The hidden agenda of NHS reforms
What will the coalition’s “reforms” do to the NHS?
More importantly, what are we going to do about them?
Some clues as to the consequences of the current NHS reforms were in evidence outside Southampton hospital last Monday morning.
At each exit was a picket of dozens of health workers waving Unison flags and blowing vuvuzuelas.
Bus drivers and passing cars responded with honks of support.
The strikers are cleaners, demanding what they were promised in a national deal.
They work for the Medirest company run by Tory donors and bankers who want to make money out of the NHS by squeezing the staff.
Medirest is a subsidiary of the Compass Group, whose chairman Sir Roy Gardner is paid £477,000 a year.
A typical Southampton hospital domestic would have to work full-time for about 32 years to make as much.
Sir Roy has so much cash to spare he bunged £50,000 to David Cameron’s election campaign last February via his personal “front” company, RAG Associates.
More of the NHS will be handed over to Sir Roy and his ilk as the government’s current reforms break up the NHS and introduce more private firms.
Even so, the Southampton domestic staff are still wrestling with “reforms” introduced by the last Conservative government.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Tories privatised hospital cleaning and the contracts often went to companies with close links to the Conservative Party .
Now the Conservatives are back in power, they are listening to people like Sir Roy Gardner.
In return for his £50,000 donation Sir Roy is able to join the top Conservative “Donors Club” known as the “Leaders Group.”
According to the party, this club of rich Tory supporters “are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-Prime Minster’s Questions lunches, drinks receptions.”
And what advice will he be passing on?
Though the cleaners work for Medirest, but oddly enough their employer didn’t like them resting for medical reasons.
They didn’t offer the cleaners sick pay, so these low-paid workers felt forced to work when they were poorly – which was bad for them and not great for the hospital they worked in.
The cleaners demanded that they be put on the national “Agenda for Change” pay rates.
These included a small incremental scale and pay for unsocial hours as well as sick pay – all apparently luxuries Sir Roy doesn’t think staff should have.
The health unions agreed the Agenda for Change deal with the last Labour government, but because some NHS services are already broken up and shared out to private firms like Medirest, many groups of ancillary staff had to fight to get their fair slice of the deal.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms promise more of this corporate meanness.
The justification is that because the financial crisis means we are short of cash, so the way the NHS works needs to change.
This is a subject Compass knows all about.
Top banker Sir James Crosby, Chief Executive of HBOS bank between 2001 and 2006, also serves on the its board.
Last year the government had to bail out HBOS with our money and the bank was partly nationalised.
Sir James managed to jump ship before the crisis hit, but all the risky borrowing and lending that led to the bank’s downfall was built up when he was boss.
HBOS had a “director of risk” called Paul Moore, who warned Sir James that his bank was acting recklessly before the crash.
Sir James responded and sacked Moore.
So Sir James is one of the men responsible for the banking crash, for which his reward is a £100,000 salary paid for out of hospital cleaning contracts.
The coalition government health reforms promise more of this – more private companies squeezing profits for Tory donors and bankers out of health workers.
So what can we do about it?
Well, actually, quite a lot.
The Southampton hospital cleaners have been campaigning for the Agenda for Change rates since last summer.
They have held solid one-day strikes and marched around the hospital grounds.
They feel they are “just as important as nurses,” and they care about clean hospitals as much as their own conditions.
Some of them reacted to Medirest’s shortage of cleaning equipment supplies by hiding mops in wards.
It was the only way to make sure they could do their job.
And, most importantly, they have begun to win.
Between them Medirest and the hospital have agreed the new pay rates, with the increments and sick pay, but are only phasing them in over time.
The strikers want the increases now and they want them backdated.
Unison organiser Katie Gash told me they wanted to fight for “what they are owed and what they should have.”
As well as the pay, the cleaners wanted to stand up for their dignity as they “don’t feel appreciated and don’t feel respected by their managers.”
Winning the pay would also mean winning respect.
There is one more warning about future NHS directions in the present dispute.
Compass is a huge multinational firm and operates dozens of NHS contracts through Medirest.
But while Medirest’s profits are national, it signs local deals.
The company’s cleaners at High Wycombe and Amersham are also involved in the dispute, striking at the same time and visiting each others’ picket lines.
Although they work for the same employer they are on different, lower pay and still have not won Agenda for Change rates.
Further break up and commercialisation of the NHS will increase this distortion, with little groups of doctors commissioning services from big firms which would be happy to divide and rule.
That’s what’s at stake.
Messages of support or donations can be sent to the Southampton and Buckinghamshire Medirest strike fund via the strikers’ website www.sabmw.weebly.com