Unite research shows many peers have links with private healthcare companies


‘Backwoodsmen’ peers with poor voting records, but with strong links to the private healthcare industry, are supporting the government’s bid to push through its controversial ‘pro-privatisation’ health bill.

Research by Unite has revealed the extent to which the government is relying on normally non-working peers with private sector health interests to ram through the Health and Social Care Bill.

The research comes as the House of Lords discusses the bill in its committee stage today.

Unite national officer for health Rachael Maskell said: “It is a indelible stain on parliamentary democracy that, while the vast majority of the electorate don’t want their NHS privatised, a cabal of unelected peers, riddled with vested financial self-interest, can be mobilised to thwart the wishes of voters.

“It is clear that democracy is being hi-jacked for the financial benefit of the private healthcare companies, many of whom have made large contributions to the Tory party since David Cameron became its leader in 2005.

“Shirley Williams has said that it’s wrong to play politics with the NHS – but here is stark evidence to the contrary.  Now is the time for Lady Williams and her fellow Liberal Democrat and cross-bench peers to reinforce the independence of the House of Lords and show the country that the peers are not in the pockets of big business.”

The second reading of the bill saw a record turnout for the modern House of Lords, with the largest numbers of peers voting since the 1993 Maastricht Treaty debate.

But an examination of the division lists shows that many of those who turned up to vote through the bill worked for companies that stand to directly benefit financially from the bill or work as lobbyists, and do not routinely attend House of Lords votes.

The so-called ‘backwoodsmen’ – Tory peers, often hereditary, who do not normally attend Parliament but can be turned out occasionally to pass controversial legislation, such as the poll tax – were historically criticised as one of the most unacceptable features of the unelected upper chamber.

The passage of the bill suggests that the government is now resorting to Thatcher’s old tactics again – but with big business interests also playing a role.

Criticism will be fuelled by the revelation that the peers identified did not stay to vote on the Localism Bill, which was debated immediately after the health bill and voted on before 6.00pm on the same day.

The following Lords were highlighted by the investigation:

  • Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, the former Tory health secretary and now a director of BUPA, has an attendance rate of just 20% since 2005 and has voted on less than half the Lords’ voting days this year. She has, however, turned up for every day of the health bill.
  • Baroness Cumberlege of Newick is another former Tory health minister who runs her own lobbying firm, Cumberlege Connections, which works ‘extensively’ with major pharmaceuticals interests. She has recorded votes on just 22 days this year, but has voted in every division on the Health and Social Care Bill.
  • Notorious tax avoider and billionaire Tory bankroller, Lord Ashcroft ‘of Belize’ has had investments in, at least, two private healthcare groups. His business interests have led to an attendance rate of just 16% and he voted on less than a quarter of voting days this year, but did make a rare appearance to help ram through the privatisation of the NHS.
  • Tim Bell, the founder of Saatchi & Saatchi and Tory advertising guru and now Lord Bell, is another businessman whose appearances in the Lords are rare. He has attended only a fifth of voting days this year. But as chairman of Chime Communications, which owns lobbying firms such as Bell Pottinger, he represents health companies including BT Health, pharma giant AstraZeneca, and the now-infamous Southern Cross, and he voted to pass the Tories’ health bill.
  • Lord Chadlington is another Tory peer who appears to make his money in the lobbying industry, and his work as chief executive of the Huntworth communications group has kept him away from most votes in the Lords this year, but again he voted for the health bill.
  • Lord Coe is a Tory grandee with one of the worst attendance records in Parliament, at less than 10%, and his name appears on the division list on only five days this year, but the government relied on him to get the bill through its second reading. He is a director of AMT-Sybex Group, which is the IT supplier to the NHS, and IT is one of many areas that the bill could lead to lucrative new opportunities for health contractors.

All of these peers attended only for the two mid-afternoon votes on the health bill, leaving before a subsequent division on the Localism Bill at 5.50pm that afternoon.

They are not, however, the only Lords whose behaviour will raise eyebrows.

For example, former Tory leader Michael Howard, now Lord Howard of Lympne, is another Tory grandee whose attendance is occasional. He has a 35.1% voting rate and has appeared on less than half of voting days this year, but despite missing the second reading of the health bill did turn up for the first day of committee stage. He is a senior adviser to Hawkpoint Partners, a corporate finance firm.

Cross-bench peer Lord Ballyedmond also voted with the Tories, appearing for the day, despite an attendance record of only 12.5% since 2004, and well under half of all voting days this year. He is the chairman of Norbrook Laboratories, a major global pharmaceuticals corporation.

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