By Tony Collins
In a speech this week to the Labour Party conference, reported in Pulse, the Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham portrayed himself as the man to put right the NHS.
“… Put patients before profits,” he said. “Working together, putting patients before profits … One Nation system built on NHS values, putting people before profits… The NHS desperately needs a Labour win in 2015. You, me, we are its best hope. It’s only real hope…”
This could well be the Andy Burnham who, as Health Secretary in 2009, agreed an extraordinarily generous extra payment to BT of £546m under the NPfIT – a payment that has never been satisfactorily justified despite many questions by public accounts committee MP Richard Bacon?
This is what the Public Accounts Committee said of the Department of Health’s generosity to BT.
“The Department is clearly overpaying BT to implement systems: BT is paid £9m to implement [Rio] systems at each NHS site, even though the same systems have been purchased for under £2m by NHS organisations outside the Programme.”
It was Andy Burnham who denounced critics of the NPfIT on which about £7bn has been spent so far (much of it with large companies) for little return.
“I want to begin by challenging the myth … that the NHS IT programme has been a waste,” said Burnham in 2009, in a debate on health in the Commons. “The programme has changed the way in which the Government pay for IT by creating a contract whereby we pay for what we get from suppliers only when it is fully delivered.
“Indeed, we have been praised by the National Audit Office for creating such a contract [a point which is open to question).
“… To put it simply, the programme is a key part of delivering modern, safe, joined-up health care. It is supporting the ongoing reform of the NHS by giving choice and convenience to patients. The NHS could not function without it…
“… Let me be absolutely clear: we have no intention whatsoever of cancelling the programme overall, not least because it is already making the NHS safer, more efficient and more convenient for patients … The programme has already provided benefits, and we believe that this approach will accelerate the delivery of benefits to front-line services and patients across the NHS.”
Asked if he would acknowledge that billions of pounds had been spent without delivery, that the opportunity costs of delays were spiralling, and that there was confusion and frustration over IT and Choose and Book, Burnham replied:
“… It is simply not true to say that this programme is flawed and has not delivered benefits: it has delivered considerable benefits to the NHS and has improved the way in which the NHS contracts for IT… We believe that there are significant benefits from a national health service having a programme of IT that can link up clinicians across the system. We further believe that it is safer for patients if their records can be accessed across the system…”
Burnham went on to praise the NPfIT contracts.
“It was an innovative contract that meant that the NHS paid only once it received the system and the system had been passed over and was operational. That was a step forward in how the NHS paid for IT systems.”
How much political credibility do ministers in the last government have today after their naive – and passionate – defence of an IT programme that was flawed so obviously from the start?
The stickiness of the myth that NPfIT has delivered overall is quite astonishing. Time and time again the political classes make such statements as if they are fact. It is quite clear that those who report to ministers can make mistakes – the Virgin Rail Franchise fiasco for example. The weight of evidence to the contrary is overwhelming and has been written about ad nauseam, yet still they persist in the myth. I can only assume that they know something we don’t like what the true cost is and what it would cost the country to get out of it. Given reported figures on compensating Virgin and co is between 40 and 100 million (quoted on last nights question time on BBC1) what price would the tax payer have pay to get out of the NPfIT deals?
We are now steaming ahead towards the end of the contracts and we have still heard nothing in relation to what happens post contract period. The procurement going on for London and the South will be one to watch. I predict BT / RiO will be right in there to maintain the status quo with no real competition on price or functionality. The national programme by another name. Business as usual then.