The defeat of Jeremy Hunt’s plans can lay the foundations for real change under a Corbyn-led government
In 2018 the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday. The creation of the NHS was based on the central principle that the new health service would be available to all and financed entirely from taxation. This meant that people would pay into the service according to their means, but would receive health care according to their needs.
This principle has been under sustained attack for almost thirty years. The neoliberal consensus that grew out of the Thatcher government is that progressive taxation is both immoral and counterproductive.
Jeremy Hunt, no matter how many times he denies it, wants to see the NHS privatised. The systematic reduction of direct NHS funding under Hunt has been about preparing the service for privatisation, with staff costs at a minimum and the influence of trade unions negligible.
Wholly owned companies
Some 35 NHS trusts are creating “wholly owned companies” to which their non-clinical staff – porters, cleaners and estates staff – will have their employment transferred. “Wholly owned” is the chosen description because ownership by the trusts disguises the vulnerability of these companies to market forces and takeover.
Specious arguments to justify the use of WOCs include the argument that the companies can reclaim VAT. This is preposterous. Why should the government agree to tax avoidance when the NHS relies on public funds? Furthermore the government could allow the trusts to reclaim VAT if it chose to. Labour is rightly insisting that the tax loophole be closed.
The real reason for setting up WOCs is that it allows the companies to drive down wages and destroy the NHS conditions of employment, thus making a takeover much more inviting to the private sector. Trust managers frame their plans with expensive business consultants behind closed doors.
Although staff who face losing their NHS badge have been told that their wages, conditions and pension rights will be safe, this is only for five years. And new recruits need not be taken on with the same contract of employment. Zero hours contracts, refused access to the NHS pension and less pay for new staff could create a two-tier workforce. Management will look to replace established staff with the cheaper option and bullying is likely to be endemic.
Furthermore there is nothing to say that these companies cannot be sold on if they become unprofitable. No doubt Virgin Health Care will be only too happy to take over former NHS assets at a knock-down price.
Clinical staff who are not transferred to the new companies will suffer too. They will be left to ponder when their employment will be transferred across. Their pension fund may be starved of funds and become unviable if the new recruits are not paying in. New contracts will mean new working practices and if porters and cleaners are under-supplied clinical staff will be forced to do their work to maintain standards of care.
Richard Burgon, Labour MP for Leeds East, responded to privatisation plans in Airedale and Harrogate by saying, “I believe these plans should be scrapped and I am calling on the Trust to consult widely with their staff and with the public so the dangers of the proposed subsidiary company are widely known. 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”
Fighting to save the NHS in Doncaster
When some staff at Doncaster Royal Infirmary were informed that their employment was to be transferred to a WOC local campaigners were quick to respond.
Staff met with activists from Doncaster Trades Council, the Peoples’ Assembly and Momentum. A public meeting has been arranged, and the May Day march, the first for some thirty years, is being organised to defend our NHS. This has had an effect.
Management suddenly felt the need to deny that there is a WOC already formed, or that one would be formed. Apparently the senior manager who said otherwise had ‘jumped the gun’ and got it wrong.
The health unions, the staff and the campaigners don’t believe a word of it. Now an online petition calling for Doncaster and Bassetlaw Trust to abandon their plans is reaching NHS staff across the region. Community activists are responding and there is pressure on the three Doncaster Labour MPs to get behind the campaign.
Union reps are getting involved and it looks like there will be a fightback over this underhand plot. A meeting with a Unison full-timer mapped out how the public campaign to defend the NHS from privatisation can work with the union’s efforts to mobilise staff in the hospital.
The need for national action
The creation of WOCs across the country has put huge strain on union resources. Fulltime officers in Yorkshire have cases in Leeds, Sheffield, York, Doncaster, Barnsley and Hull to deal with. The workload is enormous and management are setting the timetable of privatisation.
The need for a national ballot and meaningful action is as obvious as it was in the Junior Doctors strike. A national campaign would have the enormous advantage of hitting the Tories and showing their responsibility for the NHS crisis and their hand in latest privatisation onslaught.
In a national campaign the need to get out and organise solidarity would get people involved and start to bring the NHS staff into united action with the service users and campaigners. This could be social trade unionism on a grand scale.
National action would also put pressure on the Blairites in the PLP who want rid of Jeremy Corbyn.
It was Alan Milburn, the Blairite Minister for Health who used private wealth to sustain the NHS and willingly introduced the market into the service. The result was the creation of NHS Trusts that recruited the very managers from the private sector who are now taking the NHS into private hands.
The Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) that Blair used to pay for schools and hospitals have left debts to private companies of some £209 billion.
The defeat of Hunt’s plans to privatise our NHS by the backdoor can lay the foundations for real change under a Jeremy Corbyn led government.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.