IN AUGUST this year, amid the growing NHS recruitment crisis, the Oxford Mail used an Freedom of Information request to reveal that Oxfordshire’s ambulance service had been forced to spend £12.3m in one year on private contractors to take patients to hospital.

Two months later, with the crisis ongoing, paramedics’ union Unison said the Oxford Mail’s story had helped focus attention on the problems.

South Central Ambulance Service, which also serves Bucks, Berks and Hants, had increased spending on private contractors – often for 999 cases – by nearly 50 per cent in comparison to the same period in 2013 and 2014.

The service said it hired six private providers – including St John Ambulance – to help meet an increasing demand on its services when it did not have enough staff.

Unison regional organiser Sarah O’Donoghue said: “This was useful: we knew private providers were being used but we didn’t know the scale of it. What this has done is focus attention on staff shortages in the ambulance service and the fact we are just not training enough people.

“In the long term I think this sort of FOI request does help: there is now more interest in the service’s workforce plan.”

She said she had submitted a number of FOI requests herself to find out more about the NHS’ uses of private contractors.

But she said she was not aware that Unison as a whole was having a conversation about the potential changes to the Act.

She said: “Personally I do use it and I would say it is very useful.”

Our FOI also revealed that SCAS spent more on private companies than any other ambulance trust in the country.

Paramedic and SCAS Unison representative Gavin Bashford said FOI was a useful tool to bring about change.

He told the Oxford Mail: “We are still using lots of private providers, but I think this will make a difference in the long run, making the public aware of what is going on.”

He said he had not used the FOI Act himself, but had threatened to use it on SCAS several times – which had produced the desired effect.

He said: “That is always an option we have if management don’t answer our questions – it is a powerful tool.The proposed changes to the FOI Act concern me because we are a public service and the public have a right to know these things. Having an organisation which can operate in secret does not serve the public.”

In a statement the ambulance service said: “We recognise that Freedom of Information requests play a key role in offering our stakeholders insight and scrutiny into the services we provide.

“FOI requests give appropriate assurance of the high standard of care we provide and the work we carry out for our patients.”

“FOI requests give appropriate assurance of the high standard of care we provide and the work we carry out for our patients.”