The Big Society was the flagship policy idea of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto. It now forms part of the legislative programme of the Conservative through the Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. Its stated aim was to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a “Big Society” that will take power away from politicians and give it to people.The idea was launched in the 2010 Conservative manifesto and described by The Times as “an impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit”. The plans include setting up a Big Society Bank and introducing a national citizen service. The stated priorities were to give communities more powers (localism and devolution), encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism), transfer power from central to local government, support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises, and publish government data (open/transparent government).
The Big Society remains as vague now, as it did then. Localism has clearly been a frustration of ‘communities taking action’. Both the ‘Save Trafford A&E’ and ‘Save Lewisham A&E’ have been on the receiving end of an argument which urges the need for responsible reconfiguration of NHS services.Whilst campaigners in both situations have urged the need for recognition of their own services, the constant rebuttal has been that in any policy formulation or consultation there are bound to be dissenting views particularly if the sample size of respondents is high. Many people will share the frustration of those who had been encouraged by mechanisms such as the Localism Act (2011), in wider local issues.
There has been a big drive also to encourage ‘social value’ in public services, manifest in the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. The fundamental idea behind ‘social value’ is that it is a way of thinking about how scarce resources are allocated and used. It involves looking beyond the price of each individual contract and looking at what the collective benefit to a community is when a public body chooses to award a contract. Social enterprises are businesses that exist primarily for a social or environmental purpose. They use business to tackle social problems, improve people’s life chances, and protect the environment. Healthwatch England has referred to “The NHS Bodies and Local Authorities (Partnership Arrangements, Care Trusts, Public Health and Local Healthwatch) Regulations 2012″.
In relation to the section covering political campaigning, their view is that,
“section 36(2) ensures local Healthwatch has the necessary freedom to undertake campaigning and policy work related to its core activities and believe to do otherwise would be distracting. We do however, appreciate how there could be some confusion due to the nature of the wording in the section.”
Another issue is how failing Trusts have been allow to provide poor care for members of the general public. Accusations have been made of a poor ‘culture of care’, and this issue has become political with accusation-and-counteraccusation. Patient groups are vital in representing the views of patients accurately. I know, because I was resuscitated after a cardiac arrest and successfully kept alive for six weeks in a coma at the Royal Free Hampstead. However, more than a decade ago, I studied my basic medical degree at Cambridge and Ph.D. also in early onset dementia there. The concern is that Trusts are not being altogether transparent in their metrics about care. However, I personally think patient groups to do this responsibly should be free to campaign on behalf of patients for poor care, but without turning the public against all hard-working doctors and nurses. My experience was that junior doctors and nurses feel terrible about episodes of poor care, so they definitely wish to work with the patient groups. This is not at all a ‘them against us’ issue, but the language of ‘service user’ and ‘they’re providing a service we pay for’ have not helped in this narrative, perhaps together with a concept that clinicians ‘carry out orders to maintain managerial targets’. This concept is particularly toxic, as it might appear at first blush consistent with a growing trend towards the deprofessionalisation of medical Doctors and nurses. Patient groups do an extremely worthwhile rôle, and I have the highest regard for them.
This is why it is all the more important I feel that these issues about the NHS can be held in future in a dignified and balanced manner, without further talk of Hunt ‘politicising the NHS’ or an ‘active smear campaign against Andy Burnham’. Patient groups need to be carefully about their involvement in the media, otherwise they can easily become politicised. The academic issue of whether HSMRs are reliable has become politicised, although the academic debate about HSMR is safely ringfenced in the academic journals such as the British Medical Journal. The limitations of the claims of ‘excess deaths’ or ‘needless deaths’ always needed to be done carefully, and it was left to Sir Bruce Keogh himself and media sources not particularly known for their Conservative loyalty, such as the Guardian or New Statesman, to defuse the panic which had set in following irresponsible reporting of the Keogh mortality report at the weekend.
Political campaigning is defined by the Charity Commission is as follows:
Campaigning: We use this word to refer to awareness-raising and to efforts to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes. We also use it to refer to campaigning activity which aims to ensure that existing laws are observed. We distinguish this from an activity which involves trying to secure support for, or oppose, a change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad, and which we refer to in this guidance as ‘political activity’.
Further details are given as follows:
“Political activity, as defined in this guidance, must only be undertaken by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. We use this term to refer to activity by a charity which is aimed at securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad. It includes activity to preserve an existing piece of legislation, where a charity opposes it being repealed or amended.”
It would seem therefore that the definition of ‘political activity’ is not the same as the “rough and tumble” of politics seen in House of Commons debates, nor even on Twitter. However, it is really hard to know what ‘changes in the law’ might follow from Keogh or the Francis Report. This in part, one must to be admitted, needs clear definition what an appropriate ‘outcome’ might be. If the aspiration is “safe staffing”, serious consideration should be put into how enforceable this is, how it could be measured. and what sanctions might follow from an offence regarding it. A clear problem is that stakeholders will always have different views, particularly if there are more of them, and resolving conflicting views is especially difficult. This is all the more significant if you hope a ‘motherhood and mother pie’ approach in keeping with that ‘flagship policy’ of the Big Society. It is clear that some patient groups, indeed the Government, oppose a flat ‘minimum staffing level’ for perfectly rational reasons:
We are pleased that the Keogh Review, as the Francis Report before it, has recognised the relationship between quality care and safe staffing levels. UNISON has been campaigning for safe staffing levels and the right skills mix on wards for many years. This includes in the evenings and at weekends – there is clear evidence that out of hours cover isn’t safe. It is time for the government to start listening and take action by committing to minimum staffing levels. They must also listen to staff and patients who are the best barometer of an organisation.
Spending pressures mean that health workers are losing their jobs. Financial pressures are building up in the NHS just as the demand for healthcare and its cost is rising – trusts are being asked to make obscene savings. Undoubtedly, this will hit standards of patient care hard, and is the direct consequences of decisions made by the government – not by hardworking NHS staff.”
Whilst one clearly not make everyone happy all of the time, it is fortunate that there are so many brilliant stakeholders who ultimately want the best of patients in the NHS. The purpose of the English law is obviously not to get in the way of all the people participating in English health policy at this particularly sensitive time. Politicians can help too by not turning people against other people, and members of the public can help too by not doing the same.