The Conservatives’ key pre-election pledge to protect the NHS with £8bn extra spending a year was entirely disingenuous as the government had been told the service required at least double that amount to keep going, according to a book by a former minister.
Downing Street was informed by an official report that to stay afloat the NHS would need £16bn a year extra in government spending above inflation by 2020, but dismissed this as “mad” and ordered the figure to be halved, according to David Laws.
The book by the former Lib Dem MP, who was chief secretary to the Treasury for little over a fortnight in 2010 before resigning over wrongly claiming £40,000 in expenses and was later a junior minister in the coalition, is being serialised in the Mail on Sunday.
The £8bn a year pledge was a primary plank of the Conservatives’ 2015 election campaign, and designed to ward off Labour claims that the party could not be trusted to properly fund the health service. The figure was explained at the time as being arrived at after a report by Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, found there would be a £30bn a year funding gap for the service by the end of the decade. Stevens said this could be made up from £22bn a year in efficiency savings, leaving £8bn a year for the government to make up.
But Laws’ book reportedly explains: “Stevens’ original estimate was that the NHS needed £15-16bn extra [from the government]. No 10’s reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be joking.’
“Stevens was told there was no way the PM and chancellor would sign up to an ‘impossible and excessive’ commitment this size. He was told, ‘Get it down to a more deliverable sum.’”
According to the book, this pressure resulted in the supposed possible efficiency savings increased to “totally unrealistic” levels.
Laws added: “The Stevens report was changed for cynical political expediency. I am not blaming Stevens: he was put under huge pressure.”
This sleight of hand was not highlighted by the Lib Dems at the time because Nick Clegg discovered “the fiddle” some time after the Stevens report was published, Laws said, by which time countering the £8bn-a year-figure would have caused confusion and a major row.
NHS England denied on Sunday it had been “leaned on” to accept the £8bn figure, but indicated that it might press for that sum to be revisited and increased before the 2020 general election.
A spokeswoman said: “The NHS five-year forward view in October 2014 clearly and independently said that the NHS would need in the range of £8bn-£21bn real-terms annual growth by 2020, depending on levels of efficiency, capital investment and transformational funding. We stand by this analysis and were not ‘leaned on’. David Laws was not part of these discussions, and has no first-hand knowledge of them.”
The NHS spokeswoman added: Stevens had been more vocal than any of his predecessors in arguing the case publicly for extra investment in the NHS and the service is “going hammer and tongs” to make itself as efficient as possible.
This article was written by Peter Walker and Denis Campbell, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th March 2016 13.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010