Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
I’ve mentioned Lord Ashcroft’s analysis of the Conservative Party’s 2017 election performance in my columns before. It is unquestionably true, as he demonstrates in The Lost Majority, that what the Party wanted to talk about in the 2017 election was not what the voters wanted to talk about.
For me, one of his most interesting charts maps which ‘issues are seen as a priority for the country as a whole, me and my family, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party’. The NHS and Social Care are firmly in the ‘more of a priority for Labour’ and ‘more of a priority for me and my family’ side of the chart.
The challenge for the Conservatives is to show the necessary leadership, innovation and political nous to move both those into being a priority for the Party, and do the right things on them to benefit voters and their families.
We are told by Labour and others that the ‘NHS is in crisis’. Unfortunately for Labour politicians, their insight stops there – except to say the solution is more money and resources. This may well have something in it, although an organisation that employs 1.3 million people, and for which the Department of Health’s budget has been consistently protected since 2010 (and continues to rise), cannot carry on simply ask for more money as the solution to all its problems.
From 2015, the Government continued to increase investment in the NHS: from £101 billion in 2015 to £120 billion by 2020. And it doesn’t help matters when Jeremy Corbyn uses false information about such aspects as mental health spending, as he did at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. Rightly the Conservatives, led by the Prime Minister and backed up by a rapidly improving CCHQ social media operation, called him out on this.
One of Lord Ashcroft’s other charts shows that although the Conservatives rank behind Labour on a whole host of statements, we are ahead on being ‘willing to take tough decisions for the long term’. Ministers have to show they can apply this statement to future decisions on the NHS and social care.
It was already clear to me from my constituency casework and postbag early last year that social care was the next big political challenge to be confronted. What was missing before and during the general election campaign was any attempt to explain to people how the current system works. It came as a surprise to many people that they might have to put at risk all their savings and assets in order to get care, and that there were different rules and thresholds for care at home and residential care. In March last year, I organised a ‘later life’ event in Loughborough to encourage residents to talk to doctors, lawyers, care home providers, social care organisations and relevant charities, such as Age UK, about decisions they might have to make for themselves and their loved ones.
We know that the current NHS problems are exacerbated by winter and flu as well, as by an ageing population. We know that too many people still call for ambulances when they should access the NHS through other services, and we know that too many people find getting a GP appointment takes too long (or believe that to be the case: I have a variety of experiences from local GPs reported to me from the fantastically fast to the appallingly slow). We also know that too many people leave social care decisions and discussions until it is too late; we that the NHS can be slow to adapt to new innovations and drugs, and that decisions we make about our lifestyles don’t always make us healthier.
There are already plans underway to get the two systems to work better together. But when the discussions break down into arguments about money and threats to take money away, then that isn’t conducive to long-term better working.
Some of my colleagues who aren’t Ministers, such as Nick Boles and George Freeman, are coming up with ideas to tackle the NHS and social care challenges. Sarah Wollaston as Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee is leading calls for a cross-party commission and consensus. I hope that Downing Street and the Department of Health listen to them and engage with them. All have valuable contributions to make.
But there will be others, including those working in the NHS and social care systems who have much to say, too. Is there a national collection of their ideas on how to reduce waste, improve the way things are done and improve morale? Does Jeremy Hunt’s new job title herald a move to having one team in Whitehall working on both NHS and social care – even if that means some departmental reorganisation. I hope so.
Finally, what are the plans for engaging the public with what needs to change; what conversations about their health and future needs should we be starting now? What exchanges are being had with different organisations, such as our housebuilders, on the need for new retirement homes and complexes which can look after people as they age?
Not talking about the NHS and social care is not an option for the Government. In any event, the Prime Minister clearly feels very strongly about issues such as mental health, which is good news. Not talking about them until we have a summer Green Paper is also too late.
Reports over the weekend say the Prime Minister is due to give another speech on Brexit in February. I hope plans are also underway for her to give a series of speeches on how the Conservatives plan to take the necessary long-term decisions on health and social care.