Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Time is short to save our NHS

The NHS as we know it faces full-scale privatisation unless MPs and peers see sense and respect the wishes of the British public by throwing out the pro-privatisation Health and Social Care Bill, writes Len McCluskey in today’s Morning Star

The NHS was created in 1948 by Aneurin Bevan and since then has provided unbelievable advances in public health and medical treatment for working people and their families, free at the point of delivery to all those in need, regardless of income - or lack of it. Millions of people have seen their quality of life and longevity dramatically improve because of this state-funded health service.

Today the NHS, the envy of many developed countries, faces comprehensive dismemberment at the hands of the Tories and their Liberal Democrat ministerial allies, in favour of private health-care companies. It is very possible that within the next decade you will have to pay to visit to your GP. That's why this Bill should be scrapped immediately and a period of stability reintroduced into the health service.

Many commentators and pundits expect this shameful exercise to become law some time in the next six weeks. So time is very short for a final surge of public opinion to force MPs to examine their consciences and - more practicably - examine what may happen to their seats at the next election.

If this Bill passes it would be crystal clear by election time that the NHS had been sacrificed on the altar of the interests of the private health-care companies. And MPs would have to face the anger of the grandmother unable to obtain a hip operation when she needs it and the former miner unable to access adequate social care.

Waiting lists are already rising in the run-up to these "reforms" and the so-called £20 billion of "efficiency savings" demanded by Andrew Lansley to soften the NHS up for privatisation. That's why today’s Unite Save Our NHS lobby of MPs is so important, as is the TUC-sponsored NHS rally in the evening.

A recent YouGov poll showed that six times as many people trust health professionals than David Cameron and Lansley (60 per cent against 10 per cent) over their health reforms. Now is the time for people to get really angry at what is happening to the NHS and express this to their MPs. Lobbying, protesting and tackling them when they hold their constituency surgeries should be the order of the day. And national civic activism needs to be reawakened - the spirit of protest must course through the veins of communities up and down the land.

The people must show that there is no hiding place for those MPs who have and will be voting in favour of this Bill. They must be called to account by their constituents now and later at the next general election. What Cameron and his hapless Health Secretary have done is almost unique in the politics of health - they have united such wide-ranging bodies as the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing and the trade unions representing NHS staff in opposition to this discredited legislation.

Cameron promised in the run-up to the May 2010 general election that the NHS was safe in his hands, but within six weeks of stepping into Downing Street, Lansley was unveiling his blueprint for privatisation. Cameron's PR spiel has been shown to be hollow and cheap. But what did you expect from this quintessential old Etonian Tory insider?

The secretive nature of the government's proposals has been highlighted by its defiant refusal to make public the risk register into the impact of the health Bill on services, which was drawn up by its own Department of Health civil servants. The fact that the government has preferred the cloak of secrecy over transparency and honesty with the electorate can only lead to one conclusion - that Cameron and Lansley have something to hide. Is the risk register so damning that, like Count Dracula, it can't see the light of day?

Earlier this week we saw the government's appeal against the Information Commissioner's decision to uphold freedom of information requests from Labour MP John Healey and London's Evening Standard being heard at the information tribunal. Cameron is haemorrhaging trust over the health Bill with public disquiet growing each day the government fights to keep the risk register secret. People have a right to know what damage these so-called reforms will do to their NHS.

The government's secrecy begs the question of who comes first - the people who pay for and use the NHS or corporate consultants like McKinsey which drafted the Bill and stand to make 1980s-style "loadsamoney" from Cameron's privatisation plans? The YouGov poll revealed that nearly 70 per cent of those canvassed wanted the risk register published, with demands for openness being particularly strong among Liberal Democrat supporters.

The government's refusal to publish the register points to a recognition that its reforms will risk patient care and cost millions to implement - taxpayers' money which should be spent on patient care. Already intricate layers of bureaucracy are being proposed to assist in the birth of this Bill.

Fight now to save the NHS - or you will lose it forever in the cauldron of US-style "pay-as-you-go" health care.

Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite