise up to half their income from private patients; and, despite amendment, still creates an economic regulator and regime which will lead to the fragmentation and marketisation of the National Health Service and threaten its ethos and purpose.” One Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Greaves, sided with 153 Labour peers, 14 crossbench peers and six others. 73 other Lib Dem peers voted with the Tories (170 in total), 23 crossbench peers and three others to defeat the amendment by 269 votes to 174.

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, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

36 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Kat Tehranchi wrote:

    OMG! More healthcare for profit. I’m so sorry.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Kat. It’s true, sadly. No Tory previously took it this far, as they were always made aware that it would be their death knell. So, instead, Labour paved the way for Cameron & co., but it took this exceptionally arrogant bunch of butchers to refuse to back down when their bill was not only revealed as malignant, but also incompetent as well. They are rapidly becoming the biggest political scumbags, even though I have had to put up with a lifetime of scumbags, beginning with Margaret Thatcher.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    You wrote a great article Andy, and the list of MP’s and Lords’ interests was shocking, though suddenly what’s happening made sense. It’s like a giant black squid has its tentacles all over Government and it’s feeding off the rest of us.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Sorry to hear that Andy. It seems to be like that all over the world.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I am sorry to hear about this. I read both of your posts and am dismayed at this, and the apparent lack of media attention. At 3 AM CET last Sunday, there was not one word about the demo in my Guardian app. Twitter had a lot at #saveournhs.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Am sharing, though slowly descending into a trough of despond.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Andy – I’ve just put up a post about my feelings about this tragedy. I don’t think most people have ANY idea what they are about to lose.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Trevelyan-Syke wrote:

    The Lib Dems in the Coalition have gone along with it despite the Party Conference voting against it.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Susan, and this is the final betrayal that will kill them off completely, I’m sure. I’m not happy that they take all the flak, and actually shield the Tories from criticism, as that’s unfair when the truly malevolent ideas originate with the Tories, but it is clear that they should have pulled the plug on this miserable coalition by now.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Trevelyan-Syke wrote:

    They should never have agreed to the Coalition. The leaders chose power over principle.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Tragedy it is, Pauline. And I say that even though I’m not a Brit and don’t live in the UK. The tragedy will, I think, encourage those throughout the EU who would love to trash their own healthcare systems more extensively than they have already done (quite a bit, actually). Brits and others in the EU. will start complaining soon, while still having no well-developed idea how this happened. Not all, but many or most, unless they have followed posts like this one and Andy’s series about this. Or some blogs perhaps.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks also, Richard, Toia, George and Pauline.
    Nice analogy, Richard. MPs nearly all seem to be venal scumbags these days — the equivalent of those fatcat CEOs who, when their photos occasionally appear in the media, primarily look completely unmemorable. The rot obviously set in with Thatcher, and the death of politics as any sort of belief system, replaced, instead, with politics as a conduit for greed. Seriously, we need to stop voting for these people.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    George, thanks also for reminding readers about the wider implications of this — across Europe, in particular. I recommend the Corporate Watch report, “An unhealthy business: major healthcare companies use tax havens to avoid millions in UK tax,” for some insight into the kinds of corporations we’re dealing with:
    http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=4251
    And this report is another interesting introduction to MPs and peers and their unhealthy relationships with the corporations who stand to gain from the privatisation of the NHS:
    http://socialinvestigations.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/nhs-privatisation-compilation-of.html

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Trevelyan-Syke wrote:

    Doctors plan on mounting campaigns for Parliament in the next election against the Lib Dems and targeted Tories. Let’s get people in Parliament who have legitimate interests and expertise. If the Tories lose power, the law can be withdrawn after immeasurable damage.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Susan. Yes, I saw that proposal: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/mar/18/doctors-nhs-reforms-coalition-election
    It’s a great idea, of course, but I’m more interested in resistance now. 2015 is such a long way off.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Thanks Andy. I’ve seen the socialinvestigations blog (Dejanka posted that, outraged, with her heading: Our Lords! ) but not the first. I’ll look at that soon.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, George, the Corporate Watch report investigates five companies, and their offshore accounting procedures, doubling the reasons to resist the reforms, as they will not only destablise the integrity of the NHS, but will also bleed even more money out of the countries in which these companies operate. These are the five:

    ● Spire Healthcare, the UK’s second largest private healthcare company, is channelling £65m a year through a Luxembourg subsidiary of Cinven, its private equity owner, almost wiping out its taxable UK earnings.
    ● Care UK, which operates NHS treatment centres, walk-in centres and mental health services across England, is reducing its tax liability by routing £8m a year in interest payments on loan notes issued in the Channel Islands.
    ● Circle Health, the self-styled “social enterprise” that became the first private company to take over the management of an NHS hospital, is owned by companies and investment funds registered in the British Virgin Islands, Jersey and the Cayman Islands.
    ● Ramsay Health Care, the company with the greatest number of healthcare provision contracts in the NHS, has used a subsidiary in the Cayman Islands to finance the purchase of a French health company for its Australian parent company.
    ● General Healthcare Group, the biggest private hospital group in the UK, has registered the ownership of its hospitals through subsidiaries in the British Virgin Islands, potentially avoiding stamp duty when its owners come to sell. Its corporate structure may also mean its owners will not pay UK capital gains tax.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Yes. I’ve seen those, or most of them. Maybe on Dejanka’s post, maybe on this. I was intrigued by one brief statement on one of these, about the ‘companies behind them,’ or words to that effect. Just the sort of thing I feel should be investigated.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I was in no shape last week to do anything more than note these firms. So thanks for this Andy, I’ll bookmark the two links.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Yes, exactly what needs to be investigated. If politicians are entering Parliament solely to hook up with industry lobbyists who will then reward them later for services rendered, then we should know, clearly, that this is the extent to which politics have degenerated since the pre-Thatcher era of confrontational politics. Labour politicians are thoroughly implicated in this betrayal as well as Tories and Lib Dems, of course, but what I think is needed is a dispassionate analysis of the involvement that all MPs and peers have with companies that stand to benefit from the increased competition in the NHS, because, of course, by its very nature, the purest form of the NHS doesn’t have lobbyists who can buy off MPs, and it’s part of the state. I want MPs who believe in the state, and don’t work with lobbyists trying to destroy it, and I think many other people agree. To save the NHS, or restore it, means that it will be necessary to rid Parliament of all these crooks.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    I couldn’t have put it better myself, Andy. It’s not just the health care lobbyists. What about Ministers of Defence who are bribed and then get million pound ‘consultancy’ fees on boards? The list is ENDLESS. People who think MPs are ‘underpaid’ should look at the lucrative posts they get on the back of the experience they gain when being paid by us in Parliament. Sorry to digress. Am feeling very very bitter tonight.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Exactly, Andy and Paulina. When I read that Cameron was willing to sit it out to the end of his term, i wondered who was paying him and his kind. For surely that’s no statement of political or ethical principle.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Please don’t apologise, Pauline. You’re not digressing at all, and you’re perfectly entitled to be feeling very bitter tonight. And George, I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of what motivates David Cameron. Obviously he’s privileged enough to have grown up with some dominant notion of himself as the future King of England, but there’s an emptiness to his desires as well. Perhaps it’s just a very modern tale — the hugely egotistical desire for power without even a good reason. Very post-modern. The product of a world without values, without meaning beyond the ideology of handing over EVERY aspect of people’s lives to corporations, so that those in charge are just facilitators, and not leaders in any significant sense, because there is nothing meaningful for a leader to lead. Such dreadful, dreadful hollowness …

  24. Gail Bannister says...

    Thanks for this…..I am part of one of the several save our NHS groups, and we have constantly been trying to stop this from happening. We have lobbied, emailed our MP’s, signed petitions, taken part in local demonstrations, and protested in London. However, the thing that has killed the NHS is the public, their apathy and apparent unwillingness to wake up and join us in trying to get thiis betrayal by the ConDems stopped. Tonight we are understandably a little shell shocked and trying to think what to do next, but unless the people stand up and take to the streets, not only on this issue, but on many other things that are happening both nationally and globally, then i really am finding it very hard to muster up any hope for the future. The light at the end of the tunnel, has indeed, been turned off.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Gail, and I wish I knew what to suggest. The apathy of the public continues to surprise me. I know that people have had over 30 years of politicians telling them to think only of themselves, and I know that, in the last 15 years in particular, materialism and self-obsession reached such epidemic proportions that it was always going to be difficult for people to rediscover their humanity easily, and in significant numbers, but I thought the threat to the NHS would rally people in a way that the attacks on other crucial aspects of society — like welfare, for example — had failed to do so.
    This has been a depressing day, and tomorrow, if the bill’s assent can’t be delayed, will be one of the blackest days for politics in the UK in living memory. And I don’t say that lightly, as I grew up with Thatcher blighting my youth, followed by John Major, racking up 18 years of Tory rule between them, and then spent 13 long years wondering how Labour could be such a woeful mixture of Stalinist authoritarianism and Thatcherite economics combined.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    I think it may be simpler than that. He could trash restaurants in Oxford knowing Daddy would pick up the bill. Any inconvenience or even trauma he may have afflicted was not worth him bothering his empty head about. Now he’s done the same on a large scale with the people of this country – because HE CAN GET AWAY WITH IT. Everything is levelled to the same meaninglessness to him. Restaurant owners having to clear up his mess – people dying because they can’t afford health treatment. What’s the difference? Human life means NOTHING to him. And as for claiming disability benefit for his son when he and his wife are millionaires – THEY HAVE NO IDEA. The couple with 3 disabled children who are now having to find 600 pounds a month for the fares to get their children to school when they have no income. Why would Cameron care? I am incandescent with rage.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I agree, Andy. Post-Modern in the sense of being power-hungry while having no concept of what might be meaningful for the UK and the world, through lack of any principles whatever. Pleasing companies is just one part of that power-hunger, since he knows that satisfying them requires no other principle at all, let alone some overarching vision of how to help bring about a humane world. There is a lot of stuff on the Net about the question, Are CEOs and other people with discretionary power psychopaths or sociopaths?. I don’t know the definitions of those terms, but I’ve heard that there is a growing consensus among psychiatrists and psychologists that the answer is Yes.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Pauline and George. The only good thing that could possible come out of this is that the years since the 2008 economic crash and this subsequent — and artificially imposed — “age of austerity” may eventually be seen as marking the beginning of the end for systems that produce people like Cameron and enable him to become the leader of a country. There are subtle differences between sociopaths and psychopaths from what I understand, George, but they’re not significant enough to quibble about. Both involve the heartlessness that we see from people in positions of power, whose concern for anyone who is not rich and powerful is zero.

  29. alex cockell says...

    One reason why the public don’t know and have been silent is that the BBC have effectively been silent during the main news bulletins… and there was no mention of the protest on Saturday.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Alex. Yes, the BBC have become very poor when it comes to anything that could be regarded politically contentious. It’s darkly ironic that their cowardice began when Labour attacked them over their frankly accurate Iraq WMD reporting — Andrew Gilligan’s description of the “sexed-up” intelligence dossier being used by Blair — which led to the dismissal of the Director General, Greg Dyke, and the chairman, Gavyn Davies: http://www.pbs.org/now/politics/bbctimeline.html
    Since then, the rot has set in gradually, and now, sadly, the BBC often looks like it must have been in the 1950s: self-censored, and promoting a rosy picture of Britain — see the sickening coverage of the Royal Wedding, for example — that is playing directly into the Tories’ hands. It’s disgraceful.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Osbourne wrote:

    Excellent work Andy. The financial information about those private healthcare companies you quote above shouldn’t shock – not after everything we know – but it does. The rot is endemic now and so deep in the system that only a system-wide collapse could possibly stop it. Sobering thought but I think we’ve all known for a while that it’s coming. Otherwise, what’s the alternative? Even more venality and parasitical corruption? All parasites kill their hosts eventually.

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Richard. Anger is vying with disappointment right now, given that the last obstacle to the passage of the bill was dismantled in the House of Commons this afternoon. I was thinking it might somehow get delayed, giving us until after Easter. But you’re right — it was inevitable, given the endemic corruption. Bring on the system-wide collapse, then …

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Aaron Ben Acer Quinn wrote:

    the docs and nurses need to unite and go on strike until its repealed, which in itself would stoke the public into questioning whats been going on and no doubt once the public anger is focused at the government, it can get ditched. Yeah, some may die during the strike but at least ten times that many wil die in the long term. I for one would back a nurses strike….they have the power to really block this and get the bill ditched.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Kwiatkowski wrote:

    The NHS was the crown jewel of Britain’s public health care system, and now the rich boys are handing it over to the private health industry. Would Thatcher have gotten away with trying to do this? Would she have had such enthusiastic help from the country’s so-called left-wing political parties? NOPE.

  35. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I was busy all day today, Andy. I’m sorry to hear this, although it wasn’t unexpected. At least all your regular visitors here did our best.

  36. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Aaron, Michael and George. Yes, sadly, apathy and corruption are everywhere. I’m sure that people in the NHS will be working out how to mitigate the worst effects of the changes, but we need politicians who will put principles and the people before profit, and we need people who will put actions before apathy. Otherwise the descent into savagery will be swift. No offence to anyone in the top 10 percent, but everything that’s happening is based on looking after them, and making sure that they can continue to feel privileged and comfortable, while everyone else is squeezed or abused. Everyone else can go hang, you see, and those at the top aren’t bothered because they’ve become so complacent — even most of those who work in fields that are supposed to involve independent scrutiny of politicians and corporate interests, like the mainstream media, for example.

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