The focus this afternoon at Conservative Party Conference was around a One Nation agenda – with the secretaries of state for Health and for Education both addressing the party faithful.
These are not two departments high on many people’s lists of dream jobs and for sound reasons – Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary even joked his job was “the safest, because there’s not a long line of other ministers who want it”. Both have very influential and outspoken organisations pushing back against government changes; both traditionally spell the end of a minister’s career; and both are right now facing a large brouhaha over new policies.
Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary (who remained in place following Theresa May’s ascension to the Prime Ministership), has been battling the British Medical Association over changes to junior doctors’ contracts which will see their working hours changed and which led to the first doctors’ strike in 40 years earlier this year.
Hunt could have been forgiven for avoiding the subject. But he did not. He called on the BMA to “end the strikes and work with us”, receiving prolonged applause in the Birmingham Convention Centre. He acknowledged there had been a shortage of doctors being trained and said the government was “doing something we have never done properly before: training enough doctors”.
From September 2018 an extra 1,500 doctors will be trained each year with the cap on medical school places being increased by 25 per cent (currently limited to 6,000 per year). Hunt proclaimed that by the end of the next Parliament, the NHS would be self-sufficient in doctors, receiving the second largest round of applause.
Speaking without notes, he thanked NHS staff for their hard work and said he believed “totally and utterly in our NHS”. But, he was not shy in telling the NHS it needed to do better. He bemoaned the number of NHS targets still being missed in A&E departments and apologised for the failures – for the fallopian tube being removed instead of the appendix; for the wrong toe being amputated; for the 150 avoidable hospital deaths each week – but his enthusiasm for data being the key to improving services was clear.
Data, ratings, transparency and openness were at the centre of Hunt’s approach to his stewardship of the NHS. “Hospitals must be honest with patients when things go wrong”, he said. Lessons – not blame – should be spread around the NHS, and a safe space for doctors to discuss errors will be created. Ofsted-style ratings for the NHS have been introduced, as has a duty of candour requiring NHS personnel to act in an open and transparent way. In future, NHS Trusts will also make the number of avoidable deaths public, making the UK the first country in the world to do so.
As he drew to the end of his speech he moved on to mental illness. An improved suicide prevention strategy will be introduced and mental health will be given the same priority as physical health. How this will be done was not revealed, but will be welcome news to many.
Throughout his speech, Hunt was clear he valued the contribution of overseas NHS staff – 25 per cent of NHS doctors are from outside the UK – and he intends to ensure EU nationals are able to continue to work in the country. However, he also added the somewhat eyebrow-raising claim that we as a country must ensure more of our own home-grown doctors as it is not right to continue “importing” doctors from poorer countries that need them. While his intention was surely the right one, this peculiar statement will lead many to question whether this was really the best way to say, “we value the work of overseas doctors, but we want more British ones”.
Justine Greening, the Education Secretary appointed by May, steered clear of immigration policy and began by immediately praising her predecessors’ reforms, saying 1.4 million more children are in good or outstanding schools thanks to them but there are still a million pupils in schools judged not good enough.
Although Greening’s biggest headache is the grammar school debate – Theresa May has made clear she will be removing the ban on new grammar schools put into place in 1998 by Tony Blair’s government – she lost no time in reminding listeners that 99 per cent of grammar schools are rated good or outstanding. She attempted to soften opponents’ fears of the reintroduction of grammar schools by promising greater flexibility – there will be no return to the exam taken at 11 (known as the 11+) but there will be more options later in pupils’ development to move across, recognising children develop at different ages.
Greening was adamant: she wants to make Britain a true meritocracy by giving all children a level playing field – she wants to “level up Britain”. Greening, like other ministers, spouted the party’s slogan: “a country that works for everyone”.
Split into three, children need: the right skills; the right advice at the right time; and great and life changing experiences. New “opportunity areas” are to be trialled in six areas and will see good teachers mentor bad schools and will bring together teachers, communities, local councils, local enterprise partnerships and businesses.
Schools will have the choice to introduce new grammars, or any other kind of schools they want. More will be done to improve the non-academic route for young people – last year 52 per cent of people did not go to university – and stated colleges and University Technical Colleges will work more closely.
Greening did not make any new announcements on how the government intends to improve the retention rate of teachers – an industry with one of the highest staff turnovers, but both Hunt’s and Greening’s messages were about making the health and education services work better for us – the users of both services – whether that be through providing better information on NHS services or through greater choice in schools and education.