Reform: a charity or a conduit for privatisation?

As the major parties prepare for the conference season, Reform, a free market think tank, will be central to the discussion of the future of public services. But while registered as a charity, the organisation appears less concerned with helping those in need than providing a political platform for their corporate sponsors. 

Conference season is upon us, and this year as with every other, the three main parties of the UK political system will each be taking to the stage in an attempt to define their centrist differences. ‘Tis the season to be lobbying, and one organisation in particular will be on the fringes, acting as the go between for their corporate partners and the MPs they hope to persuade; their name is Reform.

Reform is a free market think tank, whose mission according to their website, is to ‘set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity.’ They are also an official charity, although not in the traditional sense that you and I might think, i.e. ‘an organisation set up to provide help and raise money for those in need’ (OED). The charitable aims, in fact, appear to be more like an attempt to leverage public resources into the hands of the corporations who donate money to their cause.

Reform’s corporate partners represent some of the most powerful companies in the country, including the likes of Citigroup, KPMG, GlaxoSmithKline and Serco. Partners are asked to donate £7,500 (or more if they choose), annually to the charitable Reform Research Trust and currently 31 companies across all the key sectors are only too willing to part with this amount. Such sums of money are of little consequence to these global companies, and in return their agenda of further outsourcing makes its way to government ears through newspapers, research reports and key events. 

Reform claim that the need for corporate inclusion in their charitable work is to give these organisations a voice, as explained on their webpage ‘corporates’:

‘We are keen to involve corporate organisations in our research because their expertise is often left out of the Whitehall policy discussion.’

Is this true? Are the multi-national companies really being left out of government discussions?

Take the global accounting giant, KPMG. Since the middle of 2010, they have participated in 33 government meetings, given written evidence multiple times and provided oral evidence on at least 4 occasions. KPMG guide policy, they are commissioned by various departments to produce reports and are currently one of the approved providers developing the Clinical Commissioning Groups, who are set to replace the Primary Care Trusts in 2013. This is not a voiceless outsider.

Not only are they already included in government policy-making, but they employ two members of the House of Lords. Lord Harris of Haringey is a Senior Adviser and Lord Hastings is the Global Head of Citizenship and Diversity for Global Tax.

In fact, nine of the companies who are listed as corporate partners of Reform employ members of the House of Lords on their payroll. G4S, who are at the heart of government consideration for contracts on security and policing, have former Labour Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Reid, as a director (see OurKingdom’s investigations into G4S here). Since 2010, G4S have had 17 government meetings and 5 oral presentations. Serco, the public services giant, has billions of pounds worth of government contracts, and also has Lord Filkin as an advisor on public affairs. They have met the government on at least 36 occasions since 2010. The list goes on.

However, an annual donation is not the only way corporations can give money to Reform. One key element of their work is to set up meetings and events to bring together MPs and representatives from the various corporations willing to pay them money. In 2011, 68 different companies supported Reform, either via donation or sponsorship, totalling a weighty sum of £770,000.

This process is taking place over the course of the conference season. In order to participate in some of the key fringe events, which take place away form the main hall, corporations are paying money in the form of sponsorship in order to participate in events involving MPs. 

Reform has produced a conference calendar of these events that they will be attending alongside their corporate partners. On Monday 24th September, the new health minister, Norman Lamb, will be head of the table at a policy dinner sponsored by the UK’s biggest private hospital company, BMI Healthcare. General Healthcare Group, who own BMI Healthcare, gave Reform £24,500 in 2011 and are presumably covering the costs this time around.

In addition to this event, BMI are also included in invitation only events with Labour’s Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, Liz Kendall, and Conservative Health Select Committee Member, Chris Skidmore, on the shared topic of ‘Reforming health and care’.

BMI Healthcare came to the public’s attention recently when the Independent revealed how the executive director of the private BMI Meriden Hospital, Bernie Creaven, sent a letter instructing doctors to ‘artificially delay operations on non-paying patients to encourage them to pay fees.’

Reform is at the forefront of promoting the policy of outsourcing hospitals. In February this year, Circle became the first company to start running an NHS hospital after being given a 10-year contract to run Hitchingbrooke hospital in Cambridge. Just 6 months into its tenure, Circle produced a press release telling us how they have cut waiting times, improved care and delivered savings. This announcement was enough for the media, and the Telegraph in particular, to move into action; they hailed the hospital a success despite only 5% of the tenure being complete.

What followed was a sequence of articles written by Reform for the Telegraph that promoted the benefits of hospital outsourcing; a policy that will benefit both Circle Health, who were the former employers of Reform’s deputy director, Nick Seddon, and of course the UK’s largest hospital group, BMI Healthcare.

Healthcare companies are prominent at Reform’s fringe events, which is not surprising given the recent passing of the Health and Social Care Act, and the fact that 12 out of 31 of Reform’s corporate partners are from the health sector. However, they are by no means the only sector making use of Reform’s sponsorship programme.

Indeed, Reform’s corporate partners include, ABI, Aviva, Balfour Beatty, Benenden Healthcare Society, Bevan Brittan, BG Group, BVCA, Cable & Wireless, Capita, CH2M Hill, Clifford Chance, Citigroup, The City of London, Ernst & Young, GlaxoSmithKline, G4S, GE, General Healthcare Group, HP, ICAEW, KPMG, Maximus, McKesson, MSD, Optical Confederation, PA Consulting Group, Serco, Sodexo and Telereal Trillium - hardly a roll call of the downtrodden.

Reform claim to be a charity and the Charity Commission, for now at least, have accepted this. But the definition of charity in most people’s mind does not stretch to promoting the transfer of public resources into the hands of global corporations. Such a definition led the public services union GMB at the TUC congress to call Reform a ‘fake charity’. It’s not hard to see why, and it’s an issue that goes far beyond Reform. There is a clear need for the Charity Commission, the government and civil society to take a fresh look at exactly what “charity” is and decide which public goods are worthy of tax exemptions. Corporate lobbying is not charitable, it is profit seeking - and the taxpayer is subsidising it.

About the author

Andrew Robertson is the founder of the blog Social Investigations and has been a freelance investigative journalist for 20 years, writing in the Independent, Red Pepper and for Indymedia. Follow him on Twitter @socialindepth.