Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Scotland rejected NHS marketisation

Given the downward spiral of the NHS in England, we should give full credit to the Scottish Labour administrations who ensured that Scotland exited the road to health marketisation.

A few recent events made me think about the recent history of the NHS in Scotland. Firstly, the announcement that Malcolm Chisholm MSP is to retire at the next election. He was the Labour health minister who abolished NHS trusts in Scotland.

Secondly, an answer Nicola Sturgeon MSP gave at a recent UNISON referendum hustings comparing the NHS in Scotland and England. She didn't quite say that this was entirely down to the SNP, but those not aware of the history might have interpreted it that way. That's not to say that she wasn't a very good health minister herself and strongly opposed to marketisation. However, she was continuing the work of others. It also reflects the fact that there is not an ideological divide between Scottish Labour and the SNP on health.

Thirdly, a trip to our UK health conference reminded me just how bad NHS England is!

Following the 1997 general election Labour came into government and quickly initiated the devolution referendum that resulted in the first devolved administration in 1999. In April 1999 they set the path to reform by halving the number of NHS trusts in Scotland from 47 to 28. Susan Deacon was the first health minister and everyone was left in no doubt that the market was not the future for health care in Scotland. I spent some eighteen months on secondment to the health department during this period and then served on her advisory board. I'll be circumspect, as I am probably still covered by the Official Secrets Act and the key players are still alive, but let's just say there was some institutional resistance to the direction of travel!

None the less important steps were taken to build cooperation in the NHS rather than competition. Market testing was dropped and services started to come back in house. This included a new HR strategy (the primary reason for my secondment) that introduced partnership working into the NHS. A model that survives to this day and has been rated as probably the best of its type in the world.

At the end of 2001, Malcolm Chisholm took over as health minister and he took over the reform process that resulted in the NHS Reform Act of 2004. This Act formally abolished trusts and established a duty of cooperation. We had Community Health Partnerships for primary care and staff governance was given a statutory footing.

It is often said that Scottish Labour is dictated to by 'London Labour' - largely a myth in my extensive experience of the policy making process. However, it is certainly the case that when New Labour in England reintroduced elements of NHS marketisation there was pressure to follow the same model in Scotland. What is less well known is that Scottish Labour ministers resisted that pressure. I remember one Blairite special advisor in the run up to the UK general election complaining, that the Tories said if their reforms were so good why didn't the Scots adopt them - could we not just sound a bit like them? He was firmly told that the answer was, 'it's devolution stupid!'. However, part of the problem was that ministers were told not to highlight differences and as a consequence they have never got the credit they deserve.

The last Labour health minister, Andy Kerr, went against Gordon Brown's decision to defer a PRB award (topical again this month) and bought, what is now the Golden Jubilee Hospital, into public ownership. Even if he didn't appreciate our press release welcoming the hospital's 'nationalisation'!

The one issue that didn't get resolved was stopping the big PFI hospital projects that had been started and some smaller ones that joined the programme. Ministers like Malcolm Chisholm didn't like PFI, but they were told it was 'the only game in town', due to off balance sheet funding. Wrong in principle and practice and sadly a lesson not learnt to this day, as the present Scottish Government has one of the biggest PFI programmes in Europe.

The first two post devolution administrations didn't get everything right and certainly not over PFI. However, they made crucial decisions over a partnership approach to health through cooperation rather than competition. Health ministers like Susan Deacon, Malcolm Chisholm and Andy Kerr, supported by the wider cabinet, made these decisions and kept to this approach despite political pressure from elsewhere. When we see what's happening to the NHS in England, we should remember to say, thanks very much comrades!

Dave Watson

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