Four things we learned at Labour Party conference

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Labour’s call for a £500m winter bailout fund and pledge to bring PFI contracts in house dominated headlines this week on the party’s autumn conference. Here’s a look at four things you may have missed from a telling four days in Brighton.

1. Labour members and party leaders are split in their views on NHS transformation

Sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) were discussed extensively throughout conference. Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, spoke of the need to properly fund them so they can meet changing demands on NHS services. And numerous fringe sessions highlighted the need for transformation to be comprehensive, with a broad consensus emerging that although “flawed”, STPs and accountable care systems (ACSs) represent a genuine opportunity to improve services.

The main conference struck a decidedly different tone. A motion forwarded by the Socialist Health Association to halt, review and, in some cases, reverse policies including the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the Five Year Forward View and the rollout of ACSs and STPs was voted through almost unanimously by party delegates.

This presents an interesting dilemma for the shadow health team which, for the most part, advocated change in the organisation of NHS services. It is currently unclear how the party will reconcile this motion with existing lines on healthcare.

With such a strong motion against transformation, a member-focused Labour party will need to ensure it stays in step with its members. An upcoming report on STPs, promised by the shadow health minister Justin Madders, will want to take into account what those members think.

2. Labour isn’t scared of the ‘P word’

In keeping with pledges made during the general election, Labour put public health front and centre.

In both the main conference and in the fringe, Ashworth talked extensively about the benefits of an effective public health system with a focus on prevention. He paid particular attention to the prioritisation of children’s public health, promising to end what he described as the dismantling of public health services.

Justin Madders similarly called for a more interventionist health culture characterised by a longer-term view of healthcare, while shadow minister for pharmacy, Rosie Cooper, discussed the role pharmacies could have in a community-based health system.

Amid their rhetoric on public health, Labour made a number of concrete announcements, including: a renewed commitment to ban fast-food advertising on evening family television, a programme to ensure that breathed air quality in cities meets acceptable standards, and an investment in free school meals.

3. Brexit: The big, badly behaved elephant in the room

Against a backdrop of Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU, workforce featured heavily in the conference fringe. Particular attention was paid to the recruitment, retention and remuneration of nurses in England.

The strange decision not to debate Brexit on the main stage meant that discussions on workforce were largely restricted to the fringe, although in his plenary speech Jon Ashworth pledged to bring back the student nurses bursary and scrap the public sector pay cap.

Justin Madders spoke at length on some of the issues facing nurses in the NHS. Acknowledging the pressures many nurses are facing, he recognised that conditions needed to improve.

Short of the commitments made by Ashworth, however, none of the shadow team were able to provide the sort of reassurances many nurses in attendance seemed to be looking for, citing a lack of available funds, inadequate planning and issues of recruitment as reasons for the current workforce crisis.

4. Barbara Keeley has social care covered

Social care dominated the main stage, with the eponymous shadow minister, Barbara Keeley, being the only junior member of the health team given a platform to speak in the plenary session.

Keeley used this to announce Labour’s intention to establish a National Care Service as well as a plan to ensure that hundreds of thousands of unpaid carers receive at least the same rates as Job Seekers Allowance.

On the subject of funding, an extra £8bn over the next five years and £1bn this year was promised for social care, while the National Care Service was promised £3bn per year in its first few years. The shadow minister also committed to end what she described as ‘inadequate’ care visits of 15 minutes or less and promised to provide professional carers with a wage that takes travel time and overnight visits into account.

Away from the main stage, care was debated across a number of panels with the consensus being that both paid and unpaid carers were being overlooked by the state. The system would require a serious overhaul to remain resilient and effective in a tumultuous and unpredictable care landscape, delegates said.

Reinforcing its role in this year’s conference, a vote from Labour Party delegates saw a motion on social care passed with a resounding majority. This motion promised to address a funding crisis, with a focus on the provision of services for vulnerable people and people in old age. Child and adolescent social care was not overlooked though. With Jon Ashworth speaking openly for the first time about his experience growing up with an alcoholic father, he promised the first national strategy for children of alcohol and drug addicts.

Healthcare on the brink

At the Labour conference, the NHS Confederation launched Healthcare on the brink, a guide for MPs and Peers on the challenges facing NHS services and how they can support them at national and local level.

The briefing outlines how parliamentarians can rally behind local NHS services on seven key issues: workforce, pay, transformation, Brexit, funding, social care, and mental health.

Labour's health and social care policy

Download our summary of key health and social care policy announcements made at Labour's conference.

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