Alan Mak: The NHS Reserves will be a permanent, positive legacy of this challenging year

30 Nov

Alan Mak is MP for Havant, Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board.

In 1944, it was a Conservative Health Minister, Henry Willink, who first set out a blueprint for a universal, free, health service. And for over 40 of the 72 years that the NHS has been in existence it has been under the care of Conservative Governments.

Nonetheless, at every general election Labour, like a broken record, falsely portray the Conservatives as enemies of the NHS. Last December, for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s dodgy dossier claimed the NHS was “up for sale” in UK-US trade talks.

Our modern NHS is very different from the Health Service of 1948, not least because it now employs ten times more doctors and four times more nurses, often in much more specialist roles than their counterparts from yesteryear.

But key to ensuring that our NHS continues to deliver on its founding principle – high quality care for all regardless of wealth – is the reform and innovation that has often been driven by Conservative Ministers. From Sir Keith Joseph leading the NHS’ first major re-organisation in 1973 to William Waldegrave’s Patient Charter in 1991 (later the NHS Constitution) setting out hospital waiting time targets and patients’ rights, Conservatives have steadily modernised the Health Service and put patients at its heart.

Our most recent Conservative Health Secretaries have continued that trend, with Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock both championing the digitisation of the NHS. They acted to meet the rising expectations of patients used to accessing data and services quickly on their phones and tablets. I’ve been proud to contribute towards that work, including last year successfully bringing forward legislation that resulted in the ban on NHS bodies using outdated fax machines and pagers.

Just as new technology is having a transformative impact on how our NHS operates, so too is the on-going Coronavirus outbreak.

This year has tested the NHS like no other in its long history. Our inspirational doctors, nurses, paramedics, and non-clinical NHS staff can be proud of the contribution they have made in the fight against Coronavirus.

But alongside them are the remarkable volunteers from every community. Over 750,000 people have signed up to become NHS Volunteer Responders this year, and they have collectively completed over a million tasks, from delivering prescriptions to making friendly phone calls to shielding patients. In addition, 80,000 people were already volunteering across all acute NHS Trusts in England.

We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on the foundations laid by these NHS volunteers by launching the NHS Reserves – a new, permanent reservist system for our Health Service modelled on the proven Armed Forces reserves and police special constables.

Last week, I introduced the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament to create the NHS Reserves, backed by the Health Secretary. The NHS Reserves would provide a formal structure – and a uniform – for some of the volunteers already working within the Health Service. It would also provide a route for retired NHS staff and recent leavers to continue contributing, and welcome new volunteers with relevant clinical and non-clinical skills that the NHS might need during periods of high demand. These would include public health emergencies, seasonal increases in demand, large public events and protests, industrial action, and critical incidents such as terrorist attacks or major accidents.

My Bill has secured wide-ranging support from across our Parliamentary Party. Backers included Sir Graham Brady, Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, Damian Green and Hunt, now chairman of the Health Select Committee, as well as 2019 intake ‘Blue Wall’ MPs including Dehenna Davison, Simon Fell, Stuart Anderson, and Brendan Clarke-Smith. All have all become NHS Reserves Champions for their constituencies. Lord Ashcroft is also a supporter and an early proponent of a reservist system for the NHS.

More MPs are becoming NHS Reserves Champions, and working with our councillors, activists, and members to promote the NHS Reserves at a local level.

I know from my role as Party Vice Chairman how active our members have been in helping with the community response to coronavirus. In many cases this has involved leading local groups delivering food or medical supplies, caring for vulnerable neighbours, or volunteering with the NHS. I hope our Party members can help spread the word and encourage friends, family and colleagues to apply when the NHS Reserves system is up and running properly.

As a Conservative family, we should be proud of our Party’s stewardship of the NHS. I hope the creation of the NHS Reserves will show that once again it is us Conservatives that are leading the way when it comes to thinking about how our Health Service adapts, innovates, and thrives in response to new challenges. Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak has brought so many negatives, the new NHS Reserves can serve as permanent and positive legacy that we can all support with pride.

Mak is co-Chair of the new Conservative Party Policy Board

24 Nov

ConservativeHome wrote recently about the appointment of Neil O’Brien as a new Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board – a promotion with wider implications.

We weren’t alone in doing so. The news about our columnist got a lot of publicity, including an interview with him in the Times.

But what has not been evident so far is that there was already a Vice-Chairman of the Party responsible for policy.  Step forward, Alan Mak.

That most missed his own earlier appointment isn’t surprising, since these Vice-Chairmen have a way of rapidly coming and going.

At any rate, Mak is still there – and this site is told that he will co-chair the Board with O’Brien.  The third MP who will sit on it is John Penrose, who chairs the Conservative Policy Forum.

Another member will arguably carry more weight than any of them: Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit.

Her presence on it, and that of Joel Winton, her deputy, is a sign that the Board should be taken seriously.  Iain Carter, who heads up the Conservative Research Department, will also be a member.

And there are to be Parliamentary Party representatives – which raises the question of who these are to be.  ConHome is told that the intention is that they be selected. (By whom, exactly?)

We suspect that Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee Executive will have something to say about that.  The ’22 had its own elected policy committees during the run-up to the last election.

Unlike O’Brien, Mak has neither run a think-tank nor served as a SpAd – let alone as a senior one in George Osborne’s Treasury.

Nonetheless, he is no policy slouch: see his pieces on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for this site.  And he was agitating about about ending child hunger almost 18 months ago – well before the Marcus Rashford push.

The twin-hatting arrangement seems awkard to us, and we doubt it will last long.  “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign, / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.”

One or other of these gentlemen will presumably be wafted heavenwards in a blaze of glory during the New Year reshuffle that must surely come…

…Unless Boris Johnson has second or third or seventy-seventh thoughts, and puts the whole thing off until after the spring’s local elections.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.