By Mark Blackwood
The poor coverage of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) of the coalition government’s privatisation of the NHS has been the subject of debate among independent journalists and bloggers for some time. Despite the countless articles and freedom of information requests highlighting the links between politicians and private health care providers, the BBC has remained almost silent on the subject.
Back in 1997, the BBC Trust was established by royal charter and given the responsibility to maintain standards including impartiality and fairness in the public interest. The Trust also sets the overall strategic direction of the BBC, including its priorities.
The current chairman of the BBC Trust, Baron Chris Patten of Barnes, more commonly known as Lord Patten, is a Conservative and the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He was appointed to the role by the Queen in April 2011. He was recommended by both Prime Minister David Cameron and former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. According to a February 2011 Guardian report Patten had told Hunt that “he badly wanted the BBC job as the final act in a long career in politics and public life.” The role commands a four day week and a handsome salary of £110,000 per year.
At the same time Diane Coyle OBE was appointed as Vice Chair of the Trust in return for £77,005 per year for twenty hours work per week. Coyle was a former economist at the Treasury and economics editor of the Independent. She has published several books including “Paradoxes of Prosperity: Why the New Capitalism Benefits All” in 2002, which must rate as one of the most misjudged titles for a book of all time.
Two months prior to Patten’s appointment, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government had introduced the Health and Social Care Bill into parliament. At the time, Patten was acting as a senior adviser to Charterhouse Development Capital Ltd, one of the top 50 global private equity companies.
Back in 2008, the company purchased Tunstall Health Care for £510 million, which then positioned itself as a partner with the PA Consulting Group. According to its web site, PA “has been involved in redesigning and implementing new health services, working with central government on delivering effective new policies and with providers and commissioners to improve front-line delivery of services.”
Former civil servant Gil Baldwin, appointed as chief executive in 2010, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Health and Social Care Bill, which has now been passed into law.
One of the first contracts Tunstall was awarded after its takeover was with NHS North Yorkshire and York Primary Care Trust to provide telehealth units, which allow medical staff to monitor patients at home and alert them, for example, if someone forgets to take medication. Last year, an internal audit report found, “There has been significant slippage in terms of the number of telehealth units installed and the amount of savings released as a result when compared to the initial projections.”
By the end of June 2011 only 350 of the 2,000 units purchased were in use and only £196,899 out of the total £3,442,229 savings forecast was achieved.
Patten is also a member of the European advisory board for Bridgepoint Capital, which describes itself as “a major international private equity group focused on investing in market-leading businesses.”
In 2010 Bridgepoint acquired Care UK, which operates NHS treatment centres, walk-in centres and mental health services for £281 million. Last year some 96 percent of Care UK’s business, amounting to more than £400 million, came from public money funded via the NHS.
Care UK has had its fair share of scandals, exposed as one of a number of private healthcare companies avoiding tax by taking out loans through the Channel Islands stock exchange. Earlier this year, some 6,000 patient X-ray records were left unprocessed at an “urgent care centre” run by the company in northwest London. Care UK has also failed several Care Quality Commission inspections but none of them have been reported by the BBC, unlike many other CQC inspections.
Hedge fund boss John Nash is chairman of Care UK. Over the past five years he and his wife have donated £203,500 to the Conservative Party. Back in 2009 it was a donation by Nash of £21,000 which helped fund the “personal office” of Andrew Lansley, who was until last month, health secretary in the coalition government. He has since been replaced by Jeremy Hunt, who you will remember, recommended Lord Patten’s appointment as BBC Trust Chairman to the Queen.
Given such powerful business connections and position, it is hardly surprising the BBC has skirted around the issue of NHS privatisation. Lord Patten voted in favour of The Health and Social Care Act and has just set up an inquiry to examine whether the BBC’s coverage is too “liberal”, i.e., too critical of the right-wing dogma emanating from the Conservatives.