26 July 2021

It will be a long hot summer for health lobbyists – let’s hope a better bill emerges from it

By Chris Whitehouse

Schools have broken up for their summer holidays, confusion reigns over overseas holidays, and Parliament has gone into recess so that MPs and Peers can ostentatiously take a staycation to show their support for the British hospitality industry.

But, there are 17 members of the House of Commons for whom the next two months will be anything but relaxing, as a whole host of different organisations seek to engage with them to win their hearts and minds. These are the MPs who have been appointed to sit on the Standing Committee which will scrutinise the fine print of the Health and Care Bill now before Parliament.

The summer break, during which no actual progress on the bill can be made, provides a timely opportunity for all those seeking to influence the future shape and structure of the NHS and social care in England to deploy their lobbying resources. Private providers, third sector partners, trades unions, professional bodies representing doctors and nurses, and the wide range of bodies within the NHS and local government should all seize this chance actively to engage with committee members highlighting the problems that remain with the current proposals and suggesting changes to the text of the bill that would put them right.

Not for lobbyists in health and social care policy the delights of Bognor or Benidorm this year – cases will be made, not packed. Arms will be twisted, not raised holding cocktails at the beach bar. Ears will be regaled with New Clause amendments, not the latest deep chill Ibiza playlists.

The lobbying will be intense, and in many cases self-serving, but it is not without its beneficial value.

Lobbying challenges the principles and details of the proposed legislation, and through that challenge can improve the outcome for this once in a lifetime, post-pandemic opportunity to restructure and reorganise the NHS and local government, to put at the heart of the new systems the pathways for individual patients, their experience of their engagement, and the outcomes of their treatment.

Lobbying, when done openly and transparently, if undoubtedly intensely and sometimes with faux sincerity, (please don’t mention David Cameron and Greensill or Matt Hancock and Topwood) is a vital part of the democratic process. It can bring about improvements by highlighting weakness in arguments and in the fine print of legislation.

Heck, even Sajid Javid, who inherited the 235 page Bill from Matt Hancock, along with 26 briefing papers and two hefty lots of explanatory notes, and who wrote to the Prime Minister to ask, unsuccessfully, for the introduction of the Bill to be delayed, has made it clear he will be bringing forward amendments to his own bill.

The argument deployed by the Government, that it is responding to what NHS England asked for, and towards which many areas are already moving, rather sucks the wind from the opposition’s sails, leaving Labour with little new to say. Against the background of the current government’s unprecedented spending on services during the pandemic, even Labour’s elderly fox of cuts in funding is well and truly shot.

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, is struggling to get either of his two remaining kites off the ground. The argument that now, with Covid still raging, is not the time to reform the NHS flies in the face of many system leaders calling out for more, not less, speed with the legislation; and the second reading division gave the Government a thumping majority for its legislation, as expected. As an argument it has crashed.

Labour’s monotonously repeated criticism that the Bill amounts to privatisation by stealth has about as much vigour and flying ability as a dodo or Monty Python’s infamous Norwegian Blue parrot. Goodness knows what Ashworth will say when he finds out that for all the three quarters of a century of the NHS, most GPs have been private businesses; and that local systems agree that seats on ICS boards for provider partners will put the patient closer to the centre of consideration when whole system approaches are developed and implemented.

Labour will no doubt generate even more hot air over the summer, but its spokespersons are largely irrelevant to the real debate which has moved on from the principles of policy to the detail of how that policy will be implemented in law and in practice at local level.

It will be a long hot summer for health policy lobbyists, and hopefully the bill will emerge, following their engagement, as all the better for it.

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Chris Whitehouse is Director of Health and Social Care Policy at Whitehouse Communications.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.