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George Eliot Hospital: an anti-privatisation success story

By Guy Collis, Policy Officer at UNISON

Since the disastrous Health and Social Care Act became law two years ago, it has sometimes felt like a losing battle for those fighting NHS privatisation.

But UNISON members at George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton have been celebrating the success of their campaign, along with local patients and campaigners.

Following the decision to pass the running of Hinchingbrooke Hospital over to private management (by Circle) in 2011, this so-called “franchising” approach was set to be rolled out to other “failing” trusts.

At the front of the queue was the George Eliot, which was deemed unable to ever make foundation trust status in its current form.

But UNISON made the campaign to keep the hospital fully within the NHS our line in the sand.

Central to this strategy was debunking the myths expounded by the government – and echoed by the trust – that franchising the hospital was the only option.

This case was made loudly at a national level to the NHS Trust Development Authority (NTDA), the organisation responsible for the fate of non-foundation hospitals.

And this was reinforced locally with the tough line taken by the UNISON branch, their regional officers and allies in meetings with the trust. The government’s approach is dependent on staff and patients taking them at their word when they talk up the achievements of Circle at Hinchingbrooke as a model for success.

However, the merest scratching beneath the surface revealed the fallacy of such claims

For a start, MPs have highlighted a failure to properly transfer risk to the company, “leaving the taxpayer exposed should the franchise fail”.

And it recently emerged that Circle is likely to record a second successive deficit at Hinchingbrooke, despite pledging to bring the trust into the black in the first year of its contract.

UNISON also made the point locally, that the trust had not exhausted the alternatives to franchising, never properly considering the possibility of George Eliot remaining a standalone operation.

This became an even more glaring omission when it emerged that the government itself had decided to the trust with nearby University Hospitals Birmingham.

As the NHS organisations in the running to take on the hospital dwindled to just one – South Warwickshire, competing with Circle and Care UK – UNISON upped the ante.

Local campaigning was stepped up and the union worked well with local councillors and patient groups to challenge the flawed engagement process at the trust.

The union insisted on the full disclosure of procurement documentation and held the trust to its obligations under existing NHS laws. UNISON’s head of health wrote an uncompromising letter to the trust in March 2014 demanding a substantial rethink.

Following this, the union’s reps forced a head-to-head with trust management and the NTDA to restate the demand for proper information and to highlight the lack of transparency throughout the process.

Within weeks, the announcement came from the trust that they would no longer pursue the franchising option, but would instead build on the improvements they had already made without any “external partners”.

In short, victory for the anti-privatisation campaign and the UNISON branch.

The union stated from the outset that preferable solutions had not been properly explored, and in the end the trust had no option but to agree with us.

It is regrettable that this decision was not made far earlier, before countless NHS resources were wasted on a flawed procurement process.

The hope now is that the George Eliot decision represents a significant spanner in the works for other trusts considering going down this route, such as Weston Area Health Trust in the south west.

Clearly the threat of privatisation in the wider NHS is not going away any time soon.

And the addition of the “hospital closure clause” to the Care Bill means that hospitals such as George Eliot could again find themselves in the government’s firing line.

But if the experience teaches us one thing, it is that a tough local campaign backed up by a willingness to take on the government’s myth-making machine can still deter the privateers.

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