Labour FoIs show competition argument is just getting started

If you accept Labour’s analysis, you’re not just experiencing longer waiting lists and poorer care as a result of the Government’s reforms of the NHS. You’re also paying through the nose for the NHS’s legal representation when it comes to competition for the delivery of health services.

Despite an article in The Guardian, one of the more passed over health stories of the week has been Labour’s assertion that £5 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on representation in the field of competition law owing to the Government’s health reforms. According to Freedom of Information requests issued by Labour, 76 clinical commissioning groups have used competition lawyers at a cost that would have covered the salaries of 120 nurses or thousands of operations. This evidence base has allowed Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham to claim the NHS is in a state of paralysis, with sensible decisions on service delivery being delayed until the competition lawyers have had their say.

It’s an interesting line of attack from Labour as one of the Government’s guiding principles in opening up the NHS market has been that competition brings greater efficiency and better results. But if these results are being delayed, the Government risks being hoisted on its proverbial petard.

Labour’s findings have a wider significance and demonstrate that the ideological debate on competition for the delivery of public services is in rude health. There is, or at least should be, a common acceptance that government has to outsource the delivery of some functions as it lacks the capacity and personnel to do absolutely everything itself. But competition for the delivery of services is not unique to the NHS. Rather it is an intrinsic part of every government department.

By suggesting the idea of paralysis through analysis in the NHS, Labour has at least the makings of a stick with which to whack the Coalition in the run-up to 2015. Similar scrutiny could be focused elsewhere. The onus is not just on government, irrespective of political leaning, but on the service providers themselves – regardless of whether they’re from the private or charitable sector – to properly communicate the benefits of their involvement and to engage with procurement processes in a way that limits the potential for procrastination.

Chris Rogers