No Labour U-turn on private sector

Labour's NEC defied the party, narrowly voting to continue private-sector NHS provision. Edward Davies reports

NHS reforms to bring in private companies are going ahead as planned following the tightest of votes at the Labour Party confer-ence and despite huge opposition from the wider party.  

In a key health vote in Manchester last week, conference delegates passed a motion condemning the ‘breakneck speed of change in the NHS’ and seemingly crushed the government’s plans.  

But behind the scenes, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), where the real decisions are made, squeezed through a motion approving the use of the private sector to provide NHS treatment by just 16 votes to 15. The committee later released a state-ment confirming that it backed reforms, but promising greater consultation.  

Health secretary Patricia Hewitt told conference delegates that the NHS was in a ‘challenging period’ and that refusal to make difficult decisions now would result in even harder decisions further down the line.  

But her appeal to oppose the slowing of reform was ignored by the wider party, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Unison motion condemning the rapid speed of change in the NHS. The vote sent out a strong message but will not alter policy.  

‘Tory agenda’  

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, who proposed the motion, accused the government of a ‘Tory agenda’.  

The motion called upon the government to ‘rethink the headlong rush to a competitive system’ and warned that ‘immense damage is being done to some local services because of deficits and the breakneck speed of change’.   

Mr Prentis received support from a number of other speakers. GMB national officer Sharon Holder said NHS staff were alienated by health reforms.  

‘They are fed up with competition, fed up with the private finance initiative (PFI), and fed up with privatisation,’ she said.  

Mr Prentis’ motion also followed a letter in national newspapers from a group called NHS Together, encompassing all health service unions. The letter, signed among others by BMA chairman James Johnson, said that the speed of change meant there was no time to assess its impact.  

‘We are not opposed to change when genuine improvements can be demonstrated,’ it said. ‘But reforms should be tested first. We want an end to the fragmentation of our health system, which is hindering the ability of health professionals to carry out their duties to the best of their ability and threatening patient safety.  

‘We are calling on the govern-ment to enter into immediate and meaningful discussions with health trade unions and patient groups to halt the damage being done to the health service.’  

That sentiment was later echoed by Liberal Democrat spokesman Professor Steve Webb, who claimed that ‘the government is pressing ahead dogmatically without stopping to see whether its reforms are actually improving patient care’.  

However, the debate was not all one way. Ms Hewitt said there were limits to the role of the private sector in the NHS, and defended the government’s record. She told the conference that the government could not turn its back on the £1 billion she said would be made available to the health service as a consequence of the decision to outsource NHS Logistics to German parcel firm DHL.  

Kent GP Dr Rav Seeruthun also warned delegates not to let their objections get in the way of patient care and accept that private-sector involvement was sometimes necessary.  

Unions attacked  

Following the vote, the unions’ stance was attacked by MP Gisela Stuart (Edgbaston), who defended NHS buildings being built under PFI.  

‘What matters is patients, and how we can provide them with the best hospital facilities, the best staff and best treatment,’ she said. ‘PFI is the only realistic way to provide these things.’  

So it would seem that only a change of leadership will bring about a change in privatisation policy — but do not hold your breath. The Conservative Party released a statement following the vote that said Labour had not introduced enough competition.  

‘Patricia Hewitt would not have this problem if she had listened to our advice and created genuine competition, not preferential competition,’ claimed shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley.  

If you are hoping that the prime minister’s likely successor Gordon Brown will oversee a turnaround next year, you may well be disappointed.  

The NEC’s vote to push on with reform was only secured after the chancellor managed to persuade two members of the committee to switch their votes, according to a number of newspaper reports.  

The Labour party, as it promised at the last general election, appears to have no reverse gear.  

NHS policy  

Labour Party health votes  

Conference condemns ‘breakneck speed of change in the NHS’.  

But NEC approves use of the private sector to provide NHS treatment. 

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