Andy Burnham: 'Judge me by what I did for the NHS'

Ahead of the 65th anniversary of the health service, a former health secretary talks about his time at the helm, his regrets – and his plans for a new kind of NHS under Labour

Andy Burnham is still smarting from Prime Minister’s Questions when I see him in his office in Westminster. Two hours earlier, the Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie had asked a question about “the sinister culture of cover-up in our NHS over the past decade”. David Cameron replied by reading out a quotation from Baroness Young, the former head of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the independent NHS regulator. She had said she had been under “huge government pressure, because the Government hated the idea that a regulator would criticise it by dint of criticising one of the hospitals or one of the services that it was responsible for”, and that “we were under more pressure” when Burnham “became minister, from the politics”.

Burnham, the last Labour Health Secretary, 2009-10, sitting on the opposition front bench, shook his head and looked like a “Tasered choirboy”, according to one sketch writer.

To me, he says: “It’s frustrating, isn’t it, when people are throwing stuff and you can’t reply and you reject it entirely.” He is furious because he appointed Robert Francis, the lawyer who carried out a three-year inquiry into excess deaths at Stafford hospital. “It was one of the first things I did as Health Secretary, and my mindset was the opposite of what they are saying. I was in the mindset of, ‘Bring it all out, we need to know if other -hospitals have serious problems’.”

They did. And, “literally on the eve of the last general election”, he published a list of 27 hospitals that were “registered with conditions” – which meant that “they couldn’t be registered as safe; they couldn’t be given a clean bill of health [by the CQC]”.

Unfortunately, the list did not include Morecambe Bay hospitals, where several babies and mothers seem to have died as a result of NHS errors, which the CQC missed. “That clearly in the end was the wrong judgement. But that wasn’t my judgement. That was a judgement for the independent regulator.

“The point I really want to get over is: Judge me by what I did.”

But he – the Labour government – set up the regulator and it was at fault, I say. “We brought in independent regulation. [But] with the best will in the world, it isn’t going to spot the problem on a ward in the north of England immediately.”

He cannot resist pointing out – it’s a “minor” point – that the CQC report on Morecambe Bay, which was allegedly suppressed, “if it was deleted, was deleted under them”, the present government. But the larger point is this: “The NHS was never perfect and no party should claim that it was, under them.“ Burnham says the Tory attack on him ”is an attempt by someone on the other side to try to damn the whole system, to pick on examples of poor care that should never have happened and in the case of Mid Staffs appalling care, but it is not possible to say, and the whole thing is sinister, corrupt, - that isn’t possible. There have been periodically problems in the NHS, in Bristol, there was Alder Hey, there was Shipman. These things sadly have been there in the past. The NHS is such a complicated, vast thing that there will always be things that are wrong with it.”

But it is a “caricature” of Labour that “we were closed and secretive”, when “we began the process of the publication of clinical data so that outcomes could be published, we began rating hospitals”. But wasn’t that part of the problem, I ask, in that it put pressure on staff to suppress bad news?

He concedes that this is a problem at the “very local level” in the NHS. “When people bring complaints, the shutters do come down. But that tendency is very, very deep-rooted  and I couldn’t say, hand on heart, we managed to crack that.”

Burnham’s admission of past failings takes an unexpected turn at this point. Instead of rejecting the “culture of secrecy”, he repudiates Tony Blair’s reforms based on patient choice. “I’ve reflected carefully on our time in government - and much of it I’m proud of. The NHS was transformed from a service that was offering a two-year wait for a heart-bypass operation when we came in – people were dying on NHS waiting lists – that situation was turned around completely. But I look at a lot of the things we said about choice and control: I think we offered people fairly meaningless choices. You know: ‘Where do you want to go for your hip operation; which provider of these five do you want?’ We had a very simplistic notion of choice, almost applying the supermarket test - care is a much more fundamental human endeavour than which place you want to go to.”

Declaring that this is “quite an important break, really, with where we were”, he says he wants to celebrate this week’s 65th anniversary of the NHS with a “renewed settlement” that would integrate physical, ¬mental and social well-being in one service, free at the point of need.

Isn’t “integrated health and social care” what George Osborne has just announced in his Spending Review? The Chancellor said he would be “bringing together a significant chunk of the health and social-care budgets” so that services for older people would be “commissioned jointly and seamlessly by the local NHS and local councils working together”.

Burnham is dismissive: “I don’t think what Osborne announced today comes anywhere near what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the full integration of health care.” He welcomes it to the extent that it reverses the trend of the past three years, in which “all the incentive is to disinvest in preventive care that keeps older people out of hospitals, because councils want to keep council tax low, and hospitals get paid by how many people go through the door. So the whole system at the moment pushes people towards the expensive end of the care world.”

But he claims his ideas are more ambitious: “In the same way when we created the NHS we didn’t let people get financially ruined by the cost of medical care, we’re not going to let people be financially ruined by the costs associated with ageing. I’ve got a strong sense that if Labour can be that bold, it’s the best antidote to the people on the doorstep who say:you’re all the same, there’s no point in voting.”

He thinks that the Chancellor, on the other hand, is using his ideas quite cynically to get round the ring fence that protects NHS spending, simply to raid the NHS budget to pay for social care.

But he wears the Government's focus on him as a badge of pride: “Attacked by the Prime Minister; plagiarised by the Chancellor: I must be doing something right.”

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future