Labour claims its idea of "whole-person care" can make crucial NHS savings. Photo: Getty
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Labour says joining up social care and health can plug the NHS budget shortfall

The Labour party says it would make savings in the NHS through joined-up services; what does this tell us about its approach to health policy in austere times?

The NHS can be the Labour party's most powerful weapon, but also its biggest stumbling block. While the party gains a great deal of warmth from the electorate for being associated with protecting the health service and its core value as being free at the point of use, and having been its founder, this also makes it vulnerable to criticism if it ever wants to so much as tweak its outlook or plans for health policy.

While the Conservative party, whose NHS reforms have been particularly controversial and unpopular, particularly among doctors and health workers, frenziedly attacks the opposition on the record of the Labour-led Welsh NHS, the Labour party has been beavering away attempting to figure out how it can maintain its reputation for being the party of the NHS while governing under austerity, if it reaches government in 2015.

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, who served as health secretary when Labour was last in government, has been pushing his plan for “whole-person care” for a long while. The most basic definition of this rather clunkily-labelled plan (I’ve always thought it sounds a bit like a weird euphemism for undergoing general anaesthetic), is joining up health and social care, for a more holistic approach to caring for patients throughout their lives, and to stop physical, mental and social care being in separate compartments.

Today, the shadow care minister Liz Kendall is to lay out how joining up health and social care would be used by Labour to make savings in order to fund the shortfall in the NHS budget.

Burnham and his team have long been calling the “whole-person care” idea “efficient”, as well as a better service for the individual patient. He told me in February that the policy is “actually about efficiency” and “spending money we already put into the health and care system much better than we currently do.”

Hinting at Ed Miliband’s initial reticence over the plan – there was a time during the last Labour party conference when it was widely-thought Burnham would be reshuffled – Burnham also said in my interview that he was “assuming that there’s going to be no huge amounts of money for health and social care”, and asked “how do we get much better results for people from what we’re currently putting in? Whole-person care comes from that quite hard-headed assessment of the future outlook of public spending.”

The shadow health secretary also chuckled that upon nearly elbowing Ed Balls in the face at a football match they both took their children to, the shadow chancellor gave such a scowl that a man next to them joked: "I think you’ve just lost the NHS £10bn there in the next spending review". But jokes and violence aside, it's no secret that Balls, and Miliband, have been wary about Burnham's plans, reportedly blocking his idea to hand NHS cash to councils earlier this year.

However, this is the first time Labour’s health team has said its joined-up approach will specifically make savings to plug the apparently imminent “black hole” in the NHS budget. This suggests that the policy has finally received support from Miliband and Balls – indeed, Kendall’s announcement comes a few days after the shadow chancellor ruled out an estates tax or a national insurance hike as sources of funding.

In her speech today, Kendall will say:

Huge cuts to social care are piling further pressure on local hospitals. £3.5bn has been cut from local council care budgets since 2010 and a quarter of a million fewer older and disabled people are getting vital services like home care visits, which help them get up, washed, dressed and fed.

It will be a choice between care going backwards, with fragmented services and money wasted under the Tories – or Labour's plans to fully join-up the NHS and social care so we get the best results for users and the best value for taxpayers' money.

Labour still needs to clarify exactly how this policy will go towards patching up the £2bn shortfall in the NHS budget in England next year alone predicted by health officials, and also whether it is the best approach to the costly strains of an ageing population. But it seems that what it has achieved is some agreement between those holding the purse-strings in the party and Burnham – who is said privately to support an estates tax – and his health team.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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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