Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
Last week, Stephen Dorrell, the hugely experienced and knowledgeable Chair of the Health Select Committee, caused waves in Westminster and beyond by announcing that he was standing down.
Saying he leaves somewhat spacious shoes for his successor to fill is an understatement. You could build a house in them. He is a former Health Secretary and author of the Conservatives’ Public Services Policy Review in 2007, with countless other accolades and areas of expertise under his belt – a big beast. His will be a hard act to follow indeed.
For the last week, I have tried to ignore those asking and in some cases telling me I should stand. The candidates who have already put their name forward are all excellent, and would make great Chairs. There are more than enough projects with which I can fill the remaining year until the general election (such as continuing to help enable a ‘Royal College of Teaching’, as part of a mission to re-empower professionals) – not to mention the small issue of fighting that election itself.
However, on reflection, it became ever-more insistently apparent that if I were to stand up for what I believe in, (which is why I went into Parliament in the first place) it would be impossible, after expending so much effort on improving our NHS, for me not to offer myself for the role.
Although I am not a doctor (I don’t pretend surf life-saving, though important, entirely counts!) I grew up watching my father, who has just retired as a surgeon, labouring to serve his patients under the never-ending well-intentioned interventions of politicians – of all colours. I witnessed the inevitable gulf between the most benevolent of policies and their makers, and the reality of the front line where those ideals had to be implemented.
As time went on, my belief that things had to change grew, as the trend of putting political priorities ahead of clinical priorities became even stronger. Not only did I see the toll this was taking on my father and his colleagues, but I saw how this warped political benevolence was detrimental to our citizens – the patients.
Now I am one of the politicians, looking at the NHS from ‘the other side’ – with a passion to bring our political discourse about health and the NHS closer to ward,surgery, care-home or street level reality.
The first step to doing this is listening to those who really know what is going on: the professionals and the patients. Our whistle-blowers, both patients and professionals, offer an invaluable insight into how our NHS and health system can be improved: we need to listen to what they can offer. If we are to really change cultures, we cannot shy away from hard truths, and must be prepared to face and put right injustices, however historical, which have occurred under all governments. If we don’t face reality first, how can we make that reality better?
As the new post-reforms NHS landscape emerges, we must also scrutinise how transparent and accountable it actually is – for example, by measuring the benefits that alternative providers bring to the NHS by examining how transparent and accountable they actually are.
But the overwhelming question in the health debate is how we continue to protect the key principles of the NHS, whilst providing care for an ever-expanding, ageing, more demanding population with ever more complex needs.
There are small, relatively inexpensive improvements that good managers are already making in hospitals which achieve great change. We must capitalise on that. Then there are big, brave, politically difficult discussions that we need to have as a nation, if we want to save our NHS from going over a cliff.
How can we begin to tackle our nation’s growing mental health and social care challenges? How are our hospital services best configured? To what extent will an element of personal responsibility need to be introduced into healthcare provision? These are questions any future government will have to answer. They are above petty party politics and, intuitively, are the realm of our inquisitive, deeply knowledgeable and passionate Health Select Committee.
So this weekend, I announced my candidacy. There will be no mega-machiavellian whipping operation; I will not be pestering colleagues with endless requests for support. My candidacy is very simple – if my fellow MPs share my beliefs and think I would do a good job, I offer myself for the role. If not, my colleagues are spoiled for choice in my fellow candidates. Whatever the outcome, our Health Select Committee must help return our NHS to the service not of politicians and of managers, but to patients and the nurture and support of those dedicated solely to looking after them.