Is that it for the NHS?

Peter Roderick

The National Health Service in England is being dismantled. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the radio or reading the newspapers. As so often, you have to look beyond the headlines about pressures on funding and the junior doctors’ dispute to find out what’s really going on. In 1990, Kenneth Clarke introduced an internal market into the NHS, following on from the ‘options for radical reform’ set out by Oliver Letwin and John Redwood in 1988. It had three pillars: GP fund-holding (delegating budgets to individual GP practices); the replacement of health authorities by ‘NHS trusts’ (self-governing accounting centres with borrowing powers, and their own finance, human resources and PR departments) and the splitting of purchasers from providers (the planning and delivery of services was to be undertaken by separate bodies, with the money flowing between them). In its 1997 manifesto, New Labour promised to ‘end the Tory internal market’. It did get rid of GP fund-holding (only to reintroduce it later as Practice Based Commissioning), but otherwise took the Tories’ ideology even further by introducing, in 2003, the market-oriented ‘NHS foundation trusts’ and their regulator, Monitor, as well as scaling up the Private Finance Initiative. Clarke was able to say on the sixtieth birthday of the NHS in 2008 that ‘in the late 1980s I would have said it is politically impossible to do what we are now doing.’

Then came Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act 2012. No longer does the government – or anybody else – have a legal duty to provide hospital services throughout England. The hundred or so NHS trusts were all prospectively abolished, and a plan set out to transform them (if not to close them down or sell them off) into foundation trusts. The 150 or so foundation trusts had their private patient income cap abolished and were permitted to receive 49 per cent of their income from non-NHS sources. About 113 private providers have since been licensed by Monitor, and tendering for services has been made virtually compulsory. ‘Public health’ has been carved out of the NHS, and shared between local and central government. Meanwhile, Lansley, having stood down as an MP before the election in May, has been given a peerage and hired as a consultant to Bain & Company, which, according to its website, ‘helps leading healthcare companies work on the full spectrum of strategy, operations, organisation and mergers and acquisitions’. The appointment at Bain was signed off in July 2015 by Baroness Browning, who chairs the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – herself a consultant to Cumberlege, Eden and Partners, ‘a specialist consultancy to the health sector’ led by Baroness Cumberlege. You couldn’t make it up.

We are now at a crucial time in the wrecking process. Under the 2012 Act, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) buy services from providers, especially from NHS foundation trusts. But the trusts are no longer obliged to provide particular services. Since April 2013, their services have fallen essentially into two categories: Commissioner Requested Services (CRS), and the rest. Services designated as CRS are subject to ‘continuity of service’ restrictions on the trust’s ability to cut or alter them. Monitor has the power to make the trust provide CRS services for a specified period, but cannot stop them being cut once that period expires. Trusts also need to have Monitor’s consent before they sell off buildings and equipment used to provide CRS. Services that are not CRS are not subject to these restrictions. So the more services that are not designated as CRS, the more freedom an NHS foundation trust has to do what it likes – so long as 51 per cent of its income comes from NHS services.

When the 2012 Act was implemented, the services that foundation trusts had to provide under the previous rules were automatically designated CRS for three years, until April 2016, in their new licences. But Monitor said then that the planning and purchasing responsibilities of CCGs include ‘designating a range of services that local commissioners believe should continue to be provided locally if any individual provider is at risk of failing financially. We call these Commissioner Requested Services.’ CCGs are supposed to imagine that the foundation trusts they contract with could financially fail and to use a four-stage Designation Framework to come up with a new list of CRS by April 2016 on the basis of that imagining. ‘We expect the number of services that are designated as Commissioner Requested Services to decrease as a result’ of CCGs doing that, Monitor says, because if a trust goes bust it is expected to provide fewer services than it would otherwise. In other words, services that were mandatory until April 2013, and which for three years afterwards will have had some protection from ‘continuity of service’ conditions, are expected to decrease. This is an instance of applying powers supposed to ensure continuity in order to bring about discontinuity.

Halting the demise of the NHS in England won’t happen without a new law. The National Health Service Bill, scheduled to have its second reading in the House of Commons on 11 March next year, would prevent the specific sleight of hand I have described from going ahead, as well as reversing 25 years of marketisation. It was tabled in June by the Green MP Caroline Lucas, and is supported by Labour (including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell), as well as by Lib Dem, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs and the British Medical Association.

The question now is whether Labour under Corbyn will end its support for the market in the NHS and get behind the bill. The shadow health minister, Heidi Alexander, is still finding her feet, but the signs are not good. Unlike McDonnell, she has not brought in new political advisers. She is being advised by those who advised Andy Burnham, and judging from a meeting I had with her very recently New Labour thinking on the NHS is for now still very much in place. Ross McKibbin, writing in the LRB of 8 October, expected Corbyn’s leadership to end in tears. If that turns out to be the case, one reason may well be that Corbyn just wasn’t able to translate the support he has in the party into parliamentary backing.