13 Apr 2011

Andrew Lansley’s NHS plans: still in good health?

His opponents are questioning the embattled Health Secretary’s commitment to the NHS. But who are the advisers, lobbyists and health companies with ties to Andrew Lansley?

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (Getty)

The Conservative Party nailed its colours to the NHS mast before the 2010 General Election. David Cameron’s promise that “the NHS is safe in our hands” was matched by a Conservative Party poster in which he pledged: “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS.”

Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health, expressed similar commitments to the health service. He has listed among his proudest career achievements: “Transforming the public’s view of the Conservative Party’s commitment to the NHS“.

But that is not necessarily how the public sees it. The Liberating the NHS White Paper, published in July 2010, proposes that “any willing provider” – from either the public or private sector – should be able to provide healthcare services. It also aims to “shift decision-making” in the direction of patients by giving GPs responsibility for commissioning services.

The Government’s plans have provoked a torrent of criticism, first and foremost because critics believe patient care will not be enhanced by such a radical upheaval in the organisation of the NHS. But they have also raised questions as to the motives which underpin what appears to be the partial privatisation of a major public institution. And this has in turn shone the spotlight on Andrew Lansley himself, his background and his connections.

Losing his ‘fine balance’
Mr Lansley, who was born in 1956, has been at pains to stress his family’s commitment to public service, noting that his eldest brother trained as a teacher and his middle brother is a policeman. More relevantly, the Andrew Lansley website states that his father worked in the NHS “from the day it was created in 1948”. It continues: “He went on to run the pathology lab at East Ham Memorial Hospital for thirty years.”

Although he has spent most of his working life in politics, Mr Lansley’s career path suggests no formal interest in the workings of the health service until he joined the Health Select Committee in 1997. Seven years later, in 2004, Michael Howard appointed him Shadow Health Secretary.

Lansley suffered a minor stroke in 1992 while playing cricket, as a result of which he lost ‘fine balance’.

He did, however, suffer a minor stroke in 1992 while playing cricket, as a result of which he lost “fine balance”. In his published account of the episode, to coincide with World Stroke Day, he recalls that the hospital diagnosed him incorrectly and discharged him the following day, diagnosing an inner ear infection.

The article is, by implication, critical of the treatment he received and observes that “in other countries, the response to stroke was more effective”. Some critics have seen this incident as the wellspring for the radical changes to the NHS proposed in the Lansley White Paper.

Lobbyists and think tanks
The inter-penetration between the political class, think tanks, lobby groups and private health companies in the UK lies at the heart of some of the criticism of the Coalition’s health policies.

PR and lobbying consultants such as Edelman (which includes private healthcare provider Bupa and pharma giants Pfizer and Astra Zeneca) and Quiller Consultants (which lobbies for outsourcing company Capita, “For over 20 years… a trusted partner of both the Department of Health and the NHS”) have strong ties with the Conservative Party.

Lord Chadlington (aka Peter Gummer) is chief executive of the Huntsworth Group, which owns Quiller. Quiller’s lobbyists include George Bridges, appointed campaign director for the Conservative Party in 2006 and on the board of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies think tank.

Links between politicians, think tanks, lobby groups and health companies lie at the heart of some criticism of coalition health policies.

Andrew Lansley’s wife, Sally Low, is founder and managing director of Low Associates (“We make the link between the public and private sectors”). A Daily Telegraph report in February records that the Low Associates website lists pharmaceuticals companies SmithKline Beecham, Unilever and P&G among its clients. It also records Ms Low’s assertion that the company “does not work with any client who has interests in the health sector”. The website currently contains no reference to the drug firms listed above.

Meanwhile, the centre-right think tank Reform (founders: Nick Herbert, Conservative MP, and Andrew Haldenby, formerly of the Conservative Research Department) announced in March 2010 the appointment of Nick Seddon as its deputy director. Seddon moved from Circle, a private healthcare firm, where he was replaced several months later by Christina Lineen, who had previously spent two years working for Andrew Lansley.

‘Ideological dogma’
Earlier today Andrew Lansley suffered the ignominy of a vote of no confidence in his management of NHS reforms by the Royal College of Nursing. One delegate commented, “This is being driven by ideological dogma, not what is best for our patients,” to which the Health Secretary countered that he wants the health service to be strong and to protect it.

But with a recorded 65 per cent increase in A&E waiting times under the Coalition Government, and with doctors warning that the system is “struggling to cope”, Mr Lansley may continue to find it difficult to justify his idea of a robust NHS. Nor will the complex web of links between politicians and the private and public strands of healthcare in the UK make the task any easier.