Image: S. O'Neill
Procurement used to be an honourable craft. It used to be about NHS organisations getting the very best they could out of private companies making the essential supplies the NHS needs: value for money. The best way of buying stuff so the NHS could spend our money wisely.
Not any more. Now, according to the advertising blurb for the P4H exhibition, billed as ‘UK’s Premier Healthcare Procurement Event of the Year’, procurement is about suppliers tapping into the ‘lucrative NHS market’. It was about how private companies could get their share of the NHS kitty. This was held at the ICC, Birmingham, on Thursday 9 July.
Delegates were mainly NHS staff in charge of budgets. This was a huge event: five ‘zones’ for delegates to wander around, an opening address by John Warrington (Deputy Director for Policy & Research, Procurement, Investment & Commercial Division, Department of Health) and a closing speech ‘Where the private sector goes, should the NHS follow’, by Hari Sundaresan (Non-Executive, NHS London Procurement Partnership & CPO, BT. Nursing agencies were there too. This was a step beyond better scalpels and cheaper bedpans. It was about further commercialising the NHS itself: another step in marketization. There were hundreds there.
They were not alone. Around 100 demonstrators – representing at least six anti-privatisation groups – gathered outside, banners flying in the Birmingham sun. Delegates were leafleted as they went in. In the middle of an ordinary weekday, people had travelled from as far as Brighton, Lewisham and the North-east, to stand in a Birmingham square and get the message across that this will not go unopposed.
The National Health Action Party upped the stakes by sending in delegates of their own, who started off the ‘any questions’ part of the opening plenary by stating how dubious the concept of the ‘lucrative NHS market’ was, before ending with a rousing chorus from Les Miserables. To jaw-dropped silence. They really were not expecting that.
At an impromptu ‘de-brief’ meeting, there was a feeling that this had worked because we had all come together. And that that was exactly what we needed to do now, since the battles were all going to be local. Local battles can be won. They must be. But it will take good organisation, and persuading more people of the need, if it is to be sustained.
That is all about good communication. Ensuring all the groups have the intelligence, in good time, so they can decide how best to fight locally, and how much help they can rely on. I see that as the principal function of national organisers such as myself: facilitators of excellent communications and fundraising, and shapers of perfectly pitched procedures and resources, so local groups find out when the next strike is coming, they aren’t reinventing the wheel, they don’t burn out. How and why they fight should be their choice: the national groups need to ensure they have all they need to fight with, and no one either misses an opportunity through not knowing or stands alone because no one else knows enough.
We are given to squabbling. But we have so many shared values, and principles, and the one shared objective – saving our NHS – that this is what should guide how we plan to communicate, not our differences. I’ve offered to help any national group with this.
Procurement should not become yet another word for ‘profit’, along with ‘efficiency’. I saw 100 or more people take it back in Birmingham on Thursday. The P4H website dropped the ‘lucrative NHS market’ blurb when they knew we were coming: an obvious admission. If we can do that every time, in every way from loud demonstration to persistent awkward questioning, there will be victories, not the inevitably of defeat.
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