This week, Owen Smith used his latest speech in the Labour leadership race to highlight what he described as “secret” Tory plans to privatise the NHS. Public spending on private healthcare providers has, he pointed out, more than doubled since the Conservatives first came into coalition government in 2010.
It's certainly a good thing that this matter is finally being discussed openly. The Health & Social Care Act 2012 was indeed a privatisation act. Since the 2015 general election, the Government’s five year plan for health has explicitly stated that the NHS should be modelled on US-style “accountable or integrated healthcare”. Personal health budgets, which give patients control over how NHS money is spent on their own care and support, are being rolled out to pave the way for top-up insurance payments.
But there’s just one snag to the Labour leadership contender coming out as Labour’s top advocate of free public healthcare: Owen Smith is no champion of the NHS.
Smith spent five years working in big pharma – for some, the most troubling element of private influence in public medicine – spending part of that time as a corporate lobbyist. He was previously head of policy and government relations for Pfizer, world renowned as the manufacturer of Viagra. While working at Pfizer, he contested and lost a 2006 by-election. According to the Daily Telegraph, Owen had “boasted that Pfizer had been ‘extremely supportive’ of his aspirations to public office”. No wonder they were.
Smith went on to work as chief lobbyist in the UK for American biotech firm Amgen. While he was there, Amgen was battling a US investigation which saw the company eventually fined $762m for “pursuing profits at the risk of patient safety”.
Smith, now a defender of the NHS, previously made his money lobbying government on behalf of massive corporations with a vested interest in a more privatised healthcare system. And his record continued after becoming an MP. Soon after his election at the 2010 election, Smith stated that government ministers should offer more incentives for big pharma and warned that the use of cheaper, non-patent drugs by the NHS could affect the industry.
It is a remarkable transformation for Smith to now position himself as a champion of NHS staff and patients.
This is not just about linguistics, it really matters. The capture of policy making by a corporate elite is a big part of the democratic deficit in Britain today. The revolving door between businesses with huge corporate interests and every government department is very damaging to the ability of the Government to do its job well. In the case of the NHS, we have already seen a succession of health secretaries and ministers as well as the top levels of management going off to work in private healthcare.
In the past, we know that Smith has supported a Pfizer-funded report in favour of patient choice. The report spelled out what was meant by choice: direct payments for services and easier access for NHS patients to private sector healthcare.
On the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), Smith stated, “If PFI works, then let's do it…..I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances that get read into some of these things, and I think sometimes they are totally overblown.” I'm sorry, but that is disingenuous; there is plenty to get wound up about.
PFI was lobbied for intensively by the City of London – and for good reason. Banks and financial companies are making billions of pounds from public infrastructure. RBS and HSBC have controlling stakes in many NHS hospitals and in some cases own them outright. The UK has been left with more than £300bn in PFI debt.
On the use of the private sector in the NHS, Smith has said: “Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that's fine. I think if their involvement means in any way, shape or form the break-up of the NHS, then I'm not a fan of it, but I don't think it does.“
Again, that’s disingenuous. The use of private companies in the NHS has been wasteful and, on occasion, dangerous, with the NHS left to pick up the pieces.
Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (contesting the leadership election against Smith) and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are both signatories of the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which would restore the NHS as public healthcare system. Smith, on the other hand, was part of the shadow health team under former Labour leader Ed Miliband which was conspicuously silent on NHS privatisation. It, instead, moved in favour of devolution of health and what is known as “integrated care” – both of which are privatisation memes.
So while it’s great that we're talking about how the NHS is being sold off to corporations to profit from our illnesses, and how we are on the verge of an insurance system, don’t be fooled – Owen Smith is merely exploiting this issue to masquerade as a people's champion.
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