Keep the faith, Andy Burnham tells NHS and Church

For this former altar boy, politics and religion are both about social justice

Jane Merrick@janemerrick23
Sunday 24 March 2013 01:00

When Andy Burnham was growing up, there were three reference points that guided him: Everton Football Club, the Labour Party and the Catholic Church. As he has been reminded in the past month, it is now three popes since Everton won a trophy (the FA Cup in May 1995). It is worth also pointing out it is two popes since Labour won an election (May 2005).

But it is the last of these three guiding lights, the Catholic Church, that has dimmed for the shadow Health Secretary in recent years. When Mr Burnham was an eight-year-old altar boy in Warrington, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, used to send sermons recorded on cassette tapes to churches in the North-west. It was the young Andy's job to press "play" on the tape recorder in his church.

"The Church then was focused on social equality and fairness in its broadest sense and really speaking up for those with least," Mr Burnham says. "I've always said, and some people won't like this, what I used to have to read in the catechism, the enfranchisement of it on earth was the Labour Party." But – without singling out Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict for criticism – he says he has felt "cut adrift" from the Church during the past decade or so because it has not stayed true to its commitment to social justice.

As Mr Burnham is one of the most prominent Catholics in Westminster, his criticism is powerful. "The absolute bedrock of all Christianity is that everyone should be equal in the eyes [of God]. The Church has almost been having a campaign against equality – that some people aren't as equal as others. I think that's where it's lost its way. It has been preaching that there are second-class citizens.

"I have been a bit alienated by the moral absolutism of recent times where people sit in judgement of other people's lives – particularly sometimes people whose own lives didn't give them the authority to preach in that way."

By contrast, Mr Burnham says he is encouraged by the election of Pope Francis, who began his papacy pledging to tackle inequality. "You couldn't possibly be on the ground in Buenos Aires and be turning away people whose lives weren't perfect, could you?"

Mr Burnham is also on a mission to keep the NHS true to its Bevanite roots and to prevent what he says is back-door privatisation of the health service.

Despite conceding a U-turn on competition earlier this month, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has left the door wide open to the free market in new regulations that will come into force in a week's time. Mr Burnham's claim is backed up by a legal opinion and a House of Lords legislative scrutiny committee.

Tomorrow, he will lead a powerful coalition of unions, doctors and the royal colleges in Westminster to campaign for the regulations to be changed.

The newly drafted rules governing GP-led clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), which will control £60bn of health spending, say that contracts can be awarded to "a single provider without advertising an intention to seek offers from providers". But, crucially, they add that in such cases "the relevant body [must be] satisfied that the services to which the contract relates are capable of being provided only by that provider". Cutting through the legalese, this, critics say, opens the door to competition because in the vast majority of cases, there are many organisations, including private firms, that are "capable" of providing the service.

Mr Burnham says: "It's a real question of trust and whether or not ministers are making promises they are basically not keeping. Every time they bring forward regulations, the practical effect is that they are mandating CCGs to put everything out to open tender. It was a mandate for privatisation, and that's how it's turning out. Now the true ideological intent of the Bill is being laid bare. Competition is being driven to the heart of the system. It ends 65 years of history."

Mr Burnham's big idea is for "whole person care" – merging budgets for social care and health so that more older people are looked after in their homes rather than in hospital, where they often don't need to be.

He insists that Labour "will win the next election" if the party can "come up with ideas that give answers to people in their lives" – and, like the Catholic Church, remember its roots.

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