Some eyebrows have been raised at Jeremy Hunt’s election as Chairman of the Health and Social Care Select Committee.
Jess Phillips, the Labour MP who was briefly a leadership contender for her Party, complains:
“I have no idea how Jeremy Hunt, newly elected health and social care select committee chair, can properly scrutinise the Government on health policy and practice when much of it will have been his doing.”
She has a point. What if Michael Gove was to produce a report on how free schools are going? Or if Iain Duncan Smith was asked to deliver his assessment on whether Universal Credit has proved a worthwhile reform? Perhaps it would help us, as Conservatives, to empathise with such objections if we imagine the howls of derision from our side if it were Labour politicians invited to mark their own homework. Supposing Gorden Brown was asked to deliver the verdict on whether or not the PFI schemes he had introduced had been justified? Or Tony Blair had been chosen to give a balanced and rigorous judgment on Iraq War?
All these individuals would have great knowledge of such subjects, but lack credibility when it comes to impartiality. When commercial interests are involved, there is sometimes a requirement for “gardening leave” – for instance, in banking – before an employee can work elsewhere. This is to allow a few months to pass and thus allow their secret inside knowledge of an organsation to be less sensitive. The question of money doesn’t really arise in this case. Select Committee chairmen do get paid an extra £16,000, on top of their Parliamentary salaries. But Hunt is a wealthy man and this consideration will not be at the forefront of his mind.
On the other hand, any conflict of interest does tend to erode over time. Hunt has already had a year of “gardening leave” as Foreign Secretary. Then another six months as a backbencher. He ceased being Health Secretary in July 2018. Given the glacial pace of change in the public sector, it is true that he can expect to examine the consequences of his own decisions.
For the Government to succeed it has to have an effective opposition. Clearly, Labour and the Lib Dems are unable to provide this at present, with their leadership vacancies. Even the Scottish Nationalists are a bit distracted at the moment. So where will the real opposition come from? I wrote on Monday about the “Tory press” rising to the challenge. Dominic Cummings is doing his best to ensure a certain rigour in proceedings. But they can’t do it all. Conservative MPs must also step up to the plate. Select Committees are intended to provide an arena to allow this to be done in a serious way.
While the concern raised by Phillips and others has merit, so does the counter point that former Ministers have the advantage of experience. A Minister would know where the bodies are buried – as he would be among those that buried them.
Naturally enough, Hunt argued that his experience is a plus. In his candidate’s statement he said:
“Too often NHS delivery doesn’t match the high expectations we place on it. So I want to help Parliament secure positive and lasting change for the service we all care so deeply about. I was the longest serving Health Secretary, and this experience of doing the job for so long is what makes me best placed to ask the searching questions that will truly hold the Government to account. Too often party politics prevents us from having the right debates about the NHS. Throughout my career I have always tried to minimise this and focus on what matters.”
The electoral system for select committee chairmanships prevents it being a partisan contest. Some committee chairmanships were allocated to Labour – Work and Pensions, for example. So only Labour MPs could stand. For others, only Conservative MPs can stand. But all MPs can vote, by secret ballot. Hunt’s only rival was another Conservative MP – Anne Marie Morris. Hunt was elected with 433 votes to 116 for Morris. Hunt’s sponsors included the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Rushanara Ali. Morris’s included the Labour MPs Meg Hillier and David Lammy. Then everyone went off and voted. No doubt the system isn’t perfect but I don’t see that banning former Ministers from standing would improve it.
Anyway, if the Government did hope that Hunt will be a patsy, his interview with the Health Service Journal will have helped to disoblige them of such notions. Asked about his successor Matt Hancock, Hunt replies:
”Matt is doing exactly the right thing in focusing on technology. However, he will discover, as I discovered, that having a bright idea about how to make the NHS better is the easy bit; executing that idea is much tougher.”
“I still have the scars on my back from failing to deliver the 5,000 extra GPs I promised,” reflects Mr Hunt on the new government’s pledge to deliver 50,000 extra nurses to staff the 40 new hospitals that constitute its second big promise.
“I also know from my own experience that getting capital projects going is really hard, so 40 hospitals is highly ambitious,” he adds.
“The government has raised expectations that the extra money going in really will relieve pressure on the NHS and let it turn a corner after 10 years of austerity. But that ambition needs a lot more thinking and imagination before we and they will know if their ambitions can be achieved.”
In his candidate’s statement Hunt said he put a lot of focus onto mental health:
“The NHS has made strides towards parity of funding and treatment for mental health conditions but many – particularly young people – wait too long for a diagnosis and treatment and there is still too much stigma around mental health. Unless we expand the capacity of the mental health system the Government will not meet its objectives and patients will continue to feel let down. So I want the Committee to do an annual report on Government progress in this area.”
It is really likely that Hunt would wish the committee’s output on ths subject to be uncritical? Will it really just state that the Government is already doing everything possible to make progress?
Whatever mistakes Hunt made as Health Secretary, it was not his approach to try and cover up problems. He greatly increased transparency and was the whistle-blowers’ friend. It is hardly likely he will try to protect Hancock from difficult questions when he didn’t protect himself from them. We can pick up some clues of Hunt’s approach from the Written Questions to Health Ministers that he has put down this month:
To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, how many hospitals were rated (a) outstanding, (b) good, (c) requires improvement and (d) inadequate after the first cycle of CQC inspections completed in 2015…
To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, how many GP practices were rated (a) outstanding, (b) good, (c) requires improvement and (d) inadequate after the first cycle of Care Quality Commission inspections completed in 2015….
To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, with reference to the Report of the Morecambe Bay Investigation by Dr Bill Kirkup, published in March 2015, what step has his department taken to introduce a clear national policy on whistleblowing that ensures a systematic and proportionate response is made by Trusts to concerns identified….
Another safeguard is that Hunt will have to persuade the rest of the Committee – including its opposition MPs – to agree to its statements. While the NHS featured prominently in the General Election, important aspects to the debate were ignored. Claudia Martinez wrote for us yesterday that over a third of patients who attend A&E do so for non-urgent, minor injuries. They are unable to get GP appointments, which would provide better care, and cost taxpayer much less. Sorting that out should take priority over new hospitals.
Hunt is a Conservative, but he is not a Government stooge. Last year he missed out on becoming the Prime Minister. Now he has the chance to be the real Leader of the Opposition.