Christmas, of course, is a time for giving. Photo: Getty
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Knitted dishrags and runner beans – just some of the presents bestowed upon your doctor

Christmas, of course, is a time for giving, and from early December gifts start to come in from patients.

Perhaps the most unusual gift I’ve been given by a patient came when I worked part-time at a rural practice in deepest Norfolk while studying for an MA at the University of East Anglia. The patient in question was a long-retired farm labourer whom I helped through a nasty pneumonia. He wasn’t well-off, but at some point in life he had mastered the art of knitting string dishcloths, and he presented me with one as a token of his gratitude. It was more hole than string, but I kept it for several years, so touched was I by the gesture.

During that year, I lived in the village where the practice was located, and it didn’t take long for people to learn where the new doctor’s house was. From time to time I would arrive home to find a carrier bag dangling from the door handle containing half a dozen free-range eggs, or a crop of runner beans, or some other anonymous donation of home produce. This was the mid-1990s, but it was a taste of what life must have been like for country doctors a generation or two before.

The General Medical Council has strict rules on accepting gifts from patients. Great care must be taken to avoid any abuse of trust, and the doctor must ensure that presents don’t – or aren’t perceived to – affect the treatment a patient is given. A few years ago, back on my home turf in the south-west of England, I looked after a somewhat belligerent businessman who had a non-serious but irksome bowel complaint. Frustrated by his ongoing symptoms, he came seeking a specialist referral; he also wanted me to get on the phone and sort it out urgently for him. These requests were made while presenting me with a bottle of extremely fine and extremely expensive wine. I thanked him very much, but explained I had to refuse the gift and assured him that I would care for him exactly as I would anyone else with the same problems.

Easily my most ill-advised acceptance of an unexpected present was when a retired Anglican clergyman registered as a patient about five years ago. In the course of our first consultation, I discovered his lifelong involvement in academic theological debate, and was interested to learn that since retiring he’d published two books. I should have known better as a writer myself, but evidently I let myself appear just a little too interested. A couple of days later a parcel appeared in my in-tray containing copies of both esoteric, weighty tomes, with a handwritten note saying he looked forward to hearing my thoughts. Our subsequent consultations were attended by ever-increasing awkwardness as, again and again, I failed to make any comment about them. I found them on my shelves just recently – still unread – when decluttering my room. It made me realise that, at some point in the intervening years, he had simply given up and registered elsewhere, perhaps hoping to find a doctor with more time on his hands for extracurricular advancement.

Under the terms of the contract with the NHS, GPs must maintain a register of any gifts worth more than £100. From time to time in my practice we are left bequests, or a deceased patient’s family will ask mourners to make donations to the surgery rather than buying funeral flowers. We pay these monies into a separate amenity account, and use the funds to enhance patient care.

Christmas, of course, is a time for giving, and from early December gifts start to come in from patients. There’s always a thumping cake from Mrs Fox, which we hoist to the staff room upstairs and by great collective effort manage to whittle down to a few crumbs and stray raisins over the coming weeks. Other presents come in bottles or boxes – booze, biscuits or chocolates.

My senior partner, Hugh, gets more than the rest of us put together. In part this reflects his length of service: he was one of the two co-founders of the practice, and has been in post nigh-on 30 years, during which time he’s helped a heck of a lot of people. He also has a wonderful bedside manner. He is deeply interested in people, and frequently spends more time in the consultation catching up on what they’ve been doing, how their family is getting on, where the new house is, and what happened to the dog, than he does in talking about their medical problems.

As a consequence, Hugh is pretty much the essence of all that is good in British general practice. I’ve lost count of the times one of us has been discussing a perplexing patient over coffee, only for Hugh to fill us in on the key bit of information about whom they’re related to, or what happened to them in the distant past, which suddenly solves the puzzle.

We’d have lost him years ago if we let him eat and drink everything he’s given at Christmas. Instead, everyone’s presents are stacked in the practice manager’s office – in effect, a Santa’s grotto – and in the days leading up to the holiday each staff member is invited to take a share. It’s recognition that our practice is only as good as the loyal and dedicated people – receptionists, administrators, nurses, cleaners – who make up our wonderful team.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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