Friday, August 25, 2006

Using the NHS to launder public money

The revelation that iSoft, a key but deeply troubled software supplier to the huge NHS IT project Connecting for Health (CfH), is being investigated for "accounting irregularities" by including revenue it had not yet received – is symptomatic of a wider malaise. The debacle at iSoft, whose three founders made £81m by selling shares before the story broke, highlights the irreconcilable tension between the bottom-line concerns of private sector companies and the not-for-profit, healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery ethos which has been enshrined in the NHS for more than half-a-century.

The cost of the hugely complex CfH is claimed by some to be likely to reach £20 billion or even £30 billion. This is money raised through taxes, and like many New Labour projects, is channelled through the public sector into the pockets of their share-holding profit-seeking friends and sponsors. And all the evidence points to the expectation that, like much smaller-scale projects including those in the Ministry of Defence, the BBC and the Inland Revenue, this one will yield little or no benefit, or even inflict major damage on the services provided by the 1.3 million NHS staff.

Some of the features of the CfH programme – electronic transmission of prescriptions, the storage and transmission of digital images, and not least provision of an electronic record for every patient, would do much to bring the NHS’s use of information and communications technologies into line with other major enterprises. But others, like the Choose and Book flagship, are intended to further open the NHS to the use of private hospitals.

Connecting for Health is headed up by a former partner from consultancy Deloitte, helicoptered in to become the UK’s highest paid civil servant. The project has been steered through the complexities of public sector procurement by Kellog, Brown and Root, a company with long experience in such matters. Until last month, KBR, a part of Halliburton, the giant American oil and engineering company, and US vice-president Dick Cheney's former employer, was the US military's biggest contractor in Iraq. But it too has been under investigation for a range of accounting irregularities said to involve massive fraud and waste.

Just like the PFI hospital building programme, CfH is part of New Labour’s huge money-laundering operation using public sector workers to "add value’" for the shareholders of corrupt global corporations.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

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