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The NHS, the LibDems & the "Undesirable Contact Man"

The Lib Dems’s biggest donor isn’t just an alleged arms dealer - he’s also owner of an expanding private sector NHS business providing substandard care to vulnerable patients.

Last month one of the Lib Dems biggest donors, Sudhir Choudhrie and his son Bhanu Choudhrie, were arrested by the Serious Fraud Office in connection with alleged bribes paid by Rolls-Royce (makers of military jets) to the Chinese and Indonesian governments.

The Choudhries and their healthcare business Alpha Health are one of the Lib Dems largest donors, giving them a total of £1.26 million over the last 10 years, including hefty individual donations. In November last year Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes accepted a £60,000 donation from Sudhir Choudhrie.

At the time of their arrest the Guardian reported that Sudhir Choudhrie was on the Indian government`s list of "dubious" middlemen whom government agencies must keep at arm's length. The official term is "Undesirable Contact Men" (UCM).

According to the Guardian "Lib Dem sources" said the party had no knowledge that Choudhrie was on India`s Central Bureau of investigation (CBI) list of people "suspected to be resorting to corrupt or irregular practices in their dealings with official agencies".

The Lib Dems' NHS journey

The relationship between the Lib Dems and Choudhrie goes back a long time.

A LibDem policy statement adopted at their 2003 conference said that “Liberal Democrats start with a bias in favour of market solutions”.

A few months later, in March 2004 Choudhrie’s healthcare business Alpha Health gave the Lib Dems their first £10,000.

In September that year the Orange Book – Reclaiming Liberalism was published. This was a collection of essays by the party`s right-wingers, included one on “reforming” the NHS by disgraced former banker David Laws.

On May 2005 Alpha Health made its second donation; this time of £100,000.

Five months later, Nick Clegg, then a leading candidate for party leader gave an interview to The Independent, where he told Marie Woolf:

“One very, very important point – I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do to make it a more responsive service. I don’t think anything should be ruled out.”

In addition to the interview Woolf wrote a comment piece entitled “Call for break-up of NHS will anger activists” demonstrating the digression between the leadership and the members.

The day after the first televised leaders’ debate in the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrats received nearly £100,000 from non-dom donors Bhanu and Dhruv Choudhrie. Bhanu Choudhrie said "The party does offer change and Nick Clegg is a man of great enthusiasm”.

A Lib Dem spokesman told the Telegraph: "We do have non-dom donors but we do not let them influence our policies and we do not let them sit in the House of Lords. There's a difference between donating money to a political party for honest reasons and donating money to influence policy and law-making."

On May 9, 2010, just 3 days after the general election, The Mail on Sunday reported that parent company, C&C Alpha Group, was preparing a stock market listing for its healthcare division (C&C Alpha Healthcare) for hundreds of millions of pounds.

David Cameron’s promise that there would be no more top-down reorganisation of the NHS soon evaporated in accelerated NHS fragmentation and privatisation embodied in Coalition`s Health & Social Care Bill.

At the 2012 LibDem Spring conference the party decided against holding a debate calling for the reforms to be dropped. The chairman of the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee, Gareth Epps, told the Sunday Mirror:

"It is baffling why Mr Clegg would support a bill so many people in the party are against.

"Nick should remember to listen to the grassroots members who are so opposed to these dangerous reforms."

In its report the Mirror pointed out how Alpha Healthcare could (as it put it) "cash in" on the NHS reforms:

"One proposal is to let GPs commission care, including mental health contracts. Alpha Hospitals works in partnership with the NHS to provide those services in three private hospitals in Manchester, Surrey and Yorkshire. It is looking to expand the number of hospitals where it could offer treatment."

Undesirable contact with the NHS?

Alpha Health Group was founded in 2002. It runs three psychiatric hospitals (Alpha Hospitals) and several elderly care homes (Alpha Care). Both organisations have been plagued with allegations of substandard care.

In 2008, Rita Smith, a resident of Alpha Care`s Waterloo House home in Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire died after contracting MRSA following weeks of alleged neglect. Mrs Smith’s daughter, Debbie Wride, said her mother developed bedsores because staff failed to change her position in bed. The family sued Alpha Care Homes and agreed an out-of-court settlement in 2012.

In January 2013, CQC inspectors found that patients at Bromson Hill Care Home in Warwickshire “were not protected against the risk associated with medicines because the provider did not have appropriate arrangements in place to manage medicines”.

This was a year after Sheffield’s Alpha Hospital had hit the headlines. In January 2012 the Yorkshire Post had reported the ordeal of Charlotte Cripps who spent two-and-a-half years at the £400 per day hospital:

“She once spent three days waiting for a needle she had inserted in her arm to be removed and on another occasion was not given medication for six days, which a case conference later concluded amounted to “abuse in the category of neglect”.”

Her mother Janice Cripps said: “We had to argue even to have her basic needs met.”

Mrs Cripps told the Post she felt Hull primary care trust didn’t take their complaints seriously and added: “They need to monitor the care they are buying to get value for money.”

But Alpha seemed unabashed.

An article by Patricia Hodgkinson, Chief Executive of Alpha Hospitals entitled "NHS budget pressures help shape mental healthcare" appeared in the British Journal of Healthcare Management in May 2012.

She argued "The push for greater efficiency in the UK is no surprise to me, we are not being pressed into a corner; this is the way healthcare should be run all of the time."

Hodgkinson explained the relevance of her own career to managing under the massive cuts being forced on the NHS:

 "I spent six years in the USA when managed care was introduced. You had to justify even one day in hospital. While I feel the USA has gone too far, that thinking has never left me. "

Ms. Hodgkinson had been less successful in her attempt to get published in The Lancet. In December 2011 editor Richard Horton wrote about Alpha Hospitals` attempt to place an article in the journal through its public relations company Bell Pottinger. Horton revealed that the summary he received from the PR company:

“extols the virtues of Alpha Hospitals, which are apparently “transforming the way [the NHS] delivers Personality Disorder care to improve health outcomes and reduce costs for the NHS”.

The reality, he pointed out, was rather different, as the Care Quality Commission had noted “Alpha Hospitals-Woking was not meeting one or more essential standards. Improvements are needed.”

Horton also criticised the clinician who was to have co-authored the article with Hodgkinson:

“Prof Livesley, as a former editor of the Journal of Personality Disorders, should surely not be submitting a paper to a journal through a “disgraced” public relations company and in co-authorship with a private sector business that is providing substandard NHS care.”

Alpha Hospital Woking hit the headlines again recently.

The hospital, which was instructed in January to show evidence of improvement within weeks, had already been told to urgently improve its performance following two previous visits. The hospital had been shown in inspections to be failing to meet "five out of the six national targets."  Patients were put in seclusion for "whispering". Inspectors recorded that "one female adolescent patient had been restrained by nine members of staff, one of whom was a male" because she refused to remove her underwear. 

It emerged that a juvenile patient had told Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors in December that “seclusion and intramuscular injections were regularly used as threats".

Inspectors also found that a young person who had banged his head in seclusion was left lying on the floor for 15 minutes being sick.

Professor Sue Bailey, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said she was increasingly concerned that mental services were approaching a "tipping point" with funding being cut despite a record 50,000 uses of the Mental Health Act to detain patients in hospital for assessment or treatment in 2012-13.

Meanwhile those who see business opportunities in NHS cuts and privatisations implemented by this Coalition government are not doing too badly.

Persistent reports that Sudhir Choudhrie was on the LibDem`s list of future peers appeared in both the Indian and British media in 2013.

The Daily Telegraph reported in July that Choudhrie had been denied a peerage after inspection reports by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) showed serious concerns had been raised about the treatment of elderly people at care homes run by Alpha Health, and patients with learning difficulties and mental illness at hospitals also run by the company. The Telegraph claimed "It is understood the party still wishes to ennoble Mr Choudhrie in the future".

About the author

Andrew Causon is a campaigner and investigative journalist.


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