SHAMELESS Alex Neil and Nicola Sturgeon were urged to explain themselves or resign last night over a secretive attempt to privatise the Scottish NHS by the back door.
The angry response comes as this newspaper today exposes a long-running campaign to manipulate health board spending figures to hide the full extent of private sector involvement.
Ministers boast that only £80million of hospital funding is privatised but in fact almost £500million went to “sub-contractors” last year – almost five per cent of Holyrood’s annual NHS budget.
These third parties include commercial firms, voluntary organisations and councils, in order to fund care for the elderly, people with mental health issues and learning disabilities, and community care.
Councils are increasingly bringing in the private sector to help meet needs in each of these areas – a fact that is acknowledged and even encouraged by the Scottish Government.
The effect is that millions of pounds of Scottish health funding ends up in the hands of independent firms each year, but does not appear in the NHS books.
In a further hugely damaging revelation, the annual sum given to sub-contractors – including these massive hidden payments to the private sector – has more than doubled since the SNP came to power. The official NHS figures are buried at the end of the annual Scottish Health Service Costs publication, contained within the 89th of 90 spending reports.
Last night, Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “Both Alex Neil and Nicola Sturgeon have manipulated and concealed the spend on private health care in Scotland while lambasting Westminster for roughly the same spend in England and then shamelessly using their manipulated figures in the referendum campaign.
“Their personal integrity has been compromised. Had parliament not been in recess they would both now have to explain themselves and explain why they should not resign for wilfully misleading MSPs and the wider public.”
He added: “This is a massively embarrassing revelation for the SNP, and undermines even further its cowardly scaremongering on the NHS we’ve seen in recent weeks.
“The hypocrisy of Alex Salmond pointing the finger south when his own Scottish Government has been relying so heavily on private care is astonishing. “This discovery should put the nonsensical Yes campaign argument to bed once and for all.
“We believe the independent sector plays a vital role in supporting the NHS, and it seems from these figures the SNP is in agreement.”
Scottish Labour’s health spokesman Neil Findlay said: “The increased role of the private sector in social care provision in Scotland is a direct result of the cuts to council budgets by this SNP government.
According to the Scottish Government’s own report from February, “almost all councils in Scotland are now highly dependent on care homes that are provided by private sector organisations.”
“Councils have had an underfunded council tax freeze imposed upon them and along with sharply reducing budgets they are expected to provide the same level of service – they have been put in an impossible situation by the SNP government. We have been warning about this social case crisis for the last few years. Alex Neil needs to take urgent action to ensure that social care services are sufficiently supported, otherwise it is the most vulnerable in our society who will suffer the consequences.”
According to the Scottish Government, £5million was spent on private healthcare by NHS boards in 2012/13 – around 0.8 per cent of the budget. This is much lower than the corresponding figure south of the Border and has led to claims that a No vote threatens the NHS.
However, the country’s 14 health boards spent £490,622,166 on sub-contractors – 4.8 per cent of the annual budget, and more than the corresponding figure in the north east of England.
Of that total, £63.8million was spent with voluntary organisations and an enormous £343.8million went to councils. The total has more than doubled since the SNP first came to power in 2007, when the annual sub-contract bill stood at £225million.
According to the Scottish Government’s own report from February, “almost all councils in Scotland are now highly dependent on care homes that are provided by private sector organisations.” The Mental Health Strategy for Scotland: 2011-2015 calls for “the NHS, local authorities, the third and private sectors” to work together.
In a report entitled Improving Quality of Life for People with Learning Disabilities, published in June 2013, the Scottish Government recommends “local authorities and their NHS partners should work with private, voluntary and third sector agencies”. And an Audit Scotland report on community care, published in April 2012, said: “NHS boards and councils need to work together… with private sector organisations.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “These are regularly published figures and do not involve the NHS delivering any of its services through private contractors. “As we have stated previously, the NHS works closely with councils to support people as they move on from receiving healthcare in hospitals to get care in a community setting.
“To support these transitions NHS boards provide some financial support to councils, whose responsibility it is to provide social care. It’s a long standing practice and helps councils to provide the kind of care in the community that people need.”