The head of NHS England gets his blood pressure tested. Photo: Getty
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How people-powered personalisation could lead the NHS to recovery

The NHS needs a highly personalised and co-productive approach that calls on the creative collaboration of individuals, families and communities.

It’s been an important month for personalisation in the NHS. For the first time, around 60,000 adults eligible for Continuing Health Care now have the legal right to a personal health budget. Health and social care leaders have been finalising applications to participate in the potentially ground breaking Integrated Personal Commissioning Project seeking to blend social health and social care funding for individuals and allow them to direct how it is used. And publication of the NHS’s Five Year View set a course for the organisation that commits the organisation to enabling patients to have far more control over their care, including but not only through greater control over shared budgets.

Encouragingly, these moves towards personalisation appear to be based on a deep understanding of why producer-led forms of provision have had their day. The Five Year View makes a strong defence of the values and professionalism of today’s NHS, but makes no bones about where it has fallen short, operating as if health and wellbeing can be delivered to people, rather than achieved in partnership with them. 

It warns that the NHS has been prone to "operating" a "factory model of care and repair" instead of harnessing what it calls the "renewable energy represented by its patients and communities". At a point when 70 per cent of today’s health spend is on long term conditions, rather than isolated health problems that might respond to one-off "repair", agreeing forms of support that fit with people’s own lives and aspirations, and plug into their own resources, could hardly be more important. 

So, as health prepares to speed up its journey to personalisation, it makes sense to look at what can be learned from the experience of other sectors, particularly the sector in which personalisation was born – social care. Much of that learning is very encouraging. We now have detailed evidence of the impact of personal budgets, for example, on the lives of those who use them. 

This month saw the publication of the Third National Personal Care Survey. In line with previous research it shows that the overwhelming majority of budget users believe that their lives have improved in terms of independence, dignity and family and paid relationships. As Alex Fox has noted in a new report for the RSA, people who make long term use of social care have repeatedly demonstrated over the past two decades that they are often better than highly trained professionals at making effective use of public resources. 

Yet personalisation remains highly controversial as a philosophy and as a set of practices. Critics worry about colluding with neo-liberal models of individual choice and control, about the de-professionalisation and fragmentation of the workforce, about creeping inequities, and about abnegating proper risk management. Even some of those who are well-disposed towards its aims are concerned that personal budgets in particular have become expensive bureaucratic thicket in which rationing and provider-interest continue to thrive.

For Alex Fox, the way of resolving these problems is to go back to the roots of personalisation and recognise the true challenge it presents, which is not one of administrative adjustment but of profound culture change. Far from being founded on an individualised view of wellbeing, personalisation rests on a deep understanding and respect for how we thrive or falter as people who are embedded in families and communities. So personalisation must go wider than budgets and individual choices, as clearly recognised back in 2007 in the government’s Putting People First concordat. For personalisation to succeed it needs to be part of a shift towards prevention and the development of inclusive and supportive communities.

The RSA’s own research and practice supports this approach. Our work on social isolation and drug and alcohol recovery, for example, is based on building trust in the capability of individuals, families and communities to forge solutions that are right for them, with the support of services that are re-shaped to respect and support the support ecosystems – formal and informal – of the places they serve. 

For example, the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery Team in West Kent is testing, at scale, a service delivery model that fosters community networks in order to support sustainable, long-term recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. The service attempts to build people’s "recovery capital" by connecting them with the people, groups and places who can become their support ecosystem.  It is a highly personalised and co-productive approach that calls on the creative collaboration of individuals, families and communities. 

Ironically, given the aspirations of the NHS Four Year View, Whole Person Recovery explicitly rejects a medicalised model of addiction and recovery – a reminder, if one were needed, of the  and scale of the task ahead if the health service truly wants to embrace personalisation. For social care, the culture change challenge has been huge. For health, it is likely to be even greater.

Paul Buddery is director of RSA 2020 Public Services

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.