The Labour Party has complained to Prime Minister Theresa May about health secretary Matt Hancock’s links to private GP provider Babylon.
The letter, from shadow health minister Justin Madders, comes after Mr Hancock praised Babylon’s NHS-funded GP at Hand service in an Evening Standard interview carrying Babylon branding earlier this week.
According to Mr Madders, this ‘may be in direct contravention of the Ministerial Code’, which says ministers ‘should take care to ensure that they do not become associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with Government policy and thus give rise to a conflict of interest’.
He also thinks it contravenes code which says ministers ‘should not… normally accept invitations to act as patrons of, or otherwise offer support to… organisations dependent in whole or in part on Government funding’.
The Department of Health and Social Care has denied that it had prior knowledge that Babylon’s branding would part of the article when it agreed to the interview and said that Mr Hancock had spoken to the Standard about his technology vision for the NHS.
The Standard has since removed the branding from the online version of the article.
Mr Madders’ letter said: ‘I am writing to express my sincere concern that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Rt Hon Matt Hancock, may be in direct contravention of the Ministerial Code.’
Setting out his reasons, he added that he was ‘writing to request an urgent investigation into the matter’.
He wrote: ‘In the Evening Standard article, Mr Hancock is quoted as saying “I’ve become known for using this GP at Hand app.” I believe this admission places Mr Hancock in contravention of Section 7.12 of the Ministerial Code.
‘This is because promoting pay-for-access health products, which Mr Hancock’s comments would appear to amount to, subverts the objective and principles of a National Health Service, free at the point of use and open to all regardless of means.’
He added: ‘Moreover, GP at Hand is an app created and provided by a private healthcare company called Babylon Health, run by Conservative Party associate Ali Parsa.
‘I consequently believe Mr Hancock’s endorsement of the GP at Hand app is in direct breach of Section 7.13 of the Ministerial Code, because Babylon Healthcare is in part reliant on Government funding and Mr Hancock is promoting a product created by this firm.’
Mr Madders also asks the Prime Minister to ‘investigate whether the Rt Hon Matt Hancock received any form of gift, hospitality or payment for being interviewed for this newspaper advertorial’, which would put him in breach of another section of ministerial code.
The shadow health minister also raised concerns about ‘promoting a firm with links to offshore companies’.
In the letter he said ‘Babylon Healthcare appears to have links with offshore companies’ because ‘until April 2016 it was owned by Babylon Holdings based in Jersey, but has now been restructured and is owned by Old Mutual PLC which is part of a network of companies- some of which are named in the Paradise Papers’.
‘With respect to Section 7.12 of the Ministerial Code, I’m sure you share my concern that promoting a firm with links to offshore companies is in breach of Government policy,’ he concludes.
A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘As the health secretary has made clear in the past, he holds no portfolio for any particular company or brand and regularly champions the benefits of a range of technologies which can improve patient outcomes, free up clinicians’ time and make every pound go further.
‘We are working to create a tech ecosystem which allows all innovations to flourish in the NHS, a number of which were highlighted in the article.’
The Evening Standard has said that the interview was published within a supplement focusing on the future of healthcare in London which was sponsored by Babylon, but that the articles in the supplement were not advertorials and the newspaper retained full editorial control over them.
Mr Hancock has previously lauded Babylon’s model, which allows NHS patients from across London to sign up to its practice for digital consultations on an app, via the out-of-area patient registration scheme.
The ministerial code
The sections of ministerial code which the Labour Party suggests health secretary Matt Hancock may have breached:
7.12: Ministers should take care to ensure that they do not become associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with Government policy and thus give rise to a conflict of interest.
7.13: Ministers should not therefore normally accept invitations to act as patrons of, or otherwise offer support to, pressure groups, or organisations dependent in whole or in part on Government funding.
7.20: It is a well established and recognised rule that no Minister should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation. The same principle applies if gifts etc are offered to a member of their family.
Source: Labour Party