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October 12, 2012 / politicsbitesize

Cutting benefits to save schools and hospitals is simply Conservative hypocrisy

It is the turn of the Conservative Party to hold their annual conference this week, and making the headlines is David Cameron’s warning that welfare spending is to be cut further. Speaking at the first day of the conference, the Prime Minister said that the government needed to find an extra £16bn in savings by 2015/16.  These savings are on top of the billions already due to be implemented in the coming years, and one of the areas earmarked for these extra savings is the multi-million pound benefits bill.

On the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, David Cameron suggested that it was unfair for an unemployed person under the age of 25 to be able to claim housing benefit when a person of the same age who is at university or employed can’t. Government sources have confirmed the PM’s assertion, but have suggested that the amount of money that could be saved by cutting housing benefit to the under 25s will only be in the hundreds of millions rather than the billions needed. Another sticking point to the proposal is the fact that the Liberal Democrats have not agreed to this type of cut to the welfare system.

David Cameron told Andrew Marr that, ‘We have to find these spending reductions and if we want to avoid cuts in things like hospitals and schools – services that we all rely on – we have to look at things like the welfare budget’. Yet, the Coalition Government has been systematically privatising our education system and the NHS since it came to power in 2010. The introduction of the Academies Bill by Michael Gove paved the way for numerous schools across the UK to move away from Local Education Authority funding toward central government and private business funding.

Academies are allowed to set their own curriculums and terms and conditions for staff and stand outside of the local community. They are invariably funded by a private sponsor who operates a number of different schools. For example, the Green Dale Foundation Trust currently sponsors twelve academies in the Nottingham, Mansfield and Lincolnshire area and has plans to open two more in 2013. In this instance, the organisation is split into two sections: the Green Dale Foundation Trust sponsors the academy whilst the Greenwood Academies Trust is the operational arm that employs staff and manages the finances. What is alarming, however, is that the operational arm of the enterprise is a registered trading company with Chief Executives and Directors.

How have we reached the stage where our educational establishments are registered as trading companies? Education is not a business, but it is being treated as one in the same way that the NHS also is. The Health and Social Care Bill (2011) that has been passed by government removed the condition that the NHS provide its own services and has opened the system up to potentially allowing the private sector to offer services. No longer is it ‘potentially’ the case that the private sector will be allowed to tender for services offered by the NHS.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s health spokesperson, claimed in a briefing before his speech at the Labour Party Conference last week that hundreds of contracts had been signed by private providers of healthcare services. In the ‘biggest act of privatisation ever seen in the NHS’, 398 contracts, worth £262m, were signed in eight NHS areas including musculoskeletal services for back pain, adult hearing services in the community, wheelchair services for children and primary care psychological therapies for adults.

Labour identified 37 private healthcare companies who have won tenders for these types of services, which were once provided solely by the NHS for the NHS. Mr Burnham gave a few examples, including the move to run non-emergency ambulances in the north-west of the country using the bus company Arriva and the awarding of the right to run patient advocacy groups to the private firm Parkwood Healthcare by Lancashire County Council. According to Mr Burnham this initial sell off is only the beginning, with £750m worth of NHS services to be opened up to private companies and charities by the Coalition Government in 2013.

It is hardly surprising though that this is the position of the current UK government. The newly appointed Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has recently been criticised for his involvement in a £650m take over by Virgin Care in his constituency. The private healthcare company, which is part owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, signed a five-year-deal to run seven hospitals in Mr Hunt’s Surrey constituency. Concerns were raised at the time regarding the standard of service patients could expect from the private firm (formerly Assura Medical), but Jeremy Hunt (then Culture Secretary) intervened and requested that NHS Surrey sign the contract swiftly.

As his government slowly erodes the principles of free healthcare spearheaded by Aneurin Bevan and commercialises our classrooms, David Cameron’s assertion that we, as a country, need to cut back on welfare spending in order save our hospitals and schools is hypocritical at best! At its worst it is an idea that will drag the country back to the 1980s, when, under Mrs Thatcher, those below 26 weren’t entitled to claim housing benefit, which resulted in a high number of young men and women becoming homeless. It seems like a common sense assertion that any new government should be progressive but, to date, this Conservative-led Coalition is simply regressive in its policy making.

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