Under pressure: the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham has seen a surge in patients at A&E. Photo: Getty
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Jacqui Smith: “The NHS model isn’t broken but it needs urgent attention and support”

The former home secretary on trouble in A&E – plus the triumph of all-women shortlists and the joys of summer caravanning.

You may remember the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham as the splendid venue for the launch of Labour’s 2010 election campaign. It was also the place where Tony Blair was challenged by Sharron Storer over her partner’s cancer treatment in 2001 – but don’t let either of those events colour your judgement. I’m very proud to chair the NHS trust that runs it. However, like the rest of the health service, we’re facing unprecedented pressures.

A decade ago, the old emergency department at Selly Oak was seeing 60,000 people each year. The A&E at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was built to accommodate 81,000. Last year, we saw 95,000 and the figure is rising. Our chief executive, Dame Julie Moore, describes A&E as the “canary in the mine” for the health service. This canary will soon need to be nailed to its perch.

We have found that when it’s harder to see a GP, people visit casualty, where the lights never go off; as social care is cut and social care workers are forced to make shorter visits, more people turn up at the door of a hospital. Mental health faces the biggest cuts in the NHS and we find that those in crisis come to our A&E or go into a police cell. When many are struggling to make ends meet, it’s not surprising that there are more people with malnutrition, scurvy and rickets needing our care.

Recent Commonwealth Fund research identified the NHS as the best system among 11 major developed countries for quality of care, access and efficiency. The NHS model isn’t broken but it needs urgent attention and support.

 

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Spending a lot of time on trains, I enjoy the eccentric pastimes of my fellow travellers. One woman got on to the early-morning train to London, pulled out a hairdryer, plugged it in and dried her hair. Last week, I sat next to someone rolling a cigarette and reflected on the transformation made by the smoking ban. Feel free to roll but thank goodness you can’t smoke it next to me.

The same Commonwealth Fund research that found the NHS to be the most effective health service also reported that we are one of the least healthy societies (the UK came tenth out of the 11 countries). We should learn from the success of the smoking ban. Governments of all persuasions have expected NHS providers to take tough decisions but avoided them themselves. At the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, we transplant livers for alcoholics but the government avoids minimum pricing for alcohol. More than one in ten of our patients have diabetes but action on healthier food is left to the willingness of food manufacturers and retailers to put different colours on their labels.

 

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As the dust settles on the reshuffle, it’s clear that there should be no let-up in the work to gain more equal gender representation in parliament and government. The appointment of two new women cabinet ministers, though welcome, still takes the total in the cabinet to only less than a quarter. In the Labour Women’s Network, we continue to train women to stand for parliament, but self-congratulation from any party on female representation is premature while we languish at 58th in the international league table – with Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Tunisia among those doing better than us. One answer is clear. Why do women MPs make up a third of Labour, while the Tories have less than 16 per cent and the Lib Dems only one in eight? It’s because Labour uses all-women shortlists. In recent weeks, both Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke have supported their use for their own parties. Why not just get on with it?

 

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Don’t hold your breath for the publication of this government’s review of the impact of immigration from the EU. A version recently leaked to the BBC gives a nuanced but largely positive view about immigration’s effect on jobs, pay and community cohesion. A previous version was ready for publication last December but the Home Office stopped publication because it considered it too positive. A much more sceptical, rewritten version was called propagandist by the Lib Dems. It’s clear now that this is a political stitch-up. Wouldn’t it have been better to ask an independent group comprising local government, industry, union and community representatives to consider the evidence? That’s what we set up when I was in the Home Office – the Migration Impacts Forum. This government has got rid of it. Apparently one of the effects of Ukip is the victory of anecdote over evidence.

 

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This summer, I will holiday in my caravan in north-west Wales. With little mobile-phone signal, this was a sanctuary in my ministerial years – though I did manage to speak to two prime ministers standing on a rock at the top of the site where you can just about get a connection. I was not the only caravanning minister: Margaret Beckett loved hers, too. Appropriately, as foreign secretary, she had a touring caravan that she took round Europe, while as home secretary I had a static caravan and stayed at home.

Wherever you are holidaying this year, I hope you have a happy and relaxing time. 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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