It’s lining up to be a busy day for the Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey when he sits down to speak to the Yorkshire Post. The Government has just unveiled a Budget to “reignite the dream of home ownership” and as Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary he’s one of the first up to bat at the Despatch Box.
In his 20 years in Parliament, he has held four different frontbench housing positions, including a year as Minister of State under Gordon Brown’s premiership. When you get him on to the subject of homes it’s easy to see why. As he talks, you get a real sense that for him, this is more than just a portfolio; it’s a passion.
“[The home] is the heart of all our lives,” he states, when this is put to him. “With no home, its hard to feel safe, its hard to feel confident, its hard to bring up a family.
“A home is where we need to feel safe; it’s where we love, it’s where we laugh, it’s where our kids sleep, and it’s where most of us choose to die, if we can.
“If you take something that’s as basic as a safe, secure place to sleep out of people’s lives it just has huge consequences for people. That’s even before you get into some of the equally strong economic arguments.”
There is an earnestness to many of Healey’s answers that is refreshing in a politician. Several questions are met with a thoughtful pause, before receiving a detailed and considered response. This includes the question of how he came to be involved in politics. The 57-year-old does not point to one particular event or period of his life as the catalyst, but suggests his parents were a strong influence.
“My mum and dad have always had a really strong social and moral commitment. They were always socially involved,” he explains.
“Way back, when the language was very different and the provision was non-existent, my mum set up a support group for families with children with learning difficulties. [She] trained as a physiotherapist and was a teacher, and my dad worked in the prison service, and was also a teacher.
“It’s that sense of social and public service I think.”
The MP also points to his first job – working as a nursing assistant in a long-stay psychiatric hospital – as having played a significant role in his political journey. While he loved the “practical, personal, involved” nature of the work, he says staff too often found themselves “thwarted by a lack of [patient] rights and a lack of services”. “My job was to work with the staff to try and help and support and prepare patients to be able to live beyond the hospital,” he says. “But it was very frustrating because the services weren’t there and the right to any sort of assessment of what patient needed weren’t there.”
He worked at the hospital while studying for his degree, and at the end of his studies was faced with the “difficult” decision whether to pursue a career in an similarly hand-on profession, or whether to find a role that would allow him “to more broadly change the system”. In the end it was the latter ambition that won out and he began campaigning for the mental health charity Mind.
He spent the next few years lobbying to improve disability rights and it was during this time that he made his first run for Parliament. It was 1992 and the Labour Party was searching for a candidate to fight for the safe Conservative seat of Ryedale in North Yorkshire. Healey came third after the Liberal Democrats in that race, but is keen to stress that the two years of campaigning were not completely wasted. Not only did Labour see its first councillors elected to Ryedale council that year, but the experience also woke him up to a career that could combine his two great interests. As he puts it: “Suddenly, I stumbled across one role, the elected politician... [where] those two very separate tracks – the pastoral and the intellectual policy challenge – came together.”
Despite this revelation, he claims the decision to stand again as the candidate for Wentworth in the 1997 election was not an easy one. At the time, he was working for the TUC, having been asked to come on-board by the then general secretary John Monks (now a Labour peer). He explains that the organisation prides itself on adopting a position and agenda “which outlasts the political cycles”. “So it was regarded as a step down when I said I wanted to step away from being one of the senior directors and stand as a candidate to become MP,” he says with a laugh.
Within four years of being elected he was made a junior minister in the Department for Education and Skills. Over the course of the next decade he went on to hold positions at the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Since entering opposition he has been responsible for both health and housing portfolios, last year commissioning the head of Taylor Wimpey to conduct a major review of home ownership levels. More recently, he has led the Labour response to the Grenfell Tower disaster, and expresses concern that a tragedy that should have been a wake-up call for ministers will all-too-quickly be forgotten.
To illustrate this, he draws a comparison with the 2007 floods which devastated communities in Yorkshire and across the UK. “The public and media concern went away with the flood waters, but the problems and the shattered lives that were left behind last for months, and in some cases a couple of years,” he says. “I fear that could happen with Grenfell.
“I’ve made it almost our mission that we will not rest until every one of those survivors who needs help and a new home, has it, until anyone who is culpable is brought to account, and until we have in place all of the measures to make sure it never happens again.
“If a country as decent and well-off as ours can’t provide something as basic as a safe home, big things have to change.”