So the latest Tory wheeze to commercialise the NHS is to get hospitals to sell their services abroad, using the NHS brand to rake in more private money (which would not of course be necessary if the government were not imposing £20bn cuts over 5 years). It is claimed that NHS patients will benefit. But the (very considerable) funding required to set up expensive state-of-the-art clinics and hospitals in the Middle East, India or China will have to come from already severely depleted NHS budgets, reducing services still further for NHS patients in the UK. And what guarantee is there that any proceeds from these foreign investments will all be used to benefit NHS patients rather than extending private facilities in NHS hospitals?
This pretence that the public at large will gain from the extension of privatisation is being deployed by the Tories across the spectrum. The abrupt abolition of the multi-billion Building Schools for the Future programme, which would have hugely improved State schools across the country, was driven by Gove’s idiosyncratic odyssey into academies and so-called free schools taken out of the public sector and/or funded by private money. He’s also now selling off State school playing fields at breakneck speed to extend these pet projects even further.
The State housing-building programme, drastically curtailed by Thatcher from 6.1% of the national budget in 1979 to a mere 1.6% in 1990, was eviscerated further by New Labour and now by the Coalition in order to pursue the fetish of private provision. Council tenants were told if they didn’t opt for transferf to the private sector, they would not get their repairs and maintenance done. Even if they did opt, Osborne’s disastrous economic policy has slowed UK housebuilding to the lowest level since 1923, with virtually no social housing at all since the government now intends to remove this section 106 obligation from developers.
Or take banking. Northern Rock was bailed out at huge cost to taxpayers, was then precipitately sold off by Osborne at a big loss to the taxpayer, and has still not had its remit changed to serve the public interest. This government is no good at distinguishing between the genuine and important functions of banking and what Adair Turner called its ‘socially useless’ activities – someone getting rich by fleecing someone else and leaving the taxpayer to pick up the pieces.
The same story goes for pensions. Barbara Castle’s magnificent State Earnings-Related Pensions Scheme, which benefited particularly women and the low-paid, was torn up by Thatcher and what was left was abolished by New Labour. We now have a private pensions industry which has been guilty of successive mis-selling scandals, swallows up a third or more of total lifetime savings in industry charges, and still leaves millions with a pension at retirement below the means-tested poverty line.