Norman Lamb: It’s time to start talking about the NHS

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DURING the election, I proposed a non-partisan commission to come up with a new settlement for the NHS and care. I wanted all parties to commit to it – to bury our differences, to act in the national interest.

Health and care is so important. We must not let party politics get in the way of what is the right thing to do. I argued for the same approach on care before the 2010 election. I will not give up until this case is won.

I wanted to involve people in communities across our country. And, in our debate on Newsnight during the election, both Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham agreed. But nothing has happened. If they won’t do it, we will.

So today, I am starting a national conversation. We have to talk about the emerging crisis in care. I will travel the country meeting with people, patients, carers, local authorities, charities, health leaders, doctors and nurses, public, private and voluntary sector. We will invite contributions from think tanks, from academics and from trade unions, We will confront both the need for more resources and for change.

I am very interested in the idea of a dedicated NHS and care contribution – separating it out from the rest of taxation, clearly identified on your pay slip. And I am really interested in the idea of the right for local areas to raise additional funds for the NHS and care if they choose. Why can’t my county of Norfolk decide to spend more on vital services for older people, to improve cancer services or for mental health if it choose?

The Tories have started to devolve responsibility for managing budgets but they keep control of the purse strings.Our vision should go beyond that – giving power to raise part of the funds – if the local community supports it.

But we can also make the system much more efficient and we can improve care. First, we can take advantage of new technology.

Let me take you back in time. Do you remember those things called fax machines? Well they are alive and kicking in the NHS. Every day faxes fly around the system. The NHS is stuck in a time warp. Still paying the price for the most ridiculous, grandiose “National Programme for IT” costing billions but achieving little. One of the legacies of the last Labour government which also gave us PFI – mortgaging the future of the NHS to the tune of over £80bn.

So we need an upfront fund to link up the GP practice with the local hospital, the ambulance service and, first and foremost, the patient, giving them the right to control their medical records.

Apps now enable people to look after their own health and fitness more effectively. Technology helps people to stay independent with close monitoring of their condition. An app developed by a constituent is helping to get people out of hospital and back home more quickly.

Second, we need a fundamental shift from a sickness service to a health service. A focus on preventing disease. On stopping the deterioration of health, helping people to manage their conditions better. We know this can have a massive impact on wellbeing – and save large sums of money.

Third, the NHS can’t do everything on its own. As we face a doubling of the numbers of us living to the age of 85 by 2030, the goodwill, kindness and decency of people in communities will be critical. Beveridge was ahead of his time. He saw the trends way back in the 1950s. He identified the challenge of an ageing population, of loneliness and neglect. He urged voluntary societies to develop home-visiting and home-help services. He pressed the NHS to release expensive hospital beds by making better provision for supporting people in the community. Sounds familiar? But the challenge is vastly greater now than it was then. In another pioneer area, Cornwall, local GPs work alongside volunteers, combatting loneliness, getting people out of their homes, giving them a reason to live.

This is the model for the future. It’s not rocket science but as happiness increases, mental and physical health improves, dependency declines. Admissions to hospital go down.

Liberal Democrats must then make the case for change, and to demonstrate the importance of confronting inefficiency, to come up with new ways of delivering better care, to put people in charge – both people who work in the NHS through applying the Liberal principles of mutualism and people who use the NHS, by giving them much more control over use of resources available for their care.

Norman Lamb MP is the Lib Dem health spokesman. This is an edited version of his party conference speech.