Tom Richmond: Crisis in NHS social care calls for straight answers

JUST when will Ministers start answering straight questions about the NHS social care crisis with straight answers which confirm, at the very least, that they have grasped the issue's importance?

When will there be a joined-up NHS and social care service?

I ask this after Dr Sarah Wollaston – a family doctor before entering Parliament and becoming chairman of the Health Select Committee – made a very pertinent point in Parliament.

As Ministers defended their decision to increase funding for the NHS, and rightly so, she wanted the Department of Health’s external management consultants to look at how “the underfunding of social care impacts on the health economies of local trusts”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It was not an unreasonable request given the cost to NHS hospitals of so-called ‘bed-blocking’ is now £900m a year and counting. Yet the response did not inspire confidence? Health Minister Ben Gummer – son of John of BSE burger notoriety at the height of the so-called ‘mad cow disease’ in the 1990s – talked about “a holistic understanding of the healthcare system” and how local authorities can, if they choose, impose an additional two per cent levy on council tax bills to pay for improved care of the elderly.

Sorry, this is simply not good enough. He had clearly not listenend. If he had, he would have recognised that Dr Wollaston – one of that rare breed of politicians with practical day-to-day experience of the real world – was effectively calling for a joined-up NHS, a not unreasonable stance.

Instead she was ignored by a Minister whose specialist subject is, in fact, the environment. You could not make it up.

Yet, with hospital care compromised because of delays in charging patients until the necessary community care arrangements have been put in place, and the budget for local pharmacies facing a six per cent cut of £170m, the myriad of NHS trusts, organisations and agencies do need to work together.

Take my local pharmacy. The level of expertise is such that it has become a de facto doctors’ surgery with the sick asking for medical advice, and remedies which don’t require a prescription, because the alternative is a 10-day wait to see their GP. Yet this is the type of service now being compromised by the Government’s short-sightedness.

As such, I would have far greater faith in politics per se if the Government of the day started heeding the advice, and wisdom, of the select committees whose oversight of policy is both professional and priceless. Dr Wollaston, and her colleagues, continue to exemplify this. On second thoughts, perhaps they should be running the Department of Health.

It’s time Ministers recognised this too rather than using glib phrases like “a holistic understanding” to mask the fact that they, frankly, don’t know what they’re talking about. After all, Mr Gummer is the Minister who was accused in Parliament of looking down in his papers when he was asked if he had visited Huddersfield where plans to close the A&E unit have sparked outrage from the town’s 146,000 residents.

I’m happy to stand corrected, but I bet Mr Gummer would not support such a plan for his constituency of Ipswich. Why, therefore, should Huddersfield be any different? A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer will suffice.

TALKING of the importance of Parliament’s select committee, the report into the mismanagement of the Kids Company made predictably depressing reading, not least the revelation that not one expert in youth services was on the board of Camila Batmanghelidjh’s so-called ‘charity’.

Why was this – and why did the Charity Commission, or those Ministers like David Cameron who were charmed by Ms Batmanghelidjh whenever she asked for more public money, not act to rectify this failure of governance?

In light of the Public Administration Committee’s findings, taxpayers have a right to know the answer to this question – and the steps being taken to prevent cronyism in the future. This is important so that the Kids Company scandal does not besmirch the whole charity sector.

THESE are not good times for the Northern Powerhouse. There was a hooroosh when the electrification of the TransPennine rail route was put on hold temporarily, the steel industry is in ruins, the response to the floods was woefully inadequate and now the Government wants to shut the Sheffield regional office of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills with the loss of at least 200 jobs “because phones and computers don’t work” according to local MP Louise Haigh.

I could go on – there have been countless examples in recent weeks of policy announcements which make a mockery of David Cameron and George Osborne’s ‘One Nation’ agenda. Yet help is at hand. An early draft of a Government forward planning list reveals that there are plans afoot for a “Northern Powerhouse Ministerial starburst” in April to mark the second anniversary of the strategy being unveiled.

Given that there are respected businessmen like Jamie Martin – managing partner of top law firm Ward Hadaway – who said earlier this week that “the steam has gone out of the Northern Powerhouse”, it will take more than one speech, and a perfunctory photo-call, to get this initiative back on track – even if it is a “starburst”.

SIR Terry Wogan was not just a giant of radio because he recognised the importance of having a conversation with his listeners rather than talking down to them. He was also an under-rated interviewee – his inquisition of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, months before the Tory leader’s downfall, remains a masterpiece because he engaged with the then PM, asked all the difficult questions and then listened to the response with respect.

If only the same could be said about today’s inquisitors. Take note Andrew Marr.
 [email protected]

THE Americanisation of Leeds continues. Not only does a new sign at the city’s railway station advise passengers to use an “alternate exit” but a notice at Aireborough Leisure Centre’s swimming pool makes reference to “25 meters”. Whatever next? The stars and stripes flag flying over Civic Hall in tribute to US presidential hopeful Donald Trump?