Government is urged to stop claiming spending on NHS has risen

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 06 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8322
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. 1BMJ

The UK government has been asked to correct claims that spending on the NHS in England has increased since the coalition came to power, after the official statistics watchdog ruled that funding had in fact fallen.

The prime minister and other senior ministers have repeatedly claimed that in real terms NHS spending has risen since 2010. The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the House of Commons on 23 October that “real terms spending on the NHS has increased across the country.”

The Conservative Party website also states that the government has increased the real terms NHS budget “in each of the last two years.”

But the UK Statistics Authority urged Hunt and his department to clarify the claims, after upholding a complaint from Labour that claimed that public statements about NHS spending by David Cameron and other senior Conservatives were “misleading.”

In a letter to the health secretary the authority’s chairman, Andrew Dilnot, said that the best available data from the Treasury indicated that real terms spending on health was lower in 2011-12 than in 2009-10.

Dilnot highlighted the disparity between the Department of Health’s annual report and accounts and figures issued by the Treasury, which clawed back over £1bn of the funding allocated to the NHS in 2011-12.1

Given the difficulties in correctly assessing the accuracies of budgets, Dilnot advised that it would be fairer to characterise spending as having “changed little.”

He wrote: “On the basis of these figures, we would conclude that expenditure on the NHS in real terms was lower in 2011-12 than it was in 2009-10. Given the small size of the changes and the uncertainties associated with them, it might also be fair to say the real terms expenditure had changed little over this period. In light of this, I should be grateful if the Department of Health could clarify the statements made.”

Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, who pressed for the investigation, said, “David Cameron famously promised he would cut the deficit, not the NHS. We now have it in black and white: he is cutting the NHS, not the deficit.

“For months, David Cameron’s government have made misleading boasts about NHS spending, misrepresenting the true financial difficulties he has brought upon the NHS.”

A health department spokesperson said, “The 2010-11 year should not be used as a baseline for NHS spending, because the budget and spending plans were set in place by the previous government. For the first year of this government’s spending review, as Andrew Dilnot acknowledges, NHS spending increased in real terms compared to the previous year by 0.1%.”

In his autumn statement, published on 5 December, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, pledged to continue to protect spending on the NHS for the two year spending review period.

During prime minister’s questions, Cameron responded to criticism from the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, that he had “failed to meet the promise” his government had set out.

The prime minister replied, “He’s 100% wrong. We are increasing spending on the NHS, and we are cutting the deficit.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8322