One of the constants in UK public life is that pretty much everyone loves free healthcare on the NHS. Nobody wants to turn up to A and E with blood spurting out of somewhere, only to be turned away because it's the day before pay day and you're overdrawn. Even the idea of paying ten pounds to see a doctor gets a thumbs down from voters, and even politicians who wish the NHS was more like the American health service have to admit that virtually everyone disagrees with them.
Strange then, that a Tory Health Minister going to hold a behind closed doors, late night meeting on the future of the NHS sponsored by private health company Bupa at the upcoming Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Health Minister George Freeman is scheduled to speak at the "invitation only" event, which will float the idea of making people pay to go to the doctor.
After Labour brought their A-game, NHS-saving chat to their party conference this week, the Conservatives will no doubt want to use their conference to prove that they are also huge fans of the country's biggest employer. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham gave the Labour conference's best-received speech declaring that Labour would make the NHS "not for sale", put "people before profit" and "free the NHS from David Cameron's market".
After Burnham's speech, Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt Tweeted, "Andy Burnham talked about NHS privatisation that isn't happening". This denial seems to be undermined by one of his own ministers attending a Bupa funded meeting to discuss charging people to use the NHS at his party's own conference.
The Bupa-funded meeting, which takes place at 10 o'clock on Monday night in one of the conference hotels, is organised by a Think Tank called the Social Market Foundation. The funding of Think Tanks is pretty opaque, but they are often bankrolled by corporations. Since they propose policies and set up meetings like the one on Monday, they're widely seen as a way for corporations to weigh in on politics without having to make it too obvious.
Tamasin Cave, director of Spinwatch, and co-author of A Quiet Word, Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, told me, "Bupa is extremely careful in public about not being seen to undermine the NHS, but in private it's a different matter. It has long supported 'top-up payments' for NHS services, like seeing your GP. 'Top-up' payments inevitably lead to 'top-up' insurance products." Topping up is when you by extra services on top of NHS ones you're already entitled to.
Tamasin continued, "Free-market Think Tanks, like SMF, have also long been useful mouthpieces for the private health insurance industry. SMF were banging the same drum for BUPA and Standard Life in 2009. Everyone in lobbying knows that this is how it works: distrusted corporations pay Think Tanks to front lobbying campaigns. It's an open secret. They are lobbyists. The Think Tank produces a report, hosts ministers and pushes the corporation's line in the media."
The Social Market Foundation (SMF) offer prospective sponsors both access to ministers and a chance to design the discussion. I got my hands on some SMF marketing documents aimed at sponsors like Bupa. They tell these firms that their "Strong links with each of the three main parties enable us to involve top politicians in our debates". The SMF has both top Tories like George Osborne and David Willets on their "advisory board", as well as some Labour figures like Chuka Umunna MP, the Shadow Business Secretary.
The SMF, "offer an excellent standard of service to our sponsors" including the chance to "help shape the key questions for debate" - that is, corporations can pay to help decide what the Think Tank thinks.
The Tory conference meeting looks like it has been very specifically shaped in Bupa's interest. Nigel Keohane, the director of the Social Market Foundation is scheduled to speak at the meeting. Keohane is currently arguing that we should as a minimum introduce charges for seeing our GPs. He says the NHS could "muddle through" its current funding crisis like this: "We could declassify some more NHS services; we could introduce charging for GPs or an annual NHS subscription".
"Declassifying" NHS services means stopping them being free. In the past, David Cameron has warned that "the principle we all hold dear, and we all want to keep, of free healthcare for all who need it, when they need it - that precious principle [is] coming under threat". So, it's worth noting that the principle is not so dear to the guy hosting a health minister on Monday.
Keohane says that, "Charging for GP appointments would get us pretty much what we are looking for to fill the immediate £2 billion gap in 2015." He actually suggests that this the least government should do, and ministers should consider more "revolutionary" solutions about "commissioning" health services, implying charges for hospital treatment.
Bupa are one of the UK's biggest private healthcare companies. The SMF proposals would help their business in two major ways. Firstly, Bupa offer their own direct-to-patient commercial health services - in other words, they charge patients who don't want to queue for the NHS to be seen by their doctors. If the NHS begins to charge, Bupa will get more patients because paying for doctors would be a normal thing, and less the preserve of a few well off people.
Secondly, Bupa also run private contracts for the NHS: Bupa have just won a £235 million contract to run orthopaedic services for the NHS in Sussex, which will drive income to the firm, but starve local NHS hospitals of money. The Tory conference meeting is titled "Person-centred care: How to integrate health and social care". For Bupa, this integration of care for the old and chronically sick can mean many more contracts like the Sussex deal, handing slices of the NHS to themselves and other private sector health firms.
Because it takes place at party conference, Bupa will be able to meet George Freeman without any Civil Servants hanging around taking notes. The "Ministerial Code" says there must be an official record of all meetings between ministers and "external organisations". These rules, designed to police lobbying, do not apply during party conferences. So, the event will take place without any record of who says what to whom.
The late night meeting is "invitation only". I asked if I could attend but The Social Market Foundation told me, "Unfortunately this event has been heavily over subscribed and at this time I am unable to offer you a place at this event".
The Social Market Foundation tried to hold a similar event at the last Labour conference but could not persuade any Labour shadow Minister, or even any Labour MP, to be a speaker. Presumably Labour's PR SPADs sussed the field day journalists would have if Andy Burnham went straight from his anti-privatisation speech into a meeting with a private health firm. George Freeman, the Tory who is attending the meeting, is one of the junior and least-known Health ministers, which suggests even the Conservatives were too savvy to let a more high-profile figure meet with Bupa.
The SMF's Nigel Keohane has admitted that his charge-for-GPs plan, "might horrify those who hold onto the principle that NHS services should be free at the point of use," which is a vast majority of people in the country, including 90 percent of nurses.
Despite the idea being about as popular as a colonoscopy, Bupa have been able to pay to make sure that the idea is discussed behind closed doors with a Minister at the Conservative Party Conference.
More from the party conferences: