Dean Russell: As a volunteer in my local hospital, I saw at first hand the damage done by NHS fearmongering

1 Sep

Dean Russell is the MP for Watford and a member of the Health & Social Care Select Committee.

Concurrent with Matt Hancock’s recent announcement about the creation of the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) came the usual reactionary political cries that this means the NHS is under threat of privatisation.

The sad truth is that whilst politicians are repeating old myths like a broken record, they once again fail to look at the actual record of the NHS under the Conservatives since its inception in 1948; in doing so, they are causing genuine distress to those who are most vulnerable.

I understand that old habits die hard when it comes to political fearmongering; however, in the efforts to win votes through these repeated false claims, they are only hurting the very people they claim to protect – health and social care workers.

The problem with these entrenched and unfounded claims around NHS privatisation is that politicians make it difficult to be open about where issues exist within these large institutions, which, in turn, means that front line staff are the worst hit.

Just this week, I was fortunate to spend a day with St John Ambulance and meet hospital staff who they had been volunteering alongside during the crisis. They all made the point that that pre-Covid the levels of red tape and bureaucracy needed to enable St John Ambulance to help volunteer on wards would have been too immense ever to see it happen.

The nature of the Covid crisis enabled the NHS to be allowed to utilise the assets that an organisation like St John Ambulance teams can provide. This additional workforce during such an unprecedented crisis has provided invaluable support to NHS staff. I am confident if any Conservative politician had tried to suggest this last year, they would have been lambasted for attempting to undermine NHS staff or for putting the UK on a “slippery slope” towards privatisation.

Since March, I have volunteered with my local hospital – something I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to do as it enabled me to support the frontline in action.

What struck me at the height of the crisis was how impacted NHS staff were by some sections of the media and those who engaged in baseless NHS political point-scoring. When the news was reporting the country was running out of PPE, despite the fact my local hospital had stock, I could hear the concern in the voices of some staff that they thought they were about to run out imminently.

Like the rest of the country, NHS staff, too, are watching the news day after day. When they hear a constant flow of the absolute worst-case scenarios presented as the norm, it understandably affects their anxiety levels.

Whilst the NHS has been presented with challenges it had never faced before, the unhealthy obsession with scaremongering poses a threat to NHS employees mental health and the morale of the nation.

Our NHS is the most prized possession in the Government’s arsenal, and it has become a proud cultural symbol for Britain. The uncorroborated and alarmist claims by part of the media and fed by some politicians deny honest and nuanced debate about the issues facing the NHS and social care both during Covid and looking long-term.

One of the many reasons I am proud to be a new MP as part of the 2019 intake is because of our Party’s renewed focus on health social care. During Labour’s time running the NHS, use of Public Finance Initiatives (PFI) increased to the point that even The Guardian described its crippling effects on hospital budgets.

It was Hancock who wrote £13.4 billion off hospital debts, much of which had accumulated due to PFI contracts. It was formerly Chancellor Phillip Hammond who ended the use of PFI and PF2 contracts. It was the last Labour government who privatised Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which the Conservatives then took back into public ownership in 2015.

More recently, the opposition has found itself at odds with the CMO and BMA over attempts to change testing policies through an amendment in Parliament. Even during the early history of the NHS, it was Labour who introduced prescription charges along with charges for spectacles and dentistry.

As a member of the Health and Social Care (HSC) select committee, I don’t shy away from being critical myself. I am aware of the need for transformation in many areas. It has been clear to me that the parity of esteem between physical and mental health, for example, needs addressing much more robustly. As does the parity between NHS and social care workers.

The good news is I believe the decision-makers for these areas have heard this call loud and clear from the very top and are focussing on solutions.

The announcement by Hancock mid-August regarding the creation of the NIHP was an important step that sadly once again had to battle against the noise of opposition repeating the old “privatisation” rhetoric.

For anyone who listened carefully, they would have heard this critical line at the end of the speech. The Secretary of State said, “It (NIHP) will work hand in glove with the NHS, and it will use the most modern, cutting-edge digital and data analytics tools at its core.” Such remarks are not about privatisation, but about a new era of agile government supported by highly capable health agencies.

The easing of unnecessarily bureaucratic systems, the harnessing of technological capabilities, the rise of telemedicine and enhancing the powers of frontline staff should now become the new norm for healthcare.

We have also seen a robust partnership with AstraZeneca and others with the vaccine development, the use of private healthcare facilities for public purpose and the building of the Nightingale Hospitals’ at a record pace. The Government will enable the NHS to spend £10 billion over the next four years on private hospitals to tackle waiting lists.

Not one aspect of this has been a drive towards privatisation, but a more collaborative way of working that aims to benefit patients and staff.

I am not arguing that the Government shouldn’t be put under intense scrutiny by the opposition – in fact – I welcome it. We must end this knee-jerk media scaremongering that only puts fear into the most vulnerable and those working on the frontline.

What we need is a visionary approach to healthcare for this century if we want to seek ways improving patient outcomes and being the best possible employer for Health & Social Care staff. 65 per cent of the NHS’s history has been under a Conservative government, and privatisation simply has not happened under our watch.

Securing the Majority? 2) Tackling electoral fraud

1 Sep

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the second. Eight months on, how are they doing?

– – –

Securing The Majority? 2) Tackling electoral fraud

In the Queen’s Speech delivered to Parliament in October of last year, one passage created quite a lot of agitation on the left: “My Government will take steps to protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system in the United Kingdom.”

This referred to proposals to bring forward an Electoral Integrity Bill, which would introduce a requirement for voters to provide a photographic ID in order to cast their ballots in general elections (on the mainland, it is already required in Ulster) and English local elections.

Before the election, it sounded like a priority. Updating the House of Commons on the voter ID pilots conducted by the Electoral Commission, Kevin Foster said:

“Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy – that everyone’s vote matters. In our current system, there is undeniable potential for electoral fraud and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy.”

Chloe Smith, the Minister for the Constitution, reiterated the Government’s commitment to the idea in response to a question from David Davis in June:

“The Government are committed to introducing voter ID, as well as extra postal and proxy voting measures, to reduce the potential for electoral fraud in order to give the public greater confidence that our elections are secure.”

Yet there was no mention of the Bill in the post-election Queen’s Speech, nor is there any sign of the Bill now.

It may be that it has fallen victim to the broader confusion afflicting the Government’s constitutional approach, which is reflected in the decision to abort the ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ promised in the Manifesto. Critics of the Bill also questioned whether it was wise to produce yet another piecemeal reform in the face of pressure for a broader overhaul of UK electoral law in the aftermath of the EU referendum.

So with ministers pressing ahead with measures such as reform to digital campaigning, it may be that voter ID and tighter controls on postal votes will eventually appear as part of a more comprehensive reform package.

Paul Mercer: Police crime statistics need to be more intelligible and transparent

1 Sep

Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.

One of the more obvious ways of assessing police effectiveness is to look at crime statistics. Although, as the police are quick to point out, they do not necessarily reflect the amount of crime; only the willingness of the public to report crime.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Very few murders go unreported, and because insurance companies require a crime number, householders will also report burglaries. As a councillor representing a ward in the centre of a town, crime is one of the key issues for many residents. Over the years, we have found the easily-accessible data on the police.uk website a useful tool. It could be used both to put pressure on the police to deal with certain types of crime and also report on the success that they have had.

Until 2017, police.uk contained data going back to 2010 but the first five years were then deleted. Nicky Morgan, our MP at the time, raised the matter with the Home Office and, after a long delay, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, explained that the Data Police Application Program Interface (API) had been modified so it only presented data from the previous 36 months. “The decision to retain data for no longer than three years after receiving it from police forces was made in consultation with the Information Commissioner’s Office”, she explained, “and forms part of the Data Processing Agreement between the Home Office and their suppliers”. She further noted that “data should only be retained for as long as it is necessary and it was felt that three years was sufficient time to allow the complex and lengthy police investigations to result in final court proceedings so the outcome to the crime can be recorded accurately”.

The crime reports accessible on police.uk only indicate an approximate location and contain neither personal data nor identifying information. As such, there is no obvious reason why the ICO was involved given that its role is to protect personal data. On this basis, the ICO could credibly argue that electoral data should be limited after 36 months and nobody would know who had ever been elected. What was also not explained was why it was necessary to go to great lengths to record the data accurately and compile it, only to erase it after such a short period.

The Home Secretary helpfully added that although it had been decided to “retain data for no longer than three years” it was still possible to obtain this data via the archive which contains historic data back to 2010. This completely negated her point about not retaining data although, unhelpfully, there appears to be no reference to this archive on the ‘explore crimes’ section of the police.uk website.

In order to keep our residents aware of the crimes that were taking place in our ward in Loughborough, we would access police.uk, define its boundaries, and then take a note of the crimes which had occurred. However, when we last attempted to do this, we were informed that the service had been suspended in order to “prioritise providing access to key policing services to support the response to covid-19”. It would apparently be restored at some indeterminate time in the future. It is difficult to see how maintaining an API is taking manpower away from frontline policing.

The police.uk site does not state very clearly who owns and operates the site. The actual domain name is registered to Vodafone and it is only when you dig into the terms and conditions that it states that the ‘brand and the content’ is ‘owned’ by MOPAC. There is no link to this mysterious organisation which turns out to be the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – part of the Greater London Authority.

In analysing the crime statistics over the past decade it was also apparent that, midway, the police decided to change the criteria by which they recorded statistics meaning that many of the older statistics were no longer relevant and it was difficult to make a proper comparison over a period of time. Although there were doubtless ‘operational’ reasons for this change it conveniently makes it difficult to make an objective comparison of how efficient or inefficient police forces are over a period of time. In terms of statistical significance many years of crime data are required in order to differentiate long term trends from short term factors.

The police.uk website proudly announces on its homepage that it exists to enable the public to “explore the latest crime statistics, find the force responsible in any area, read about how they are performing and what’s being done to tackle crime”. The website does contain a lot of useful information about the police and how they operate but it is failing to provide accurate crime data to enable the public and politicians to make objective long-term comparisons.

Rather than allowing access to this data to be controlled by the Mayor of London it would make far more sense for the Home Office to host a site which contained accurate data for the whole of the UK which could be easily accessed for the whole of the 10 years for which it is available. That way, it would be possible to make a formal objective comparison about how police forces are performing.