Tag Archives: health care provision

NHS Direct and 111, why the surprise?

Why the surprise over NHS Direct?

As the Independent reports on NHS Direct pulling out of providing 111 services I wonder how the government might not have seen this coming?

Probably because faith in the free market is unshakeable across government as it chooses to ignore evidence of its failure. The free market is seen by many as the only way forward to address future resourcing issues. However, the re-branding of healthcare as a commodity ignores some simple ‘free market’ truths, pointed out by the economist Adam Smith several hundred years ago;  the purpose of the free market is to generate wealth for those who own the means of production, or the ‘masters of mankind’ as Smith christened them, it is not a charitable endeavour but a single-minded system driven by cash not compassion, who Smith suggested had a ‘vile maxim‘  of  “all for ourselves”.  The ‘masters of mankind’  in Smiths time were the merchants and manufacturers who supported policy that enabled them to make more profit, they were not concerned with how such policy and their actions might impact on others.  Today the ‘masters of mankind’ appear to be companies like NHS Direct or ‘big pharma’, financial institutions and banks, insurance companies, private healthcare providers.

This really should not come as a surprise as we have already seen some of the potential problems that can arise in the marketisation of social care. At a macro level those private institutions who have already taken over some areas of care provision   have been found lacking, which does not bode well for extending this strategy accross healthcare.  Take, for example, HSBC who were fined £10.5 million last year for mis-selling care bonds to older people.  The Financial Services Authority found unsuitable sales had been made to 87% of customers, with the average age of those who purchased bonds being 83 years of age, many of whom having already died before the scandal came to light.  Whilst £10.5 million might sound a lot it’s not for a company who was recently exposed as allowing the laundering of at least 7 billion dollars of drugs money through its bank and has set aside 700 million dollars to cover fines.

The selling of care related products and services by the private sector can leave individuals vulnerable in a variety of ways, look at the doubling of the number of private care homes going bankrupt leaving older people without secure housing or care provision. Latest reports in The Independent suggests nothing had changed as the bailiffs are set to move in on some care home providers.

Arguably, the ‘free market’ is anything but ‘free’.  A favourite of Mrs Thatcher, economist Friedrich Hayek compared the free market to a ‘game’ where there are winners and losers suggesting trying to regulate the market in the name of social justice was a waste of time. The current government, and opposition, appear to believe there is only one game in town when it comes to the future of our health and social care sector, they are wrong.  

‘Big Society’ and the future of health and social care

David Cameron suggests the Jubilee party was a ‘perfect example of ‘Big Society’.  Whilst it’s okay for a knees up, is it a suitable foundation for improving the quality of care  older people receive in Britain?

Unfortunately, David Cameron’s comments on Big Society do little to help us understand what “it” actually is, and to be honest, I am not even sure he  knows what it is beyond the usual sound bytes of ‘kitchen sink economic theory’*.  However, could the concept of Big Society actually have something to contribute to the debate on the future care of older people?

What is ‘Big Society’?

Big Society has been vilified as a return to the politics of the New Right,  a Trojan horse for smaller government,  and feted as the anatomy of the new politics  on which to establish the legitimate nature, and limits, of the relationship  between the  state and individual in a 21st century system of health and social care.  Phillip Blond is a central figure in the development of the concept of Big Society.  Blond  argues both the political Left and political Right have presided over a collapse of coherent cultural values and a shared commitment to a ‘common good’,  suggesting a redistribution of power from the ‘top’ (state) to the bottom (individual) is required, aligned with a more compassionate form of capitalism, to re-establish the common good.  For the current government this rests on the empowerment of local communities founded on voluntary networks of trust and mutuality.  From this perspective the purpose of Big Society appears to be to extend responsibility for the care of older people to local communities, rather than extending the responsibility of the state.

Policy programmes already implemented by the current government to develop Big Society include the National Citizen Service, which organise voluntary opportunities for young people, and the creation of the Big Society Bank, which will act as a central source of investment income for third sector organisations.  The Localism Bills’ accompanying guidance states ‘Big Society is what happens whenever people work together for the common good.  It is about achieving our collective goals in ways that are more diverse, more local and more personal (HM Government, 2010: p.2).

However, whilst at one level Big Society can be viewed as a mechanism of transferring more responsibility onto individuals, allowing the state to reduce public sector spending (Alcock, 2012) Big Society is also about believing in, and building on, the inherent ‘good’ within humankind.

Jesse Norman suggests Big Society involves moving beyond the ‘two way opposition of state vs. individual’ in the provision of care to ‘the three way relationship of enabling state, active individual and linking institution’ (2010,p.7).  For Norman the former is flawed because it ignores the diversity of human beings and their ability to act morally without interference from the state.  By justifying the legitimacy of the state, it polarises the individual and ignores the positive power and potential of individuals to create and maintain a ‘good society’, which cares for one another for altruistic reasons, rather than because the state legislate that society provide care and support.  Norman suggests state interference is a negative response to care provision, quoting Alex de Tocqueville (1805-1859)

“The more [the state] stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance.  These are cause and effect that unceasingly create each other.”

The ‘associations’ that mediate between individuals and the state can be conceptualised as operating within civil society.  Civil society is the space of un-coerced human action, the place where people take action as moral beings,  via all organisations and associations above the level of the family and below the level of the state.  The place where your jubilee street party was planned presumably.

Importantly for advocates of Big Society the role of government in this ‘space’ and ‘place’ is minimal.

How does this support the current approach to caring for older people?

From this perspective caring for older people, and ensuring care is dignified, is viewed as something we all agree is a ‘good thing’ and freely engage in, rather than something government should regulate or legislate for.  In this context government relies on ‘phillic’ associations, taken from the Greek ‘philia’, meaning friendship ties, affection or regard that are the essence of the space between individual and state.  Government would rather rely on these to guide human behaviour in the care sector than introducing legislation or regulation.

Hence, the governments  support for the introduction of a voluntary dignity code  (The Telegraph., 2012).

Big Society, freedom and money

However, whilst government may think treating older people with dignity and respect is viewed as a ‘given’, assuming we are all willing to  care for, and protect,  older people,  this is not necessarily true, as evidenced by a number of reports on the poor levels of care provision  older people experience across the care sector.

At the heart of the current debate are two related themes.  Firstly, an attempt to understand how the relationship between the state, private sector and individual should be formulated to fulfil a mutual responsibility in supporting dignified care for older people, and secondly  the affordability of care provision.   Successive governments since Margaret Thatcher have relied on a consumerist approach to improving the quality of health and social care provision. The question is has turning vulnerable older people into consumers improved their care?  For some yes, but for many of the most vulnerable older people in society, those older old people with dementia and who are frail, I’m not so sure.  However, what it has done is hide the abuse and mistreatment of older people from collective view for the last 30 years, and led society to engage in debate that does not move beyond the financial.  Research suggests this has had a detrimental effect on the moral health of society and academics are now suggesting the use of market mechanisms can change people’s attitudes and values, having a  ‘corrosive effect’.    Michael Sandel makes a pertinent point suggesting

It calls into question the use of market mechanisms and market reasoning in many aspects of social life, ……to motivate performance in education, health care, the work place, voluntary associations, civic life and other settings in which intrinsic motivations or moral commitments matter‘ (What money can’t buy, 2012, p122).

It is impossible to ignore the effects of systematic inequalities in liberal societies that effectively exclude, or compromise the rights of a variety of social groups.  Nor can we ignore the corrosive effect successive governments use of a consumerist approach to health and social care might have had on those ‘phillic‘ associations so vital to a ‘Big Society’.   The ‘Osborne Supremacy’  assumes the existence of a single unified ‘big society’ when it actually consists of many ‘societies’ with competing interests where the interests of powerful elites are advanced in the name of defending common interests, whilst the interests of marginalised groups, such as older people,  leave them without support.

Big Society or Big Con?

The answer will depend on your political and ideological viewpoint on the legitimate role, and limits, of the state in the provision of health and social care.  Whilst it is true Big Society clearly already exists, evidenced by the number of people already providing care freely in society, what is in doubt is whether it can be extended any further without an active state (Sullivan, 2012).

* Kitchen sink economic theory -this is a term used in my household to describe David Cameron and George Osbornes approach to the financial crisis.  It refers to a vision I have of a post war couple discussing there finances whilst stood washing up at the kitchen sink.  Gladys turns to husband Frank and says “money is tight Frank, what will we do?”  Frank turns to Gladys and answers “never fear mother, we’ll just have to tighten our belts, don’t worry we’re in this together”.  Of course Frank and Gladys are very naive and do not realise their actions will make no difference because the problem is a global financial crisis and not related to Gladys splashing out on a new apron!