Jeremy Hunt – 2013 Speech to the National Conservative Convention


Below is the text of the speech made by the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to the 2013 National Conservative Convention on 19th March 2013.

When I became Health Secretary in September I said the job was the biggest privilege of my life.

That’s because the NHS is one of our most cherished institutions.

We can be proud that for 65 years our health service has ensured that everyone is entitled to treatment regardless of their background or income.

Over the last six months I have visited hospitals, surgeries and care homes across the country.

I have seen world-leading clinical practice, innovative use of technology and wonderful care from the dedicated doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants who look after 3 million people every week.

This Conservative-led government has shown our commitment to the NHS time and time again: by our protection of the NHS budget; by putting doctors and nurses in charge of two thirds of the budget; by funding the Dilnot proposals so people never have to sell their house to pay for social care; and by fighting to make sure vulnerable older patients are always treated with dignity and respect.

And we can be proud that our policies are making a real difference to people’s lives: on broadly the same budget as the last government, we are doing 400,000 more operations, 1 million more diagnostic tests and three million more outpatient appointments every year than happened under Labour; and 28,000 patients have benefited from the Cancer Drugs Fund they refused to set up.

Although I am proud of those achievements, I am even prouder of the contribution made by the extraordinary staff who work on the NHS frontline.

Let me give you one example: A & E departments now see 1 million more people every single year than when we took office.

I know the incredible pressures the doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants who work there are facing to deal with this surge in demand.

24/7 they do an extraordinary job and on behalf of everyone here I want to thank them for their remarkable dedication and commitment.

But it’s my job as Health Secretary not just to praise the best of the NHS but also to be honest about the failures.

If you care about something you don’t try to sweep problems under the carpet – you expose them, sort them out and make things better.

And by criticising us when we do that, Labour show extraordinary complacency about the treatment suffered by some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

As Conservatives, our instinct is to stand up for the individual. And that applies to the NHS.

We must never allow the needs of an institution to become more important than the needs of the patients it was set up to serve.

That’s why Andrew Lansley was so right to set up a public inquiry into what happened at Mid Staffs Hospital, something Labour refused 81 requests to do.

And we should never forget what they allowed to happen on their watch:

Patients left unwashed for days, sometimes in sheets soiled with urine and excrement;

Relatives having to take bedsheets home to wash because the hospital wouldn’t;

Patients with dementia going hungry with their meals sitting right in front of them because no one realised or cared that they were unable to feed themselves.

Things that make your stomach turn. And we must never allow our love of the NHS to dent our determination to hold systems and individuals to account.

So, where does that accountability lie? Most recent focus has been on Sir David Nicholson.

As a manager in a system that failed to spot and rectify the appalling cases at mid Staffs, he has been held accountable in both parliament and the media.

But he also led the campaign to bring down hospital waiting times and MRSA rates and we should not delude ourselves that Mid Staffs was all down to one man.

Others have far greater responsibility.

Like the board of the Trust, whose members astonishingly seem to have melted into thin air, some moving to other jobs in the system and others with generous payoffs.

We need to restore accountability to hospital boards. That includes an end to gagging clauses – which I announced earlier this week.

And we must look at measures to make boards criminally liable if they deliberately manipulate key patient data like mortality rates or waiting times.

We need openness and transparency and there should be no hiding place for those who hide the truth and fiddle the figures.

The Francis report rightly says that Ministers were not personally responsible for what happened at Mid Staffs.

No minister of any party would have sanctioned or condoned what happened.

But we also know from the report that the pursuit of targets at any cost was one of the central drivers of what went wrong.

And it is Ministers who are ultimately responsible for the culture of the NHS. During this period a culture of neglect was allowed to take root in which the system became more important than the individual.

The pursuit of targets stopped frontline staff treating people with dignity and compassion and betrayed what all of us believe the NHS is there to do.

Of course there is a role for targets, whether in A & E or for waiting times.

But not at any cost.

And Labour Ministers made three huge policy mistakes which contributed to the culture of neglect we are now putting right.

First, they failed to put in place safeguards to stop weak, inexperienced or bad managers pursuing not just bureaucratic targets, but targets at any cost.

This is exactly what happened at Mid Staffs, where patient safety and care was compromised in a blind rush to achieve Foundation Trust status.

Secondly, they failed to set up proper, independent, peer-led inspections of hospital quality and safety which told the public how safe and how good their local hospital was.

And thirdly, they failed to spot clear warnings when things went wrong.

The Francis Report outlines around 50 warning signs – so why did Ministers not act sooner?

If those warnings were not brought to the attention of Ministers, why did they not create a system where they were?

Instead there was a climate where NHS employees who spoke out about poor care were ignored, intimidated or bullied.

Until we have a proper apology from Labour for those catastrophic policy mistakes, no one will believe they would not make the same errors of judgment again.

This Conservative-led Government is absolutely clear about the steps we need to take to ensure accountability, compassionate care and respect for patients, particularly older people, are embedded in every corner of the NHS.

These include a proper independent peer-review inspection regime led by a new Chief Inspector of Hospitals that won’t just look at targets, but also make judgements about whether hospitals are putting patients first.

And it isn’t just about failure – we must recognise excellence.

When Ofsted started recognising outstanding schools, we saw a new breed of ‘superheads’across the education system.

We need the same in the NHS – so that our best leaders can help turn around failing hospitals.

We also need a single failure regime where the suspension of the Board can be triggered by failures in care as well as failures in finance.

And we will promote a patient-centred culture through the introduction of the Friends and Family Test.

This will ask every NHS hospital inpatient whether they would recommend the care they received to a friend or family member.

It will ask NHS staff whether they would want their own family treated in their own hospital.

Implementing these changes will be a huge challenge.

But in the end we are doing what Labour should have done but failed to do.

The party that claims to speak for the vulnerable betrayed those very same people.

And they betrayed the vast majority of doctors and nurses who want nothing more than to express the innate decency and compassion that made them give their lives to the NHS in the first place.

And once again it falls to us, the Conservatives, to deliver that vision.

And make sure that throughout our NHS no individual is too small, too unimportant, or too irrelevant to matter.

That is our mission – let nothing stand in our way.