Money trick

Glenys Thornton on the government's deeply flawed plans to 'increase' NHS funding

Even by the standards of some of the daft legislation we have seen from the Conservatives over the past few years, the NHS funding Bill – all stages of which will be debated in the House of Lords today – is rather strange.

We know that Boris Johnson struggles to trust himself to carry out the things he promised before and during last year’s general election. In this case, it is the promise to increased NHS funding by £33.9bn before the 2023-24 financial year.

To ensure the Prime Minister meets this ‘commitment’ – which is essentially a political gimmick – he has decided to put it on the statute book. Given Mr Johnson’s ongoing lack of proximity to the truth, it will be no guarantee of anything.

In addition, with the proposed legislation designated a ‘money bill’, peers will be unable to send any amendments back to House of Commons for consideration. That is frustrating, as the Bill – originally announced by Theresa May back in June 2018 – contains some serious problems and flaws.

Labour agrees with the Kings Fund, the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation that an increase of at least 4% is required to modernise and improve standards in the NHS. The 3.4% which this funding proposal brings will just about keep the show on the road. Indeed, given that inflation is set to be higher than initially anticipated the increase will be of even less value.

The government’s proposals also omit some very important factors. The Bill does not apply to the whole of the healthcare budget, and the exceptions mean it will not work. If new funding is not accompanied by equivalent and sustainable investment in public health, social and capital investment, the strains on the NHS will continue to increase – storing up further problems for the future. Nor does the Bill address education and training.

Given that there are over 106,000 vacancies across the NHS in England, no allowance seems to have been made for the growing cost of staff recruitment and retention at every level. Cancer Research UK for example, says that the increase completely fails to address the significant and growing problem we face in the diagnostic works force.

This week saw the launch of the ten-year review of health inequalities and it makes dismal and very serious reading. It is also the context in which our NHS is struggling to meet the appalling health inequalities facing the UK. For the first decade in 100 years, life expectancy has failed to increase; and for the poorest 10% of women it has declined. It also confirms that there is a north/south health divide.

The report points a finger at the all too familiar social and economic conditions which have increased health inequalities, which are now quite literally a matter of life and death. The NHS Funding Bill should therefore, feed into more general discussions about creating a fairer society and improving people’s well-being – and in doing so, help improve the health of the whole population.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Health Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @GlenysThornton

Published 26th February 2020

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