Immigration Bill: Whipping up racism to cut our services

Naomi Byron

Home Secretary Theresa May says the new Immigration Bill will stop ‘health tourism’, which is a major “drain” on the National Health Service.

The argument that unentitled people are benefiting from the NHS seems compelling. However, when questioned on Radio 4, May couldn’t put a figure on the cost to the NHS.

In fact, the Royal College of GPs reckons health tourism amounts to a minuscule 0.01% of the NHS budget.

Even if the government did introduce the proposed £200 charge on temporary migrants (including non-EU students) for use of the NHS, it wouldn’t save any money.

For a start the NHS already charges foreign nationals for using its services. In 2011-12 the NHS spent £33 million on treating foreign nationals, of which £21 million was recovered.

Clare Gerarda, chair of the Royal College of GPs, estimates that staff costs alone to administer the charge would cost £500 million – more than 40 times what is spent on healthcare for foreign nationals now!

Unsurprisingly, the Tories have the wrong target. The real drain on the NHS is the profiteering of private companies, who are bleeding the NHS dry.

Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts – where the NHS signs contracts with private companies to provide services or build hospitals, and which are then leased back to the NHS at massively inflated costs – are one of the biggest causes of deficits and cuts in NHS trusts.

Cancel PFI ‘debts’

In 2011 the public ‘owed’ £121.4 billion to pay for infrastructure only valued at £52.9 billion. Repayment costs are rising sharply.

Between 2009/10 and 2011/12 they increased by almost £200 million. In London, where repayments rose by over 70% over the last three years, NHS trusts spent £143.9 million on PFI repayments last year.

The Tories’ plans make no financial sense, until you see that once they set up an administrative system to introduce charges it is only a matter of time before charges are introduced for the rest of us.

This is the real aim of these new NHS charges for foreign nationals – to scrap the principle of NHS treatment being free at the point of delivery.

The Tories’ plans put public health at risk in other ways too. The presence of a public NHS has meant the virtual elimination of many deadly and debilitating but curable diseases, If poor people cannot access treatment, infectious diseases such as TB will again rear their ugly heads.

To actually stop the NHS being drained dry the first step should be cancellation of PFI contracts and privatisation, with compensation only on the basis of proven need.

The next should be to cancel all planned cuts, taking immediate action to bring staffing levels up to the minimum required for safe practice.

Health workers in Mid Yorkshire Trust, who organised a successful strike earlier this year against plans to slash their wages and terms and conditions, have led the way.

Health unions need to organise coordinated action to prevent cuts and stop the planned pay freeze.

It is doubly ironic that the Tories are talking tough on immigration, as the coalition has tried to slash jobs in the immigration service.

In 2011 the government announced plans to reduce Home Office staff by a third, including 5,000 job cuts in the UK Borders Agency with 1,000 job cuts in the border force.

Only the threat of major strike action by PCS members in the Borders Agency on the eve of the 2012 Olympics forced the government to agree to take on more staff.

Like this year’s Health and Social Care Act, which effectively privatised GP surgeries, these proposed charges for NHS treatment are privatisation by the back door, aimed at selling off profitable services to the Con-Dems’ big business friends.

Virgin Care, owned by Richard Branson, has contracts worth £500 million to run community healthcare on behalf of the NHS in Surrey.

The Bill also includes plans to fine landlords and estate agents up to £3,000 if they fail to check tenants’ immigration status.

Lawyers warn this is unworkable, discriminatory, and a step towards identity checks for everyone.

The Residential Landlords Association estimates that there are potentially 404 types of European identity documents they would have to be able to check.

Faced with expensive and complicated immigration checks for people, many landlords are likely to refuse accommodation to migrants as the simplest way to avoid fines.

This Bill is not aimed at protecting public services. The Tories hope that whipping up racism and division will weaken our ability to defend them.