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The Government Is Blocking Our Right to Find Out Their Plans for the NHS

Jeremy Hunt and his NHS-privatising friends are using the idea of "safe spaces" to refuse Freedom of Information requests.

by Solomon Hughes
25 February 2016, 6:00am

A junior doctor protesting against changes to the NHS (Photo by Chris Bethell)

The Department of Health is trying to hide details of meetings between Jeremy Hunt and his ministers with leading NHS privatisers in what they call a "safe space" beyond the Freedom of Information Act.

Students and so-called "social justice warriors" have come in for a lot of ridicule recently for wanting to be "special snowflakes" hiding in their "safe spaces", free from racist or sexist language. There's a whole South Park episode, in fact, mocking people who don't want to be trolled. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt has been creating a "safe space" for himself and his NHS-privatising friends, free from the slings and arrows of nosey journalists or interested citizens.

In 2010, the government announced they would release details of Ministers' meetings, called "Transparency Data", on a quarterly basis. In 2015, data on Health Ministers' meetings was badly delayed, before finally being released as part of huge government "data dumps" in the days before Christmas, which included bad news about cuts to services, new policies and so on. Critics said the government was trying to "bury bad news" in a "blizzard of information so that embarrassing news is hidden in the avalanche".

VICE waded through that avalanche and put in eight separate Freedom of Information requests for more information about Health Ministers' meetings with health privatisation companies like Virgin Care. We received a single response for all the separate inquiries. The answer was, basically, "no": the government would not release any documents relating to the meetings.

Officials decided that "the balance of public interest is against disclosure" in every case because "there is a very strong public interest in ensuring that there is a safe space within which Ministers and senior officials are able to discuss issues freely and frankly. Putting this information in the public domain would mean that officials may be impeded from offering full and frank advice in the future, potentially resulting in poorer decision making and public services." In other words: the public can't know what we said in case they don't like it. This is a safe space from democracy.

The refusal letter makes clear that Jeremy Hunt and his Ministers want "to discuss policy options" with private health corporations.

The original Freedom of Information act makes no mention of safe spaces. It does say that documents relating to the "formulation of government policy" can be kept confidential, but this was previously seen as meaning actual policy advice in the run-up to a new act or law, rather than any general discussion with private companies.

Now, in a concerted attempt to tame the Freedom of Information Act, the government has started to use the idea of "safe spaces". Last July, the government set up a "Commission to Review the Freedom of Information Act". Central to the commission was the idea of the "safe space". The terms of reference for the Commission say they should consider "whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a 'safe space' for policy development and implementation and frank advice".

The commission has been heavily criticised because it includes Jack Straw, a former Labour minister who had a very poor record on Freedom of Information when he was in office. This latest response from the Department of Health shows that the government is trying to use the "safe space" argument, even before Straw's commission reports back with its findings.

Health Minister Jeremy Hunt (Photo via Policy Exchange)

In the past, government departments would typically give out some documents about Ministers' meetings in response to Freedom of Information requests – briefing documents, post-meeting emails and other paperwork, which would give an idea about what was being discussed. Within this new "safe space" construct, these are the meetings going undercover.

The government's pre-Christmas data-dump was, nevertheless, enough to tell us what meetings happened, even if we can't know their agendas. Looking at the meetings that took place is enough to discern that a dialogue on privatisation is taking place.

In September of 2015, Jeremy Hunt met with unnamed executives from Ramsay Healthcare for an "introductory discussion". Ramsay Healthcare is Australia's biggest health operator, but since 2007 it has been trying to grow in Britain by winning NHS privatisation contracts.

According to Ramsay UK's latest annual report, "Growth continues to be driven by NHS volumes, which now account for 73.4 percent of admissions". In other words: the firm is almost entirely dependent on taking operations from out of NHS hospitals and into their facilities. The report also says Ramsay's "Executive team... recognise the importance of maintaining strong relationships" with "NHS Commissioners and Government" – the sort of relationship that a no holds barred chat in a "safe space" would probably grease the wheels of pretty nicely.

In September of 2015, Health Minister David Prior had an "introductory meeting" with Graham Eccles and Bart Johnson of Virgin Care. Lord Prior is Minister for NHS "productivity". He is in charge of "overall commissioning policy" for the NHS and all NHS finance – that is, he is the key minister for NHS privatisation.

Richard Branson's Virgin Care has been chasing NHS contracts since 2010. Health Minister Lord Prior met Virgin Care's Chairman, Graham Eccles – a former train manager who helps run Virgin Trains – and their Chief Executive Bart Johnson.

This January, a few months after meeting Prior, Virgin Care won a £126 million, four-year contract to run NHS hospitals.

Management Consultants from KPMG have been instrumental in driving forward NHS privatisation. In June of 2015, Jeremy Hunt had a meeting with unnamed officials from KPMG for a "Catch Up Discussion on global health". In June of 2015, Health Minister David Prior had two meetings with KPMG. The Department of Health would not say which KPMG execs met Jeremy Hunt, but they did say that Mark Britnell, Chairman of KPMG's "Global Health Practice", led the delegation to meet Lord Prior.

In case there's any doubt that KPMG want an American-style, privatised health service, Britnell told investors at a 2009 US health investment conference that "In future, the NHS will be a state insurance provider, not a state deliverer." Britnell also said, "The NHS will be shown no mercy," as its work is taken over by private firms, according to a brochure for the conference published by the Observer. Britnell said his comments had been taken out of context. Parker and Amos were also at that meeting.

The Tories insist we can trust them with the NHS. If we really can, you'd think they'd be happy for us to hear the details of their meetings, rather than locking themselves in a "safe space", hiding from what they seem to think is the danger of public scrutiny.

@SolHughesWriter

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