Socialist Worker

Debating privatisation at the Unison health conference

Issue No. 2097

The continuing threat of health privatisation formed an important backdrop to many conference debates.

A year ago many delegates were hopeful that when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as prime minister the government’s free market dogma would be scaled down.

But this week there was a mood of bitter disappointment among most delegates at the way Brown has given his blessing to the next waves of privatisation.

In particular there was scathing criticism of plans to hand GP surgeries to the private sector.

Jim Fagan from Tower Hamlets was greeted with loud applause as he explained how doctors, health workers and local community activists had united to oppose the handover of a local practice to a multinational firm.

He said, “Ask yourself why an IT company with little experience of the NHS would want to run one of our doctors’ surgeries. The answer is that these firms are desperate to get hold of NHS budgets.

“It is outrageous that this process has the backing of a Labour government, but our experience shows that privatisation can be resisted.

“We involved everyone in our campaign, and it received great coverage on the radio, TV and newspapers.”

There was also anger at the way the principle of free treatment on the NHS is being eroded.

Gordon McKay from the union’s Scottish health committee attacked rising prescription charges as a “tax on the sick”.

“Recent research has shown that as many as one in three people fail to get all or part of their prescriptions because they don’t have enough money,” he said.

“We want all healthcare to be free at the point of delivery. That must be paid for by a system of progressive taxation.

“Our campaigning has meant that the government in Wales has abolished the prescription charge and Scotland plans to follow by 2011. England needs to follow our lead.”


A minority of delegates, and some in the union’s leadership, attempted to defend the government from at least some of the barrage of criticism.

Mick McEwen, a rep from the union’s national nursing sector, argued that however bad Brown might be, the Tories would be far worse.

“Yes, there are shameful examples of privatisation under New Labour,” he said. “But we must remember that the Tories fought tooth and nail against the NHS. We must not forget who the real enemy is.”

But in one contribution after another delegates explained how the principles behind the NHS continue to be eroded under Labour.

Despite the clear mood among delegates for a fight to defend the principles of the NHS, there was little stomach for such a battle among the union’s leadership.

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