Labour derides Tory MP for blaming immigrants for A&E crisis

Andy Burnham says Chris Skidmore's comments were "beneath contempt" after GPs' head rejects claim that migrants are to blame for the "massive increase" in waiting times.

After new figures from the King's Fund showed that A&E waiting times have reached their highest level for nine years, the Conservatives are desperately trying to find a way to blame anyone but the government. 

On the Today programme this morning, Tory MP Chris Skidmore, a member of the health select committee, suggested that immigration was one of the main causes of the crisis. 

The two biggest drivers, I think, for A&E are an ageing population and people turning up at A&E unnecessarily sometimes. But when you look at the evidence, John Heyworth, the president of the Collge of Emergency Medicine, has said that migrants routinely visit A&E instead of actually going to their GP, and when you look at UK Border Agency studies of about 700 migrants, only half were ever registered with a GP. So, what you’re finding is that immigrants are not registering with GPs and going directly to A&E, which may account for part of the rise in admissions.

But Clare Gerarda, the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, rubbished his claim.

You're much more likely to have an immigrant caring for you than sitting up in front of the emergency department. I will accept there are certain migrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, who don't have a tradition of general practice, who will go to the emergency department rather than to general practice and we need to address that, but it's certainly not responsible for the massive increase we've seen in recent months and it's certainly not responsible for the 1.7% increase that we’ve seen over the last decade.

After that authoritative rebuttal, Labour has also gone on the attack. Andy Burnham tweeted:

Having tried, and failed, to blame 2004 GP contract for the pressures in A&E, Tories are now trying to blame immigration. Beneath contempt.

He was joined by shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant, who wrote

Chris Skidmore's argument about A&E and immigration was a disgrace, not based on evidenced facts, but on surmise, anecdote and prejudice.

Labour has also rejected the Tories' claim that the last government's decision in 2004 to remove responsibility for out-of-hours care from GPs was to blame. Burnham said: "It was a diversionary tactic that was politically convenient for them but isn’t true because what we’ve seen today is that A&E waits are now at a nine-year high at the early months of this year. That’s a full decade almost after the introduction of the 2004 GPs’ contract, so the pressure has been created by the policies of this government. It’s a number of factors that are leading to this pressure, it’s a mess of their making. They must urgently get a grip and sort it out."

Burnham and Jeremy Hunt will get a chance to duke it out tomorrow when the emergency Commons debate called by Labour is held. 

Ambulances are seen at the Accident and Emergency department of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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