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Shadow Health Secretary in Lancaster to address the NHS crisis


Jon Ashworth, Shadow Secretary for Health
Jon Ashworth, Shadow Secretary for Health
Chris Satori

The Labour Party hosted a talk for its members by Shadow Secretary for Health Jon Ashworth last Friday. Ashworth gave a damning critique of the current government's handling of the crisis it had created in public healthcare and attributing the current crisis in A&E and suspension of elective surgery appointments to the government's extreme ideological position on publicly owned services, leading to mismanagement and underfunding. He outlined Labour's plans for bringing sustainability back to a publicly-owned National Health Service.

Ashworth congratulated Lancashire County Councillor Lizzie Collinge on her selection as Labour's candidate for the Morecambe & Lunesdale constituency in the next general election and asked local people to give her every support, as a better government under Labour was the only way to prevent the loss of the NHS. 

He noted that the crisis was being blamed on 'old people' but in fact since its inception the NHS had averaged a 4% uplift in its funding year on year to cope with inflation and demand - until the Conservatives came into power 8 years ago, since which it has had barely a 1% uplift.  Additional heavy cuts to local community social and health care services have contributed to an increase in hospital admissions of elderly and vulnerable patients. However the government has afforded tax reductions for the better off.

Over the last 8 years there had been a loss of over 14,500 hospital beds in England and there are currently 100,000 staff vacancies, of which 40,000 are nurse vacancies. For the first time more nurses are currently leaving the service than joining it. Over 560,000 patients were left waiting on trolleys in A&E for over 4 hours in the last year alone and over 100,000 left waiting in ambulances. Junior doctors were working up to 90 hours a week and staff across the board were finding themselves having to do unpaid overtime to try to maintain the care of vulnerable patients. Elective (planned) surgery is still cancelled altogether as resources have had to be diverted to accident and emergency needs. 

Ashworth pointed out that despite the rubble and devastation of WW2 the NHS was founded to create a more civilised society and to address the issues of health inequality. However health inequality is again widespread, with hospital beds occupied by patients suffering from malnourishment having doubled since the Conservatives were elected into power.  

He also pointed out several instances of private contracts that had failed due to companies underbidding to win contracts and then being unable to provide adequate services. Contract anomolies were widespread, for example a Brighton company won an NHS transport contract despite the fact it had no vehicles. Although the service was terminated the CLG is still paying the contractor. Virgin Care had been able to obtain a costly out of court settlement after it sued the NHS for its failure to win a contract. 

Ashworth made a number of promises of what Labour would do when elected to address the problems:

1. Labour would inject an immediate £5bn into the NHS to address the current crisis.

2. Labour would stop the flow of money flooding out of the NHS into the private sector

3. Labour would put an end to outsourcing and end outstanding PFI contracts. 

4. They would end the public sector pay cap and bring back the training bursary

5. They would repeal the Health & Social Care Bill and its associated privatisation legislation

6. They would ban junk food advertising and invest in child health services

7. They would increase taxation for the top 5%

One member of the audience pointed out that she had worked as a nurse in the NHS for over 40 years, and had just learned that the service she works for has been contracted over to Virgin Care. She was deeply upset that her career of public service would end in employment by a private contractor who has actually sued the NHS. 

Charity money reallocated to outsource providers

Retired MP and MEP Leslie Huckfield also explained to the meeting that £300m of government funding for privatisation studies was drawn from 'dead accounts', ie bank accounts left unclaimed by deceased or untraceable account-holders and also from charities that have dissolved without reallocating their funds. It seems unlikely that this is what charities collected this money for. £30m of National Lottery money intended for 'good causes' has also been channelled into services promoting outsource providers. 

Huckfield pointed out that the contracting process also 'marketised' social and mutual (coop) enterprises forcing them to join the underbidding process regardless of the realistic costs of adequate service. This led to jobs and skills being cut or farmed out unsustainably to volunteers. The marketisation process led to anomolies such as the 'end of life' service contract in Sandwell which offered payment per the number of patients who died at home, and while there is no suggestion that this affected individual practice, in fact the contract incentivised hastening the process. 

The Cooperative model of public ownership

Cheryl Barrett of the Cooperative Party talked about the means by which the process of Labour Governments creating public assets and the Conservative governments selling them off privately could be halted, by creating public assets along lines of real mutual public ownership, which would require a referendum to dissolve. She is campaigning for a potential arrangement by which people would pay 'contributions' towards and draw benefits from services they co-owned in a real sense, rather than taxation, which the government could reallocate at will. The Cooperative Party is aligned with the Labour Party and it is possible to be a member of both at the same time. 

Local Conservative City Councillor Charlie Edwards (Bare Ward) issued a statement last month condemning Labour's stance on the NHS crisis as fake news and a 'campaign to tell doctors and nurses that they were terrible at their jobs'.  He said 'In my role I see the effect the politics has on healthcare: destruction of morale, loss of public confidence and a constant drone of "the Government needs to give us more money."

He went on to say: "We need a campaign for change in our NHS, we need a smarter way of working with the money we've got. There is still waste in the NHS, starting with our staff: too many political activists with part time jobs in our supposedly apolitical healthcare profession.'