Interview with Paul Burstow MP

Mathew Hulbert @HulbertMathew 

Image © Department of Health

Paul Burstow MP has one of the hardest jobs in UK politics, as Minister of State at the Department of Health…and a Lib Dem one at that!

He had to try and sell the largely hated (certainly among Lib Dems) NHS Bill to a sceptical public.

As a visceral opponent of the aforementioned Bill, I wasn’t, it has to be said, Mr Burstow’s biggest fan.

Whilst I continue to disagree with the Health and Social Care Bill-I still believe it is, at least in part, privatisation by the back door-I think maybe I was a little harsh on Mr Burstow himself.

At the recent Social Liberal Forum Conference, held at the Waterloo Campus of King’s College in London, I along with three other bloggers got to interview Mr Burstow.

We had meant to be speaking to Lib Dem Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes MP, but he failed to show and so we were very fortunate that Mr Burstow agreed to stand in at the last minute.

He was very generous with his time.

A colleague started by asking him about Social Care.

“About 90% of what was announced on Wednesday didn’t get any (media) coverage and about 90% will make 100% of the difference,” said Mr Burstow.

“What’s the 90%? The 90% is that we’re completely overturning the principle of the poor law that still applies to social care. We’re establishing, for the first time, that social care in England has a universal aspect to its character, that anyone who has care needs or may need care needs in the future, should have access to reliable and trusted information and advice to plan and prepare’’.

He went on, “That there should be a universal offer of preventative services to stop people needing care in the first place, to help them age healthily. That there should be a responsibility on the Council to ensure there’s a sufficiency and quality of care available in their community, just not the ones that the Government will pay for, but for everyone.”

“Also, Councils do need to work in partnership with the NHS but also with housing. You can’t actually have wellbeing if you only fix the health and the care needs, you’ve got to address the housing needs as well as part of that. So, that’s the big revolutionary sort of change in what we’re proposing.” 

Mr Burstow went on to set out what he hears most that frustrates people about care.

“The care worker who rushes in because they’re rushed off their feet, offers the form to confirm they’ve attended, does 5 or 10 minutes worth of basic tasks, no interaction with you as an individual, no treating you as a person, and then rushes off. So, it’s clock-watching care, rather than care that’s about quality and dignity. And we are basically going to ban that sort of activity in future and make it impossible for commissioners to commission services in such a crappy way.”

“And, in terms of the signature thing, it’s mental health. By far the biggest burden of disease in our society is mental health, not physical health, and bad mental health begets poor physical health.

And children’s mental health has been the Cinderella of Cinderella’s when it comes to Government attention.  And, in the space of eighteen months, we have moved from a situation where children did not have routine access to talking therapy services to a position where a third of children living in England now do. And good progress to ensure we make that a universal offer as well.”

Asked, by another colleague, if ‘personalisation’ had been a failure, Mr Burstow said it hadn’t, though did have reservations.

“I think it’s been a failure in too many places because the values that should inform personalisation, which are that it’s about the outcomes and the results that the individual wants, that it’s about understanding them as a person, the assets they have as an individual talents and the goals they have and that personalisation is about making sure that services support and nurture that, doesn’t stick to a legal framework that was written in the 1940’s and conceived in principle in the 1800’s, as the poor law system.  So, sticking to a system which had values of the 21St Century but had, legally, values that were 18th or 19th Century was always going to fail. So, what we’re ensuring with the legislation we’re going to introduce is that we let the legislation catch-up with the modern values that personalisation embodies.”

In my own first question to Mr Burstow, I moved away from his specific portfolio area to ask him a broader question about the Government: ‘I’d argue that the Tories, almost as a political strategy, aim to demonise those people who’ve found themselves on benefits in an effort to make us take our eyes off the rich getting richer and the shenanigans with the banks. Is that true and, if so, are we complicit in that?’

In reply Mr Burstow said, “There may well be Conservatives who have that sort of agenda as part of their sort of political beliefs and approach. But, every day, in Government, what we are doing-as Liberal Democrats-is making sure that Conservatives who hold those beliefs don’t get the opportunity to translate those beliefs into practice, in the way they would have wanted to. Sometimes that means that we make compromises that from the outside world look ugly but the alternative would be truly catastrophic. And sometimes it means that the Conservatives have to give up on something that they would dearly have loved to do. I mean, the speech that Cameron made recently about housing benefit, withdrawing it from young people. You know, it basically was his pitch to the Conservative heartland and what he would do if he was on his own in Government and I think the thing for us to keep reminding people is that is what he would like to do if he had a majority, but he can’t do it because he doesn’t have a majority. Every day we’re actually there, not just acting as a break but-as we’ve been talking about in my own policy area also-pushing them into territory they wouldn’t have gone to themselves.”

I very much welcome this kind of rhetoric and approach and I believe we don’t hear enough of this…that we are not only helping to halt the worst excesses of the Tory Party from being realised, but that-on a host of issues-we’re driving forward a progressive agenda.

Maybe we don’t hear enough of it because, frankly, in some areas our Ministers are not quite doing enough to ensure a radical agenda is pushed through…or they’re just not communicating it well enough.

A colleague then asked Mr Burstow what the Coalition’s biggest mistake had been.

He gave what may have been a rather nervous laugh before proceeding to give his answer.

“I’m going to give you a techy process answer. My techy process answer is that we focused our energy in the early days being very clear about what the programme for Government was going to be, but not what the mechanisms for Government were going to be, so when really difficult decisions happen there isn’t, I think, as robust a process for making decisions as there should be.”

I then asked Mr Burstow if we social liberals were right to sometimes feel uneasy and aggrieved about some of what was being done by this Government.

At this point he made me blush somewhat by saying he’d read a couple of my tweets earlier in the day!

I, of course, can’t be flattered that easily.

“Before I became an MP, I was a Councillor for Sixteen years and we took control of Sutton Council in 1986, and the experience I had in my first four years on that Council was of us-as a leadership-probably not doing as much as we needed to, to communicate to our members, but equally, our members not doing enough to ask the questions of us when they read in their local papers criticism of the administration or when they received a Conservative leaflet attacking us for things we were doing. In other words, there was willingness amongst our members to assume the worst of their colleagues on the Council and not ask ‘is this true?’ and so on. And we worked at that and we improved it over time and we probably have still got, more than 25 years later, more that we could do to improve those communications and so on. And, also, what we had, because of that, when you’re running something you’re under the constant pressure of maybe not fulfilling everyone’s expectations as much as you’d hoped to do and disappointment and things that go wrong…and so on. And you project, sometimes, those feelings as a member and as a politician-Cllr, MP, whatever, on to the public you’re going to call on. And I think actually, sometimes, the best antidote to that is to go and knock on the door and, yes, there’ll be some people that are angry with you but, actually, there’ll be people who don’t have their lives completely dominated by politics, often still quite respect what you’re doing and want to hear what you’re doing and are actually still quite supportive.”

An interesting thought to end on.

Do those who sometimes get annoyed by parts of what this Government are doing allow themselves to be consumed by that grievance instead of getting on to the doorstep, meeting people and remembering that, actually, there are those people who respect various parts of what we’re doing as a Party?

Mathew Hulbert is a Lib Dem Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire and recently joined the national Executive of the Social Liberal Forum. 

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