Socialist Worker

Boom time for private health

Issue No. 1702

Blair's NHS plan means

Boom time for private health

By Hazel Croft

THE DESTRUCTION of the foundation of the National Health Service. That is the reality of the plans New Labour announced last week to link the NHS with private medicine. Health secretary Alan Milburn announced his plans for a "concordat" (or deal) last week for private hospitals and nursing homes to take NHS patients.

"We are crossing the rubicon," is how one government source put it. New Labour claims that this is the only way to reduce waiting lists, because there are not enough beds to go round. But New Labour could raise taxes on wealthy individuals and big business to fund the NHS.

Instead the government is embarking on the biggest expansion of private healthcare since the NHS was created in 1948. The fat cats who run private hospitals and nursing homes will be laughing all the way to the bank. They can now officially grab hold of public money to line their pockets.

The private sector already makes a fortune by using doctors, nurses and other staff trained by the NHS. Now Blair is letting the private sector officially get its foot in the door of the NHS and providing it with a golden opportunity to fleece the NHS even more. Already private operations cost about twice as much as those done by the NHS. If a private hospital gets a monopoly on some operations, it will be able to name its price.

The private sector is notorious for its lack of regulation, and for putting patients' cheque books before its assessment of the risk of treatment and operations.

It is no coincidence that nearly all the doctors involved in recent scandals, such as gynaecologist Rodney Ledward, were involved in large amounts of private work. Labour MP David Hinchcliffe, chair of the House of Commons health committee, spoke out against the plans last week.

He said, "There is a huge amount of under-used operating and bed capacity in the NHS itself. If we expand the private sector by referring more patients, it will respond by recruiting staff from the NHS. In practical terms that doesn't make sense."

New Labour's plans do not stop at buying private hospital beds. The government has also announced that it plans to send hit squads of private sector bosses into "failing" NHS hospitals that do not meet "performance targets".

This is a repeat of the methods Blair has used to destroy comprehensive education. He will let loose teams of businessmen in suits who know everything about money and nothing about caring for patients. On top of this New Labour is continuing with the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) con.

Labour says it is building 37 new hospitals. All but four of these are funded by the PFI-a mad project dreamed up by Tory ministers as a way of privatising whole sections of the NHS. As a survey by Dr Allyson Pollock found last week, this costs the government

MORE money than if it had used public funds to provide new hospitals. So NHS funds will be siphoned off into the coffers of private consortia, banks, building firms, contractors and their shareholders. As Alan Milburn races to buy beds from the private sector, his PFI schemes will CUT bed numbers by up to 30 percent.

On top of this, ancillary and non-medical staff will be handed over to profit-seeking private firms. And all staff, including nurses, will have their numbers slashed.


Conference suffers Brown

IF CHANCELLOR Gordon Brown came to UNISON conference expecting ringing endorsement for the Labour government, he must have left sorely disappointed. Brown spoke on the final day of last week's annual conference of Britain's biggest public sector union.

He was given a polite welcome, and in his speech he tried to put a left wing gloss on the record of the government. Brown laid into Tory leader William Hague's plans to privatise the health service.

But that didn't wash with delegates. "A waste of time," "Underwhelming," and "It bore no relation to reality," were some of the responses to Brown.

"We live with the daily reality of bed cuts, job losses and attacks on conditions. That is what the government's Private Finance Initiative means. New Labour is creating the Private Health Service," said one delegate.

The leadership of the union took the disillusion with New Labour for granted. So, speaking in a debate about US union-busters operating in Britain, the NEC's Chris Tansley said, "Stephen Byers told us such union busting was unlikely to happen. He might as well have said, 'Teletubbies love pink custard'."

The leadership knew it had to reflect at least some of the members' disillusion with the government. But it also attacked those who wanted the union to take stronger action against the government.

Outrageously, the NEC opposed an emergency motion calling for the union to back the national demonstration in defence of asylum seekers. The motion was defeated. This was despite the fact that UNISON general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe attended a rally at the conference in support of asylum seekers.

But the leadership did not get things all its own way. There was uproar when the executive tried to ram through changes to the union's disciplinary rules. The executive failed to get the measures through. And at a fringe meeting Salford Labour MP Hazel Blears and Tony Robinson, actor and newly elected Labour NEC member, introduced a video, "What has the Labour government done for me?" which was very mildly critical of the government.

They were taken aback when, in the discussion, 13 Labour Party members stood up and one by one slammed the government's record on everything from asylum seekers, to selling off council housing stock, to the NHS.


PFI can be stopped

THE GOVERNMENT'S privatisation plans can be beaten. Health secretary Alan Milburn has been forced to put on hold the signing of the PFI deal at central London's UCLH hospitals. This was supposed to be a flagship PFI project.

But Milburn is refusing to sign the deal for a �920 million super-hospital to replace existing hospitals because it could cause huge political embarrassment. The PFI project run by a private consortium, the Health Management Group, would mean cutting the number of beds by 125. Health workers at UCLH have long fought to highlight the disastrous consequences of PFI.

Staff struck for two weeks last year for better terms and conditions for ancillary staff transferred to the new consortium. The strike won better transfer terms than at any other hospital in the country. Now workers at the Dudley Group of Hospitals in the West Midlands face a similar battle.

Over 500 UNISON union members at the trust have voted by 85 percent to take strike action to stop ancillary staff being transferred to Summit Healthcare. Summit is in charge of a PFI scheme which will mean up to 70 beds cut and the slashing of maternity and other services. On top of the strike vote, some 93 percent voted in favour of action short of a strike.

The ballot has already forced Summit Healthcare into a meeting with UNISON next Tuesday to renegotiate terms and conditions.

  • Donations and messages of support: Union Offices, Wordsley Hospital, Stourbridge, West Midlands D8 5QX. Phone/fax 01384 244 350.

Left unity

A fringe meeting 400- strong saw a broad layer of people, outside and inside the Labour Party, discuss the need for the left to organise inside the union. Geoff Martin, UNISON's London region convenor and Labour Party member, attacked the government over a range of issues, including its treatment of refugees.

"There is no point attacking the Tories for playing the race card but then accepting it when Labour plays snap. Lots of people are running around saying the class war is over. What Blair means is that as far as he is concerned the big City bonus boys have won and the single parent living halfway up a tower block has lost." United Left meetings are now planned in ten of the union's 13 regions.


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Sat 24 Jun 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1702
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