Saving the NHS: the method and success rate of the petition ‘activist’

All sound and fury signifying nothing much.

Jamie Snape, a web developer from Kingsbrige in South Hams, Devon, having read that the NHS’s problems arose after the privatisation of many of its services, decided to write a petition.

The petition’s demands themselves were quite basic: a stop to the privatisation of NHS services, a ban on the outsourcing of NHS services, and an end to the renewal of any outsourcing contracts already signed. “Companies should not be profiteering from NHS contracts, when every pound of NHS budgets is desperately needed for more doctors and nurses, and to pay them more.” (Stop the privatisation of NHS services, Parliament website)

The petition did not touch on the problems of the plundering of NHS finances by drug companies, or of the layers of unnecessary management pinching every penny they can from services and staff while lavishly bestowing themselves with ludicrously high wages, bonuses and phoney retirement awards. It also did not touch on the PFI fiddle that takes NHS hospitals out of the hands of the NHS, builds shoddy replacements and then rents them back to the public at exorbitant rates.

Perhaps Mr Snape hoped that a short, simple and unequivocal petition on just one aspect of privatisation would garner support and leave no-one in any doubt regarding his intentions. He did, in fact, gain an impressive quarter of a million signatures through his efforts, which was more than enough to spark a parliamentary debate on the petition’s content.

In an article explaining his motivations, Snape wrote that there are “over 6,500 petitions on the parliament website right now”, with more added daily, and that the vast majority of these are viewed by virtually no-one. (Backdoor NHS privatisation and Accountable Care Organisations (ACOs), Jamie Snape blog, 7 March 2018)

Snape himself, a former PR worker, was successful in garnering wide publicity for his campaign. The question is: what has this petition ultimately achieved?

In fact, the unwritten understanding between the writers and signers of petitions is that the signatories will have done nothing else to fight against the privatisation of the NHS, but will still have the feeling that they have ‘done their bit’.

Snape recognised in his short article for the Times that the privatisation of the NHS “can mean so many things as there are so many aspects to it, so in terms of the debate itself, my hope is simply that I will observe a well-informed one. I hope that all the MPs involved demonstrate a real knowledge of the issues relating to it, such as the scale of current NHS privatisation.”

It seems even he wasn’t really expecting much serious change to come from his petition or from the parliamentary debate.

What happens when parliament debates an issue of concern to the working class?

The sparcely-attended ‘parliamentary debate’ on 23 April, which took place in a side room set aside for meetings of the ‘petitions committee’, was opened by Mike Hill, the Labour MP for Hartlepool. (See video footage on Parliament TV)

Hill gave a little background by stating: “Privatisation in the NHS is not new. When the NHS was founded in 1948, agreements had to be thrashed out with GPs, doctors and consultants to allow private practice to continue and sit alongside the new national health service.

“Private healthcare insurance has been around for longer than the NHS. The British United Provident Association – Bupa – was founded in 1947, and it currently has about 15.5 million health insurance customers and 14.5 million people in its private clinics and hospitals.”

He continued: “an update to the BMA’s 2016 report entitled ‘Privatisation and independent sector provision in the NHS’ shows that in recent years, the number of NHS patients treated in private hospitals has increased substantially. In 2015-16 alone there were 557,200 admissions – an increase of 8 percent – and in the same period 5 percent of NHS-funded elective surgical admissions were to independent sector facilities.”

He also added: “forecasts for the next three years indicate that £10bn-worth of NHS work will go to the private sector”.

The debate followed the well-worn path of Labour MPs supporting the narrow ‘demands’ of the petition while ignoring or trying to defend previous Labour governments’ attempts to undermine the NHS.

Conservative MPs made sympathetic noises for the NHS and its wonderful staff, claiming that they did not wish to privatise the organisation, but repeated their mantra regarding the service provision that the market made things work ‘efficiently’ while giving the best value for the public money being spent.

Mike Hill ended the debate with the final words: “I thank all honourable members for their powerful contributions, and I thank the petitioners, whose numbers helped to secure this important debate. Question put and agreed to. Resolved, that this House has considered e-petition 205106 relating to the privatisation of NHS services.”

All of which means, plainly, it has been discussed, honour has been satisfied (if honour can in reality be said to exist in that house), and things can carry on as before.

This is the parliamentary democracy that serves the will of the people in Britain. The petition, while it can have a role to play in raising public consciousness about an issue, as a tool for actual change is of itself alone as effective as the TUC or StW’s marches, or – in simpler terms – the petition as a method of protest or change is as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot.