Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies)
Ten Minute Rule Bill
House of Commons
Tuesday 8th October
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I beg to move,
The Bill would extend the provisions of the 2000 Act to all bodies, whether public, private or voluntary, bidding for NHS contracts and ensure that freedom of information legislation is applied equally in the implementation of any public contract.
Freedom of information is one of the Labour Government’s greatest achievements, ensuring transparency and accountability in modern government and allowing the public access to information on what is being done in their name and how their money is being spent. In recent years, we have witnessed an acceleration in the number of public services being outsourced, and today roughly £1 in every £3 that the Government spend goes to independent or private sector providers. Indeed, owing to the Government’s policy of opening up public services to the private and voluntary sectors, billions of pounds of NHS contracts are now being made available to the private sector, following the implementation of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
Unfortunately, while more and more taxpayer money is being handed to the private sector, especially in the NHS, FOI responsibilities are not following the public pound. There is a big issue here about transparency, because the public should know what is happening in their name, as was brought home to me recently in a demonstration against NHS privatisation in Manchester that I attended, along with more than 50,000 other people, but which was barely reported on by our public sector broadcaster.
Private health care companies should not be permitted to hide behind a cloak of commercial confidentiality. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being awarded to private sector companies under barely transparent contracts. Meanwhile, private companies are free to benefit by gaining detailed knowledge of public sector bodies through their use and submission of FOI requests. The same information is then used by the private sector to undercut or outbid the very same public sector bodies when contracts are tendered or put up for renewal.
I understand that the Information Commissioner expressed concern to the Justice Select Committee that accountability would be undermined if FOI did not apply to private providers of public services. I also understand that in opposition the Prime Minister was convinced about this matter, having previously promised to increase the range of publicly funded bodies subject to scrutiny using section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act. The coalition agreement also promised to extend the scope of the Act to provide greater transparency, but unfortunately it would appear that nothing is being done to address the democratic deficit caused by the outsourcing of public services.
The Government should be chastened by recent events. For example, the tagging scandal—involving Serco and G4S and uncovered by the Serious Fraud Office—showed that these companies had defrauded the taxpayer of more than £50 million. Perhaps we need a hard-hitting advertising campaign, with advertising hoardings on vans driven around the City of London warning off corporate fraudsters from bidding for public contracts. The danger for our NHS is that we are inviting convicted fraudsters into our health system.
HCA, which is the world’s biggest private health care company, recently won the contract to provide cancer treatment for NHS brain tumour patients, stopping patients receiving world-class treatment at London’s University College hospital. The Competition Commission has already caught HCA overcharging private patients in the United Kingdom. In the United States, HCA has had to pay fines and costs in excess of $2 billion for systematically defrauding federal health care programmes. The public are right to be concerned about these providers coming into the NHS. If that is to happen, it is essential that their operations and their contracts with the NHS should be open, transparent and subject to public scrutiny.
There is currently little we can do to ensure that private providers comply with freedom of information requests. Under the new NHS framework, clinical commissioning groups and the NHS Commissioning Board are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but private contractors are not. From the outset, FOI regulations give private providers an unfair competitive advantage when bidding for contracts, due to unequal disclosure requirements. NHS bodies are forced to disclose any poor performance, but private providers bidding for a contract have no similar duty to disclose. They effectively start with a blank sheet. They could have spent many years treating private patients, but the public have no right to scrutinise their performance prior to their being awarded an NHS contract.
As private providers are not subject to FOI legislation, little can be done if they refuse to provide information or state that they do not have the information requested by a commissioning body. The Information Commissioner has no power to investigate a private contractor. He cannot serve information notices requiring a contractor to supply information for an investigation or take enforcement action if a contractor fails to comply with its contractual obligations.
The purpose of the Bill is to strengthen FOI legislation and to introduce vital safeguards so that the public can see how their money is being spent. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support fair competition, a level playing field and the duty of equal disclosure throughout the bidding process for NHS services. The public have a right to know the record of public and private providers before contracts are awarded. Those safeguards can work only if the Information Commissioner has the same rights to seek information and carry out investigations, and to make all providers of public services comply with freedom of information legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
That Grahame M. Morris, Ian Mearns, Ian Lavery, John Cryer, Paul Blomfield, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs Mary Glindon, Pat Glass, Barbara Keeley, Rosie Cooper, Debbie Abrahams and Valerie Vaz present the Bill.
Grahame M. Morris accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 November 2013, and to be printed (Bill 109).