Health spokespersons from four parties – Labour, Conservative, Lib-Dem and Ukip – took to the stage yesterday (April 21) to debate the future of the NHS at the British Medical Association.
As the election nears, what’s to be done about the NHS funding crisis and its organisation to ensure its long-term future is a debate that’s now more important than ever before.
But perhaps not so important for two of the parties, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt turning up to the debate several minutes late. He joined the panel with an opening joke, excusing himself for his tardiness : “I think we had a toxic, top-down reorganisation of London traffic that nobody voted for and nobody wanted” – a reference to his party’s own disastrous health and social care act.
Ukip’s official health spokesperson, Louise Bours MEP, didn’t even show, sending in her stead another Ukip MEP, Julia Reid.
Her party, one that has wavered on its stance towards NHS privatisation, vacillating from one position to its polar opposite, extended the tack it has taken only recently to shore up more votes as the election approaches.
In her opening remarks, Reid contended that Ukip is the only party that has accounted for the £3bn per year it hopes to spend on the NHS, in a painfully simplistic formulation – £8bn saved from withdrawing from the EU, £4bn by scrapping HS2 and £2bn in savings from putting a stop to “health tourism” by immigrants.
Never mind that Ukip itself revised the £2bn a year figure saved by non-UK nationals being barred access to the health service, downgrading savings to £500m in their first year and £900m in their second.
Even these lower figures have been officially contested, with the Department of Health estimating so-called “health tourism” to cost the public purse between £20m and £100m – a drop in the bucket considering the health service’s overall funding gap.
That Reid herself isn’t familiar with her own party’s manifesto demonstrates the extent to which Ukip’s leadership is scrambling with little more than two weeks left to go until May 7.
When pressed on whether Ukip sided with Labour in repealing the health and social care act – a coalition government piece of legislation that’s thrown open the floodgates for untrammelled NHS privatisation – Reid reluctantly agreed: “We would be, yes.”
Cut back to the party’s manifesto, however, and a different story emerges – only once is the act mentioned at all, and in the context of criticising Labour for its pledge to repeal it.
On the other hand, Labour is the only party that has, since the beginning, opposed the health and social care act, pledging to rescind part 3 of the act which requires the NHS to competitively tender contracts.
“If you allow this market experiment to advance into the heart of the NHS, you will in the end destroy everything that’s precious about it,” shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said at the debate. “It will in the end break it apart.”
Burnham noted a hospital in the south of England which went against planned privatisation.
“[It] recently stopped privatisation of its musculoskeletal services in the 11th hour because they realised that if they were allow it to go out to the private sector, the finances of the trust would be fundamentally unviable,” he said.
“Evidence from around the world will tell you that market-based healthcare systems cost more – not less – than national systems like the NHS.”
Ukip’s stance on privatisation of the NHS saw Reid broach—albeit awkwardly—the issue of TTIP, an EU- US trade deal whose passage could signal irreversible privatisation of the health service.
“Ukip are the only party that is committed not to vote for Ukip,” she said, before the presenter Sarah Montague corrected her, saying she meant “TTIP”.
It was an unfortunate, if not telling, slip of the tongue. After all, it’s Ukip’s own confused and confusing leadership that will ultimately drive voters away from its party in two weeks’ time.
And what of the claim that Ukip is the “only party” committed not to voting for Ukip..err..TTIP?
The party’s manifesto pledge only goes as far as to exclude the NHS from TTIP, a move that Reid puzzlingly said was “not possible”, yet again contradicting her own party’s platform. Reid went on to emphasise that Ukip would not sign TTIP, a pledge that’s completely absent from the manifesto.
Instead, the official party line on the trade agreement is couched only in anti-EU rhetoric.
“Fears of what TTIP might contain precisely illustrate why Ukip believes we should leave the EU and negotiate our own free trade agreements again,” the manifesto reads.
Ukip’s hypocrisy over TTIP was highlighted in a Left Foot Forward blog piece last week, in which staff writer Ruby Stockham noted:
“This is why UKIP’s manifesto pledge on TTIP is nothing to do with public concern, and instead demonstrates pure egotism. They do want the undemocratic TTIP deal; they just wish they had thought of it themselves.”
Ukip’s spokesperson again fumbled on another issue of heated debate in the health service – unacceptably low staff pay.
While Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt was forced to admit that he “could not make the commitment now [to no more real terms pay cuts]” because he “didn’t know the full situation”, a noncommittal Reid simply said real terms pay cuts were “unfair”. Asked about NHS executives being paid too much, her response – “Personally, I don’t know” but it would “need to be addressed somehow”.
It was only Labour’s Burnham who committed to no more real terms pay cuts decisively, who, when asked if he could stand by the pledge, said, “Yes I can.”
Burnham added, “Also, we must reinstate the independent pay review body stood down by Jeremy Hunt. How else do you get fairness in pay if ministers are imposing what they want rather than an independent process that judges what’s affordable for the NHS but what’s also fair to staff?”
‘Not my brief ‘
Hunt shot back a line he repeated throughout the debate, that the NHS funding gap could be dealt with exclusively on the wings of a “strong economy”. Ukip’s Reid seemed unabashedly clueless, at one point noting toward the end that health “wasn’t my brief”. Lib-Dem health spokesperson Norman Lamb waffled throughout, always agreeing with the various panelists and audience concerns but never getting to the point of what must be done to save the NHS.
It was only Burnham who took seriously the urgent crisis faced in the NHS, holding forth specific policies that would undo the worst of the Tories’ damage, including pledges on fair pay, an end to privatisation and integrating health and social care, with more funding for social care to stop the root of the crisis now faced by A&E.
“The NHS can’t go through another five years like the five years it has just had. The situation is far more dire than what has been recognised this morning. We need to take the politics out of the NHS and that means repealing the health and social care act. We’ve got to stop this drive towards privatisation and fragmentation. But more than anything and finally, we’ve got to do one simple thing – give something back to the staff that’s in short supply: hope.
Watch the full health debate here.