The government is refusing to tell us about a key NHS sell-off. Don’t let them get away with it

Ministers are dodging questions on the privatisation of a vital health service body - setting a dangerous precedent.

It’s the privatisation they’re trying to keep under wraps.

Last week, Left Foot Forward highlighted government plans to sell off NHS Professionals – a vital staffing body in the health service that provides last-minute or replacement staffing for nearly a third of NHS trusts in England.

The fact that all its savings are reinvested into the health service leads to millions of pounds in savings – as many hospitals don’t have to rely on expensive private agencies.

Yet the government is dodging questions about the sale.

On Monday, Caroline Lucas MP asked the Secretary of State for Health, Philip Dunne, what the timetable for the sell-off was. When would this crucial body – which we own – be flogged off to investors?

The Minister dodged the question.

She asked when there’d be a full public consultation. Again, the Minister dodged the question.

And she asked who was bidding for the 75% stake that the government is privatising. You guessed it. Nothing.

Instead, the Minister said:

“The Department is currently in confidential commercial negotiations with interested bidders and cannot comment further on the nature or identity of bids.”

Labour MP Heidi Alexander raised similar questions on Monday – and got almost exactly the same response.

Yet the Minister’s claim on why they’re selling NHS Professionals at all was almost comical.

“The minority stake retained by the Department would allow it to benefit from future increases in the value of the Company and give the Department a seat on the board and oversight of its plans and operations.”

The Department already profits off NHS Professionals, through the savings that the service creates for the NHS. A private company would demand 10-20% profit margins, which with a 75% stake would almost entirely go to them.

Meanwhile the health service would the vast majority all its potential savings from not going through private agencies. And on the point of a sale giving the Department a seat at the table – if the government have the power to sell-off the service, they certainly have the power to get a seat on the Board.

On the cost to the taxpayer of the privatisation – we won’t know anything (except that it’s already cost £2m, according to Unison) until after the fact. “The Department will disclose the full cost of the process upon its completion,” the Minister told Caroline Lucas MP. So that’s all right then.

It seems there’s been no consultation of NHS staff – let alone the public:

“NHS Professionals’ NHS clients, staff, representative unions, and registered workers have been kept advised of the potential sale process since its commencement in July 2016.”

‘Advised’ is an important word. There has been no formal consultation process. No surprise when the entire process is shrouded in secrecy.

Now, 50 MPs – and counting – are calling on the government to halt the sell-off of this vital NHS service.

At a time when the NHS is being forced to make ‘savings’ (despite rising demand) – effectively scrapping a major cost-saving organisation goes beyond short-sighted. It’s purely ideological.

But it’s difficult to fight something when so little is being revealed about it.

Thousands of people have asked their MPs to back the campaign by public ownership campaigners We Own It to halt the sale. If you care about the NHS, it’s worth backing.

More than that though, it’s in the interest of all of us that we do not allow secrecy when it comes to handing over our public services to private companies.

This isn’t just about the NHS – it’s about what the government can and can’t hide.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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