Andrew RT Davies is the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly for Wales.
Far be it from me to lecture Westminster colleagues on how to conduct their campaigns, but it is clear that the Labour-run Welsh NHS is fast becoming one of the Conservatives’ key electoral assets ahead of next year’s general election. Ed Milliband has rather bizarrely sought to position himself as the saviour of the NHS in England. But in truth, the Welsh experience of a Labour-run health service has shown that they simply cannot be trusted anywhere near it.
In recent years the Welsh NHS has featured heavily in the national press – a spotlight shining on a deteriorating financial picture, ever-growing waiting lists and a number of high profile cases of serious malpractice by medical staff.
Earlier this summer, I launched a comprehensive, nationwide, survey of the Welsh NHS. Frustrated with an almost endless cycle of bad news, and tired of being stonewalled by the Welsh Government when raising “awkward” questions, I wanted to open up a dialogue with the people who really matter – the patients who rely on the Welsh NHS, and the staff who are the public face of a system the BMA described as facing “imminent meltdown”.
The survey was on a scale not previously undertaken by the Welsh Conservatives, and thousands came forward from every corner of Wales. Many were NHS staff members, tired of feeling as though they were being blamed for systemic issues which stemmed from far above their pay grades.
Some of what we learnt will come as no surprise. The Welsh public hold the NHS dear to their hearts, even if almost two-thirds of our respondents feel that Welsh NHS performance has declined in recent years. The survey identified a wide range of problems which originate primarily from a lack of resources. We have been saying this for several years, during which record-breaking Labour budget cuts have seen services stripped to the bone.
In one case we heard from a lady who had been waiting for four months to have an urgent breast scan, leaving her in a prolonged state of anxiety. Another respondent, an NHS staff member, described colleagues on her ward as “stressed” and said that they felt “unable to keep to waiting list targets without compromising care”.
Capacity in Welsh hospitals is being stretched to breaking point by a lack of funding, and the pressure being placed on a reduced workforce is creating serious issues throughout the health service in Wales. In a system as complex and diverse as the Welsh NHS things will go wrong, but the Welsh Government seems to have buried its head in the sand in the blind hope of a happy ending.
We heard from a large number of medical staff members that a “non-listening culture” permeates the Welsh NHS. Whistleblowing is all too rare – not because issues are few, but because drawing attention to serious issues is considered “professional suicide”. For patients too, almost a fifth of those surveyed felt that their complaints or concerns were not taken seriously by NHS managers.
It is clear that we need to see a cultural change in the Welsh NHS: An acceptance that things will go wrong, and the courage to learn from mistakes. The Prime Minister recognised this when he announced an inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire scandal. The BMA have now called for a similar inquiry into the Welsh NHS, and 71 per cent of those who took part in our consultation back that position. Sadly Labour continues to resist.
We know that we need to go much further to bring about a genuine cultural change in the Welsh NHS. Nine-times-out-of-ten the care patients receive is exceptional, but we could learn far more from the way in which managers deal with the five or ten per cent of cases where things do go wrong.
A Welsh Conservative administration would commission a review of the whistleblowing framework in the Welsh NHS. A Whistleblowers Charter would legally bind health boards to guarantee an open and transparent environment and ensure protection for staff who raise concerns.
We would also take steps to make the Welsh NHS more accountable to the patients it serves and more responsive to the taxpayers who fund it. Elected Health Commissioners would replace the system of patronage which allows the Labour Government to appoint key decision-makers onto health boards, and put the patient voice at the heart of decision making. They would have a mandate from the communities they serve, and would be charged with reflecting local priorities when bringing about the transformation our Welsh NHS needs.
I should declare an interest. One of the most traumatic experiences of my life happened at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend. My father died there in 2008, and my family and I have made our own complaints about the level of care provided in our case. That said, I have also experienced the flip side. Each of my four children were born in NHS hospitals and my wife is a qualified midwife.
The NHS touches everyone’s lives, and that’s why I’m so determined to help deliver the change our Welsh health service so desperately needs.
Health will be a key battleground in the upcoming general election and if any voters in the UK are wondering what a Labour-run NHS looks like, they need look no further than the Welsh experience.
Labour’s message to the people is that what they have done in Wales, they would do in England. That should be all the warning you need.
Our report can be read in full here.