In the run-up to the general election, it’s even more important that MPs’ links to private health companies come into the spotlight

At a Commons press gallery lunch last year I was startled to hear Len McCluskey, genial leader of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, claim that no fewer than 230 Conservative MPs (out of 303) have some sort of link with private health companies.

When I queried it the union said it was still researching the details; when it was published, it actually listed 65 Tories and five Lib Dems, though Mr McCluskey had mentioned a few Labour MPs too.

‘The coalition’s Lobbying Act is making it harder for unions to support Ed Miliband’s campaign’

Recent developments make it relevant in an election year.

Let’s leave the excitement over accident and emergency problems and the not-unrelated collapse of Circle’s ambitions for Hinchingbrooke Hospital for a moment and ask why.

Because the coalition’s Lobbying Act is making it harder for unions to support Ed Miliband’s campaign without adding much transparency to the way private sector lobbyists do their business in Whitehall.

A fragile mandate

More than that, ministers announced last weekend that the Tory election manifesto will impose a 50 per cent turnout requirement for strike ballots in the public sector - which for HSJ readers means health unions.

London mayor Boris Johnson complains the capital’s bus service was disrupted this week by a 15.8 per cent vote in favour of the strike.

That’s a pretty fragile mandate, as sensible union leaders know, so Boris has a point. But low turnouts are not confined to unions: politicians and shareholder ballots do worse than Strictly Come Dancing too. To my mind the question becomes one of fairness.

Back to Unite’s research. It’s a solid enough piece of work, although some of the links that MPs have are pretty tenuous, harmless or historic.

‘To my mind the question becomes one of fairness’

Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) received six bottles of wine for addressing the Hitachi consultancy, which has health commissioning interests.

Maria Miller (Basingstoke) received “substantial donations” from a property tycoon who buys old hospital buildings from the NHS and turns them into posh flats. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) got a Ryder Cup freebie paid for by Humana Europe. But others are more substantial.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon), an enthusiast for the 2011 Lansley act, is a non-executive director of SThree, a recruitment firm with commissioning interests.Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), who has sat on the Commons health committee, has personal and family health equipment, education and pharma interests, and so on. The Guardian has calculated that 15 firms with Tory links have won NHS contracts worth £1.5bn.

Political donations

As the union points out, many such MPs from David Cameron down get donations to their constituency parties and other help (loopholes can be found), sometimes from the same people: hedge fund manager, Crispin Odey, is one; Andrew Law, British head of major US healthcare investor Caxton Associates, is another. Law has given £1.2m to party HQ and £32,000 to Jeremy Hunt’s constituency.

What they seek is investment opportunities in the NHS - not automatically a bad thing as long as we can all see it - and profits.

Watch out for experiments in bland sounding “social investment bonds” in the NHS, warns Unite. But the 2014 Lobbying Act does not cover a firm’s in-house lobbyists or require registration of talks with junior officials or even special advisers.

‘What they seek is investment opportunities in the NHS and profits’

Just think what Adam Smith, Mr Hunt’s ex-spad, got up to in the BSkyB affair.

Meanwhile, union lawyers protest that the same law, which caps “third party” donations like theirs at £320,000 (previously £793,000) will tie them in knots, calculating whether the cost of running phone banks or election events breach the limit.

Everyone knows the Tories have a large election war chest, so (as with 50 per cent turnout rules) what may seem fair in theory becomes less fair in practice.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian