By Bob Gledhill
The Public Finance Initiative (PFI) - the funding route the Government wants hospital trusts to follow for large capital projects - came under fire at the Hospital Caterers Association annual conference last week.
The PFI scheme, launched in 1992, was designed to attract private investment to public sector projects. But a number of delegates warned it could have adverse effects on hospital catering.
The loudest attack came from Lynette Savings, a national officer of trade union Unison, who told delegates PFI was not just about bricks and mortar, but about the provision of hospital services.
"This is a serious threat to a publicly owned National Health Service. It's not on top of Government spending on the NHS, it's instead of it," warned Ms Savings.
Another speaker on PFI was Martin Davies, a financial consultant working in healthcare. He told delegates that while the popular image of PFI was that it was only for new building programmes, it was inevitable provision of catering would become another use of the scheme in the future.
Any thought that a Labour government would end PFI was ruled out in the keynote conference address by Richard Burden MP, a member of the shadow health team.
He said Labour was in favour of PFI in principle, but emphasised it should be a partnership between outside investors and local health authorities, with the health authority setting quality targets. "As it stands, PFI is just the son of market testing, where price and profit is being put before quality of service."
Mr Burden also dismissed any suggestion that a Labour government would reverse the contracting out of catering in the NHS. "If the local health authority believes a better service can be provided by bringing in outside contractors, they should be able to do so."
But Mr Burden called for longer contracts, to allow both health authorities and contractors to plan more efficiently. "Short contracts mean contractors don't know where they are from one year to the next, and encourage destructive competition."
- Karen Sorensen, director of nutrition and dietetics for Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital Trust, told delegates at the conference that catering managers should work to educate patients in healthy eating.
"Hospital meals can be an opportunity to try new foods and learn about a healthy diet. Patients should learn that food low in saturated fat, with adequate fibre, lightly cooked vegetables, meat low in fat, pulses and fish can be tasty, attractive and satisfying," she said.