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

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.