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Andy Burnham interview: “You can’t have a blanket position on HS2”

The shadow health secretary on why he’s prepared to rebel.

Few in Labour feel the constraints of opposition more than Andy Burnham. “I’m a shadow of my former self,” he jokes when we meet at his Commons office, referring to his current post as Labour’s health spokesman (he held the position in government from 2009 to 2010). More hopefully, he cites the vote in favour of banning parents from smoking in cars where there are children and the government’s decision to accept Syrian refugees as evidence of how the party has changed policy from outside power. The next election, he tells me, is “completely winnable”, and he adds: “That’s a pretty great place to be for a one-term opposition.”

Burnham’s ebullient tone changes when we turn to the National Health Service, around which, he warns, a “perfect storm” is still building. “If you look at the data on A&E, something has fundamentally changed in the last 12 to 18 months and that is that the pressure has both ratcheted up and has been sustained over the year, so it’s not diminishing. It’s normally a winter and then back down again.”

One of the main drivers of the A&E crisis has been the 20 per cent cut in social-care funding since 2010, which has turned some hospitals into de facto warehouses for the elderly. The imaginative solution proposed by Burnham is “whole-person care”: the creation of an integrated service with a single budget for physical, mental and social needs. After securing shadow cabinet support for the principle last year, despite the well-known scepticism of Ed Balls, he is now working on the details. There is the promise of an announcement by the time of Labour’s national policy forum in Milton Keynes in July. The question, he says, is: “How far do you go? Do you go for a very ambitious version of it, or an amalgamation of the existing budget?” Burnham does not disguise his preference. “So great is the challenge that’s coming at the health- and social-care system, both in terms of the financial outlook and the demographic pressures, I would argue that you only rise to that with a solution of equal scale. Tinkering at the edges is not going to do it.”

Complementing the establishment of “whole-person care”, his other main pledge is to repeal the coalition’s NHS reforms and halt the privatisation of services. He is troubled by how the proposed EU-US free trade agreement could give permanent legal backing to the new, market-led regime and reveals that he will soon travel to Brussels to lobby the European Commission over the matter. “It means being absolutely explicit that we carry over the designation for health in the Treaty of Rome, so that we can exempt it from competition law,” he tells me. “The market is not the answer to 21st-century health care. The demands of 21st-century care require integration. Markets deliver fragmentation.”

But it is when I ask for his views on an area outside his policy brief, the High Speed 2 rail link (HS2), that Burnham becomes most animated. “It comes right through my constituency [Leigh] and it’s made me look at it in a very hard-headed way,” he says, complaining of an “absolutely massive depot” on what is “currently green space”.

Recently, after Balls threatened to withdraw backing for the project last year, Labour has moved to a more supportive position, with Ed Miliband recruiting the original architect of HS2, Andrew Adonis, to advise him on the issue. But Burnham goes further in his criticism than any other shadow cabinet minister has done. “I’ve given no guarantees about supporting it. I’m not talking as a frontbencher here, I’m talking as the MP for Leigh. I will not let my constituents carry on paying through their taxes for the rail network when they don’t have reasonable access to it. It’s as simple as that. If the government’s going to lay new rail track in my constituency, it can bloody well give us a station.”

Remarkably, Burnham refuses to rule out breaking collective responsibility and voting against HS2 if changes are not made. “If they don’t look again at the depot, I’d have to say to my own whips: ‘Everyone’s constituency is going to be affected differently and everyone’s going to have to account. You can’t have a blanket position because it doesn’t affect everybody equally, does it?’ ” Whether the Labour whips would take such an emollient view is questionable.

More than almost any other shadow cabinet minister, Burnham has the potential to be a transformative secretary of state. Whole-person care is the most fully developed example of the new approach to public-service reform outlined by Ed Miliband in his Hugo Young memorial lecture on 10 February. In an age of austerity, it is also among the most necessary.

As Burnham points out: “People will often say, ‘Oh, integration – it all sounds quite fluffy, quite nice, but are there are any real savings there?’ Monitor are talking about £6bn as the potential gain from integration. That’s got to be taken before anyone asks anybody for anything else.”

Now he just needs to make sure that Leigh gets that railway station.
 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.