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Healthcare We must call a halt to the creeping privatisation of our NHS

Plans by Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust to set up a private company to employ NHS staff are symptomatic of a drive towards US-style healthcare, writes RICHARD BURGON

OUR NHS is Labour’s proudest achievement — a beacon of socialist principles put into practice. But its creeping privatisation continues apace.

Privatisation of our NHS is bad for patients, bad for staff and completely flies in the face of the founding principles of our NHS.

St James’s Teaching Hospital is in my Leeds East constituency. It’s a place that means a lot to me. I was born there and have, along with family and friends, benefited from it ever since. And it means a lot to the community in Leeds who are both patients and employees there. 

In recent weeks, committed NHS staff who work there have contacted me, along with Unison and other trade unions, to express their concern about plans by Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust to set up a private company to employ NHS staff.

Like other NHS trusts, management in Leeds wants to transfer 2,300 staff such as porters, cleaners, housekeepers, clinical engineers and those who work in procurement and supplies to a “wholly owned subsidiary company.”

Unison representatives met with me and asked me to back their campaign against the plans, which will create a two-tier workforce as new staff coming into the service will start on worse pay and conditions than existing staff.

NHS trusts in Airedale and Harrogate, where similar privatisation plans are proposed, have chosen to ignore the views of their staff who have grave concerns about their pay and working conditions in the future.

As an illustration of where this approach leads, I was appalled to see a bank porter’s job advertised at £8 an hour with basic pension and no unsocial hours payment by the new wholly owned company at Airedale Hospital. This is exactly what NHS staff are so worried about.

As a former trade union lawyer, I know that the Tupe regulations designed to protect pay and conditions if jobs are transferred can be easily changed for “economic, technical or organisational” reasons. 

NHS staff have been subjected to years of frozen pay and lost thousands of pounds in income and now they are being threatened with privatisation. 

This obviously damages morale and I am doing everything I can to persuade Leeds Teaching Hospitals to listen to staff and the public and drop this disastrous plan.

The creation of a two-tier workforce in large hospitals such as St James’s and Pinderfields could replicate the worst excesses of the private sector, with zero-hours contracts similar to those advertised at Airedale, including cuts to holiday entitlements and sick pay. 

It would make it harder to recruit and retain staff which will inevitably have a negative impact on standards of care for the people of Leeds. 

Hardworking NHS staff in Leeds and across the country deserve better than zero-hours contracts and inferior pay and pensions. And NHS patients deserve better than an NHS staffed on the cheap.

One of the reasons NHS trusts want to set up separate companies to employ staff is a loophole which allows subsidiary companies to reclaim VAT — something which NHS trusts are not allowed to do.

That’s one of the reasons why Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has written to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt demanding that the tax loophole be closed and all such back-door privatisation plans dropped. The government should act. Leeds NHS Teaching Hospitals Trust should listen.

Our NHS was created by a Labour government in the teeth of Tory opposition. The NHS shows that other ways of running society are possible. If we can successfully run healthcare in public hands then why not education, why not transport and why not energy?

We must reverse the drift towards a US-style healthcare system where they feel for your wallet before they feel for your pulse.

The Leeds NHS Teaching Hospitals Trust Board meets today — Thursday March 29. The trust should engage in a full public consultation regarding its back-door privatisation plans. Better still, it should drop them altogether. If they and other trusts in our region carry on regardless, many predict there may be strikes across the whole of West Yorkshire.

In politics, the local and the national should not be subjected to false separation. This local issue in Leeds is not a “one off.” It’s symptomatic of a wider issue not only by virtue of the fact that other NHS trusts elsewhere in the country are pursuing similar plans.

It’s symptomatic in relation to the fact it reflects both the marketisation and privatisation of our public sector more widely. As shadow justice secretary, I know all too well that the justice sector, with profiteering from the incarceration of human beings and the disastrous part-privatisation of probation, to cite just two examples, stands as evidence of the corrosive effects of privatisation.

And it’s also symptomatic in relation to the trend of falling wages and casualisation of employment in both the private and public sector.

Of course, both the privatisation and marketisation of our public services and the weakening of the position of workers in the economy and in society are key features of the neoliberal economic consensus which has ruled the roost in Britain for nearly 40 years.

As Jeremy Corbyn put it at the Labour Party’s Northern Conference just the other week: “Neoliberalism is an ideology that ruins communities and ruins lives. It’s an ideology that this government is still absolutely wedded to as they continue to wreak havoc with their incessant cuts.”

Labour led by Corbyn, with John McDonnell as our shadow chancellor, now stands firmly and unequivocally opposed to neoliberalism, which is a free market fundamentalism which serves the interests of the privileged few, not the many.     

The campaign to stop back-door NHS privatisation in Leeds is just one skirmish in a bigger battle — a battle to ensure all our public services are not privatised and to ensure that workers are fairly rewarded and that the situation of working people and their families goes forwards, not backwards in our society.



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