Lord McColl is a junior Tory health spokesman. Heard of him? No, me neither. In real life he is a surgeon. He also happens to be a consultant to Endeavour Health, a new private healthcare company that provides a fee-paying rival to the National Health Service’s family doctor service. Obviously in these NHS-loving times, that rates alongside being Jack the Ripper's handyman. Lord McColl has declared his interest in the register of members' interests, and yet The Times is insinuating that he has done something wrong. He hasn't.
I have no idea of Lord McColl's financial circumstances, but he wouldn't be alone in needing to earn a living. Contrary to popular rumour, peers to do not get paid. They get an attendance allowance of
Let's roam into the world of fantasy. Imagine if I were in the House of Lords (yes, we can all laugh - I don't look good in Ermine anyway). Imagine further if I were an junior front bench spokesman shadowing the DCMS. Could I exist on the attendance allowance? No. I also don't have the private means to allow me to do so. So I would have to have some sort of declarable outside income. Why shouldn't this come from my own company, which publishes Total Politics? Ah, I hear you cry, but publishing falls under the remit of DCMS. Indeed it does. But if it is all transparently declared, and people know what my role outside the House of Lords is, what's the problem? Sure, if I start making speeches calling for tax breaks for political publishers, people would be entitled to smell a very large rat, but can The Times point to any instance of McColl abusing his position to do the equivalent within his health portfolio. No. The worst that The Times can throw at him is ...
Lord McColl’s involvement with a private healthcare provider highlights the strains within the Conservative Party, which is trying to present itself as a champion of the NHS while also maintaining its traditional links with the industry.
Dear oh dear. So to demonstrate their lurrve for the NHS all Conservatives are supposed to abandon any connection with the health private sector? Next we'll be having a jihad on any Conservative politician who has the temerity to pay for health insurance.
Of course nowhere in the Times "story" did they mention Lord McColl's work for the charity Mercy Ships. Every summer Lord McColl goes to the West coast of Africa, at his own expense, and spends a couple of weeks performing operations on African children who would otherwise die.
They then have a go at another Tory health spokesman over a recent trip to the US which was finded by BUPA...
The growing links between the private sector and Tory health frontbenchers are also demonstrated by the disclosure that Mark Simmonds, a Shadow Health Minister, accepted flights and accommodation for a mission to the United States courtesy of Britain’s biggest private health provider, Bupa. The flights and accommodation bringing him to Boston were worth £4,512. He visited Massachusetts General Hospital, a medical foundation, and Health Dialog, part of Bupa, which specialises in “health coaching and shared decision-making”.
I'd call that, doing his job. This wasn't some sun-soaked jolly. It was a trip to learn more about how the health system is run in another country. Is that now a crime? The trip was fully declared. This kind of innuendo further adds to the feeling which many MPs now have, that they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Simmonds could easily not have gone on that trip, stayed at home and learned nothing. He probably now wishes he had.
Let me use this opportunity to defend private healthcare. Its opponents are effectively saying that people like me and Gordon Brown, who use private healthcare, should not be allowed to decide how to use our own money. I use both the NHS and private health. My experience of the NHS has generally been very good. I have an excellent GP and the treatment I have had for my diabetes has been execellent. No complaints at all on that score. My experience of hospitals is somewhat different, but I won't dwell on that.
Two years ago I had to have an operation - nothing serious, you understand. I could have had it done on the NHS, but it was also covered under my private healthcare. There was a three month waiting list on the NHS, which in itself wasn't a huge issue, but I decided to have it done privately at least partyl on the basis that I then wouldn't further clog up the NHS system and someone else could use my place in the queue. Was I wrong to that, as no doubt some would allege? I felt I was doing the right thing and thinking of others.
Is Gordon Brown wrong to use private health for his dentistry needs? We have to get away from this system of health apartheid, where NHS fundamentalists would seriously suggest that there should be no interaction between the NHS and the private sector at all. Conversely, those who believe the state should have no role in the provision of healthcare also need to be taken on. The state does indeed have a role - the debate is about how large that role should be and whether it should actively denigrate and discourage the use of private healthcare. And it is a debate we should be able to have without the likes of Andy Burnham trying to prevent it from happening.
UPDATE: I made a mistake in the House of Lords allowances. They are not £174 per day, the attendance allowance is, in fact £86.50. There is a £174 overnight allowance, which only applies to Peers who live outside London. As someone has pointed out in the Comments, Lord McColl has not claimed this.
UPDATE 7.30pm: Julia Manning blogs on this on Centre Right.