Labour rejects calls for cross-party body to solve NHS and social care crisis

'We don’t need more talking shops,' Shadow Health Secretary tells The Independent - warning a Royal Commission would 'kick the problems into the long grass'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 10 February 2018 20:09 GMT
There are calls for the full integration of health and social care – a momentous task for a minority government acting alone
There are calls for the full integration of health and social care – a momentous task for a minority government acting alone (PA)

Labour has rejected growing calls for a cross-party body to solve the NHS and social care funding crisis, warning it will be kicking the controversy “into the long grass”.

The Opposition has insisted instead that all that is needed to rescue health services is “a government with the political will” to end their punishing funding squeeze.

The decision – revealed in an article for The Independent by Jon Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary – is the first time the party has come out against the push for cross-party collaboration.

Behind the scenes, some senior Labour MPs have embraced the idea, which also has the backing of some key Tory figures and the public backing of the Liberal Democrats.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health and Social Care Secretary, has said he is “open to all discussions with colleagues” as he tries to persuade Downing Street to put in place a 10-year NHS funding settlement.

And a proposal to go further by setting up a fully-fledged Royal Commission has been put forward by the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies think-tank.

But Mr Ashworth said: “The correct response won’t be found in attacking the concept of a universal health care, as Donald Trump bizarrely tried in his recent Twitter rant, but nor is it to kick the problems into the long grass of some Royal Commission style process.

“We need a government with the political will to make the investment necessary, put in place a plan to fix staffing and properly support people to manage their own healthcare and conditions for the long term.”

The comments kill off any prospect of meaningful cross-party collaboration to tackle an NHS crisis which saw around 55,000 operations cancelled – as “part of the plan” for winter, Theresa May later said.

On Friday, the highly respected King’s Fund said the social care system would continue to “lurch from crisis to crisis” unless a yawning £2.5bn funding gap was plugged.

The scale of the challenge has triggered a growing belief that it can be relieved only by the full integration of health and social care – a momentous task for a minority government acting alone.

Frank Field and Liz Kendall are among Labour backbenchers seeking a consensus, alongside Tories including Sarah Wollaston, the head of the Health Select Committee, and former minister Nick Boles.

But Labour was badly burned in 2010, when its plan for a levy on people’s estates after they die to fund social care – put forward in cross-party talks – was ruthlessly branded a “death tax” by the Tories.

A further problem is that a Royal Commission, with the power to subpoena documents and take evidence under oath, could take even longer than a public inquiry to reach a conclusion.

In the article Mr Ashworth says Labour would pump an extra £5bn into the NHS immediately and £8bn into social care over five years, give staff a pay rise and increase training places, adding: “We don’t need more talking shops, we need action.”

“Since 2010, the NHS has experiencing the biggest financial squeeze in its history and the Tories are set to break their promise to increase real terms spending on a head for head basis,” he writes.

“And our Prime Minister seems completely uninterested in fixing the problem. Consumed by Brexit, she has neglected her domestic agenda.”

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