Nick de Bois is a Secretary of the 1922 Committee and MP for Enfield North.
In this New Year, we can expect to hear much more about the NHS from Labour. In fact, it’s probably all we will hear about from them: they want to make the election all about the health service – because they have nothing to say on the other issues. That’s why it’s important to burst their bubble about their claims about the privatisation of the health service.
In the penultimate PMQs exchange of 2014, the hypocrisy of Labour trying to paint the Conservatives as hell-bent on mass “privatisation” (their definition, not mine) of the NHS was there for all to see. You may recall that Labour complains that permitting third sector and private companies into the health service supply chain was “back door privatisation”.
But the total spend of health service contracts in this category has barely risen by one per cent…since Labour started the very same process. Andy Burnham and Ed Milliband clearly think they are onto a vote winner by pushing the narrative that the Conservatives are threatening the very existence of the NHS. And they are willingly supported by the medical profession’s trade union, the BMA, which once again shows themselves reacting against any innovation. (And let’s not forget that the BMA opposed the very founding of the NHS in the first place.)
None the less, the message is a potent one, and many people are all too willing to believe it. The health service raises passions, whatever political standpoint you take – which makes their deception even more of a threat unless it is firmly slapped down and exposed.
To be blunt, Labour’s positioning on the NHS is politics at its worst; playing with the politics of healthcare in order to shore up a flagging core vote before this spring’s general election. They are rallying troops to a fight for a cause that does not exist – and, worse, doing so in the full knowledge that they are not only deliberately deceiving the public, but also failing to deal with the key point that matters: health outcomes for anxious patients.
Nobody is privatising the NHS. Nobody wants to privatise the NHS. It remains (and will remain) free at the point of delivery, funded by general taxation. Labour deliberately use the language of privatisation to conjure up images of vulnerable people being fleeced of their credit card as they enter the hospital doors or when greeted by a GP’s intimidating receptionist. It’s a cynical strategy – played out on doorsteps across England by Labour politicians and wannabe MPs.
Even in my own constituency, in which the taxpayer is funding a £100 million re-build of a hospital without a penny of private finance capital, the myth of privatising healthcare is peddled to the public. The irony is that in my patch there are two neighbouring hospitals saddled with crippling PFI repayments as a result of Labour’s time in government.
Notwithstanding all of this, the broad base of the public would be justified in questioning why the central debate should be about who provides the healthcare (given it remains free at point of delivery) rather than whether it is accessible and, above all, good. The quality and safety of care is far more central to any meaningful debate about the NHS.
That under this Government the horrific failings in the healthcare system such as Mid Staffs have been exposed, and that raising standards and safety have been put at the heart of policy is critical to future confidence in the health service. That improvements in access to and the outcomes of treatments are freely available for examination and scrutiny, under the very transparent approach of this Government, is vital if both choice and integrity in the NHS are to be maintained.
Above all, there are improvements in treatments. Huge progress has been made in recent years. On cancer, Labour left us with some of the worst cancer survival rates in Western Europe. But recent figures show that 17,000 more patients are surviving it each year under this Government. Outcomes for many types of cancer are now improving; survival rates have never been higher and the NHS is seeing 51 per cent more patients with suspected cancer than it was in 2010. Other killer conditions, such as heart disease and stroke, show similar progress.
I don’t think people will look back and judge the overall success of the NHS on whether it is five or six per cent of providers that come from outside the NHS itself, but rather whether people are living longer than ever before. In 2012, the number of potential years of men’s lives lost by causes that can be dealt with by better healthcare was 3,100 per 100,000 population. This is a fall of 31 per cent since 2003. Similarly in 2012, the number of potential years of women’s life lost by causes that can be dealt with by better healthcare was 2,500 per 100,000 population. This is a fall of 27 per cent since 2003.
Of course there is much more to do – and it will be done. The sooner we turn the spotlight on these issues, the stronger the Conservative case will be for being trusted to run the NHS.