Working, as I do, in a political environment, you are exposed to a multitude of mangled ministerial speeches and botched press appearances every day. You almost become desensitized to the ridiculous drivel that some of them spurt out on a daily basis – but, once in a while, something catches your eye that makes you leap back and spill your coffee down yourself.
Yesterday, whilst perusing my usual collection of newspapers, websites and trade magazines, I stumbled across this article (registration required) about Labour’s ‘10 year plan for the NHS’. Yes, there have already been lots of these – and there will be many more before May – but this one really stood out.
“NHS 111 services would be handed over to ambulance services under Labour”, read the headline. I read it again, just to be sure. I checked the date. Yes, it was indeed a brand new article.
I couldn’t believe it.
Now, I should explain. In my previous job, I worked for NHS Direct – the now fossilised ancestor of the NHS 111 service. The service shut down having had to pull out of its 111 contracts as they were no longer financially viable, and the whole operation was eventually wound up in March 2014.
I was part of the team which led the shut-down of the service. I personally stuffed envelopes with redundancy notices for our staff. I tried to answer the questions of confused nurses and call handlers who were unsure about the TUPE transfer process. I was even able to help them with information about their future roles at five ambulance services across England. Because, you see, that is where the NHS 111 contracts went. To ambulance services.
So, you can imagine my confusion when I read that headline – but it didn’t end there.
Andy Burnham, Shadow Health Minister and all-round Northern ‘man of the people’ had clearly not done any research. Or, at least, his minions hadn’t.
Burnham said that by handing these contracts over to ambulance services (his brilliant new idea, so he tells us), there would be “more experienced staff on the phones and better classification of calls”. He went on to say that, while the previous NHS Direct service “was not perfect”, it had “more experienced professionals on the end of a phone able to make better judgment calls”.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, TUPE transfer (the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations) means that if you are in a job and your organisation is closing down, you will be guaranteed a job with the company taking over the contract. So long as it is within a certain distance of your house, it won’t cause you any great stress and you don’t want to take early retirement or something else instead, you will transfer over with the exact same conditions of employment that you have at your current workplace, right down to holiday entitlements.
Essentially, if you are TUPE’d over, you are exactly the same person doing exactly the same job (in most cases) but for a different company. Quite simple.
So, all those professional nurses, call handlers and health professionals who were TUPE transferred from NHS Direct to NHS 111 (the services currently run by ambulance services across England) are apparently not qualified enough to be doing their new jobs. The sterling work that they did for NHS Direct counts for nothing because – as Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary said – the people taking the calls need to have more experience and be more professional.
This is the man who may again be in charge of the NHS after May, having already served a short stint as Health Secretary under Gordon Brown.
Yet there is a bigger problem here. Political illiteracy and lack of understanding, both on the part of the electorate and the state, has led to things like this becoming commonplace.
It is well known that the majority of cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers have very little, if any, real-world work experience to speak of. Indeed, just last week Ed Miliband was questioned on his experience outside of politics, to which he gleefully told onlookers that he had previously worked as an adviser to the Treasury and a lecturer at Harvard University – a politics lecturer, no less. David Cameron followed in similar vein: his career saw him progress from being a party researcher to a SpAd to becoming an MP, holding various positions within the Shadow Cabinet before eventually becoming Prime Minister.
Career politicians tend to succeed in the role of Party Leader (and, by extension, Prime Minister) as the ability to understand political functions and act solely as a convincing mouthpiece are pivotal to the job.
However, when it comes to the various secretarial roles for the different departments, an inability to relate to or even understand the job is a real problem. The fact that elections and reshuffles seem to place ministers in these roles purely based on luck, or some sort of distant interest in the department, indicates just how detached they are from the reality of the task. How can the man in charge of ensuring local football teams get funding for their stadia one week suddenly be qualified to run the country’s National Health Service the next? Moreover, why doesn’t the electorate care? Would you trust a doctor whose only previous work experience was doing guided tours at the National Gallery?
Supposedly, the NHS is the greatest worry for the British public. Every time it is mentioned on the news, footage of angry placard-waving mobs is shown along with statements from various parties about what they’re going to do to ‘sort this mess out’.
So why are we not demanding more from the person in charge – not to ‘do’ more, but to be more?
Surely a service which we are forced to pay money into and cajoled to use at every turn deserves someone at the helm who has some sort of real-world experience and awareness of the job. Instead, we are offered the Andy Burnhams and Jeremy Hunts of the political world (Jeremy Hunt being another ex-Culture Secretary, along with Burnham) who have as much knowledge of the situation as they do about applied quantum physics.
It is no coincidence that the number of people bothering to vote in every general election is declining. Until we are able to opt out of paying tax into this bizarre system (or any system), we should be doing much more to demand and expect more of those in charge of it. Not just placard-waving, but challenging the choices of the government which puts these inexperienced, clueless people in control of something which is still considered by many as a ‘national treasure’.