Who privatised Hinchingbrooke hospital? And does it matter?

When it comes to rows about the NHS, these days it doesn’t rain, it pours. In fact, fights between the parties about who cares more/privatised the most are turning into a weather bomb, such is their frequency. Today Nick Clegg turned up to Prime Minister’s Questions determined to highlight Labour hypocrisy on the health service, and he managed to shoehorn it in to an answer to Harriet Harman’s question about people trusting the Lib Dems (or not). The Lib Dem leader said:

‘In fact, the Shadow Health Secretary, sitting there demurely, is the only man in England who has ever privatised an NHS hospital, and they dare to lecture us. Hinchingbrooke hospital – the only NHS hospital to be privatised, and by the Labour party.’

Burnham didn’t like that, and complained about it in a point of order, arguing that this was ‘a point of sheer inaccuracy’, adding:

‘The contract for Hinchingbrooke hospital was signed under the Coalition, and when the previous Government left office there was still an NHS bidder in the competition.’

He accused Clegg of having ‘inadvertently misled the House’, though the Lib Dem had already left the Chamber. Tory MP Stewart Jackson then followed that up with another point of order arguing that ‘on 27 March 2010, The Times recorded that he [Burnham] had signed the agreement to restrict the number of providers to just three, in the private sector’.

Now the Deputy Prime Minister has dutifully written back this afternoon, saying Burnham’s version of events is ‘simply not true’ and that the three organisations shortlisted for the contract when Burnham was still Health Secretary were all non-NHS. Clegg adds:

‘When making your Point of Order, you may have been referring to the fact that the Serco bid included working with the Peterborough and Stamford NHS Foundation Trust. Given it is clear that the actual bidder was Serco, I suggest that you are stretching the boundaries of accuracy to their very limit.’

Then he asks Burnham to set the record straight. This could run for a while.

This afternoon I spoke to the organisation that does run Hinchingbrooke, Circle, and this is their timeline of how the hospital was put up for tender:

July 2007 – Department of Health gives the Strategic Health Authority approval to examine different options, including franchises.
July 2009 – Department of Health approves the business case for an open competitive tender for a franchise.
October 2009 – Open competitive tender announced and 11 organisations submit bids, six are selected to move to the next stage. Of those six, only one was NHS-only: Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge. Circle say there was no mention of a preferred provider at any point in the tender.
February 2010 – Addenbrooke’s pull out of the bidding process.
March 2010 – Shortlist for the franchise announced: Serco, Ramsay and Circle. Serco’s bid did include a partnership with Peterborough NHS Trust.(May 2010 – General Election in which Labour leaves office)
August 2010: shortlist narrowed to the final two: Serco and Circle.
November 2010 – Circle announced as preferred bidder.
November 2011 – Contract signed with Circle, which began work in February 2012.

Circle’s Gordon Hector is rather amused by this desperation to blame other people:

‘Frankly we find it all a bit bizarre. It’s a matter of fact that the tender was an open competitive process, and it was clear by the end of 2009 that Hinchingbrooke would be run by a private company. We signed the contract under this government, but before Lansley’s health act became law. It’s just not a party political thing in our view. We can only assume that everyone is being very generous about sharing the credit for a well-run little hospital.’

This is the rather odd thing about this whole debate. No-one seems to want to talk about whether Circle is doing a decent job running the hospital, and instead is fighting over who signed off what when.