Tom Richmond: Political meddling hinders teachers, nurses and doctors

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WHO would want to be a doctor? Or a nurse? Or a teacher?

I’m not sure I’d be volunteering for one of these professions judging by this week’s electioneering in which the key public services moved centre-stage.

It came after Labour’s health spokesman Andy Burnham – who else? – claimed that 600 doctors’ surgeries had reduced their opening hours since the last election, after the Royal College of General Practitioners claimed that one in three posts for trainee GPs remains unfilled nationally.

Labour produced a campaign poster of a queue of patients waiting outside a surgery, with the headline: “The doctor can’t see you now. The Tories have made it harder to see a GP”.

As a piece of marketing, it was a clever retake of the Conservative Party’s 1979 poster which depicted a dole queue under the slogan “Labour isn’t working”.

However, in a week where the major teaching unions highlighted the extent to which schools are now dependent on unqualified staff to improve attainment levels, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is politics – and politicians in particular – which is not working properly.

The reason is this. It was the last Labour government which renegotiated the GP contracts in such a way that doctors could scale back their out-of-hours services. As a reform prescription, it could not have been more short-sighted.

Yet, while David Cameron’s Government has sought to remedy this with more surgeries in the evenings, and at weekends, as it bids to turn the NHS into a 24/7 operation, it is trying to do so with a chronic shortage of staff and with a much diminished telephone advice service. It’s the same with schools – is it any wonder that so many teachers are walking away from the classroom when they spend so much time responding to the initiative-itis of meddling politicians who pop into a carefully-choreographed lesson now and again for a photo-call?

There is no consistency – or a chance for teachers and NHS staff to conform to the latest edicts from on high. Once they’ve embraced one set of changes, they immediately have to plan for the next upheaval. And so it goes on. It’s even worse when there is a change of government – the new administration’s first priority will be to reverse the policies, however well-intended, that it inherited.

I don’t envy the task facing teachers. They’re not militants who enjoy over-generous school holidays – most probably work longer hours than the average MP and the most dedicated sacrifice enormous amounts of their own time in order to help their pupils.

In many ways, I agree with the Archbishop of York’s recent call for politics to be taken out of NHS and education policy-making.

The problem, however, is that this would not be possible without the approval of politicians – who control the nation’s purse-strings.

Yet this should not preclude David Cameron, Ed Miliband and others from remembering the adage that less can be more... especially when it comes to the future of those public services that are so critical to the nation’s health and prosperity. In this regard, they should be asking themselves this question on the election trail: what is their party going to do to recruit and retain a new generation of world-class teachers, nurses and GPs?

ED Miliband could not have been clearer when a colleague asked him in Leeds whether he still supported high-speed rail in spite of the reported misgivings of Ed Balls about the projected £50bn cost. “Yes. We support HS2, absolutely, we support HS2. We are not backing off it.”

That is clearly news to Gordon Brown’s former special adviser Damian McBride who worked with the current Labour leader and Shadow Chancellor at the Treasury, and who provided this insight in a first-person piece in The Sunday Times, gleaned from a senior civil servant who has been assessing the Opposition’s plans. “I asked a transport official how much Labour would save if it scrapped HS2. The answer was staggering. ‘Nothing’. Why? ‘Because we (the coalition) haven’t even started budgeting for it. It’s not in the books at all yet’.”

It was an answer which went to the heart of the difficulties facing HS2. It will take the life-span of five full-term Parliaments to bring about. And, unless politicians and advisers sign up for the long haul, the costs will escalate and it will become even harder to make the political, and economic, case for a new railway line along the spine of the country.

NICOLA Sturgeon’s “divide and rule” politics certainly pose a huge threat to the future of the United Kingdom, more so after Scotland’s First Minister said the pension age should not rise north of the border where life expectancy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe.

Yet is it fair for the right-wing Press to describe her as the most dangerous woman in Britain? I don’t think so – it’s more to do with the fact that there are now so few conviction politicians. If Ms Sturgeon was, in fact, English, the comparisons with Margaret Thatcher – political views aside – would be endless.

HERE are five words that I don’t write very often – I agree with John Prescott. Why? The former Deputy Prime Minister has come to the defence of Prince Charles and his right to write thought-provoking letters to Ministers. “Charles has an awful lot to offer this country. And if he wants to serve his subjects by helping young people into work, combating climate change and building sustainable communities, he can write as many damn letters as he likes,” says Lord Prescott who has been the recipient of correspondence from the Prince of Wales.

An unlikely ally – but one none the less. Well said, I couldn’t have put it better.

JUST what was David Cameron doing posing with a ewe on Easter Day? I can only assume that the Prime Minister wanted to show that he has “a long-term economic lamb” for everything.

However it should not be the duty of a supposed statesman to come up with photo opportunities – even more so on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar that had begun with the Prime Minister talking about the importance of his faith.

It’s not as if he used the opportunity to talk about the plight of hill farmers.

BAD news for David and Samamtha Cameron ahead of today’s Crabbie’s Grand National – Sam Winner is a non-runner and heads to the Scottish National next week. With no horses running with election-themed names, like Party Politics who prevailed in 1992 when John Major beat Neil Kinnock in the race for No 10, perhaps the PM and his wife will have to rely upon Cause of Causes or Shutthefrontdoor. As for Ed Miliband, I think Rocky Creek sounds apt – though he would, of course, disagree.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk