Five things we learned at Conservative Party conference

Jeremy Hunt

Our five main takeaways from the Conservative's Party's first gathering following the 2017 general election.

1. Conservatives care about mental health

Conservatives can be accused of many things, but ignoring mental health issues probably isn’t one of them. Not only did Jeremy Hunt raise the importance of getting mental health care right in his speech, but the Prime Minister herself announced a review of the Mental Health Act. 

Chaired by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the review will look into the impact of current legislation on patients and staff and put forward recommendations for improvements. 

Our own fringe panel session featured Dr Adrian James, college registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who highlighted the increasing importance of using data to understand the health and care needs of populations and design mental health services. 

Now is a “fantastic time” to work in mental health policy, he told our session, because the government is really listening. But he admitted that things on the ground remain tough and warned of the declining number of psychiatrists in many places. 

We will wait to see if this government can really turn warm words into something more meaningful. 

2. No one really knows what STP and ACO stand for 

Ministers, MPs and councillors were all keen to extol the virtues of new models of care, including accountable care organisations (ACOs). It was clear that many understood the importance of changing the way local health and care services are delivered, to improve care for patients and ensure the sustainability of the system. 

It was less clear how many of them understood what sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) are or what ACO stands for. Indeed, one minister referred to STPs as sustainability and transformation ‘programmes’. But when only two attendees in a room full of councillors, health lobbyists and leaders can say that they understand what an ACO is, we may have a problem. 

It is clear that there is still more work to be done to explain to politicians what the NHS is trying to achieve and what support they can provide, locally and nationally, to help implement the array of acronyms that symbolise the transformation agenda.  

3. The Conservatives really, really like talking about Brexit

Unlike the Labour Party, which tried to keep Brexit off the conference agenda, Brexit was everywhere at Conservative conference, from breakfast sessions to three main stage speeches, all of which were packed to the rafters.

Fringe sessions made public the internal debates about Brexit, centred largely around the post-Brexit immigration policy. 

The need for a future immigration system which allows the UK to continue to recruit doctors, nurses and social care staff from the EU was a view often voiced, not least by Anna Soubry, MP, who doggedly defended the view that we should continue to have freedom of movement across the EU. She also highlighted the hugely valuable work EU staff do, particularly in the NHS and social care. 

There were, however, many voices to the contrary, with some panellists arguing that the reliance on staff from the EU was overstated, that immigration had negatively impacted the country socially and economically, that it was unfair for, for example, the French to be given superior rights to live and work in the UK to French Canadians, and finally that salary should continue to be the key determinant for whether someone should be allowed to come to the UK. 

These views among some party faithfuls will not be changed easily. With this in mind, there is clearly more influencing work for the Cavendish Coalition to do.

4. Workforce issues facing the NHS are recognised, but still need TLC

While Jeremy Hunt’s speech focused on improving quality, he also announced plans to increase the number of nursing training places by 25 per cent. Nursing associates numbers are also to be tripled. 

On pay, he said a decision on the pay award will follow after listening to the pay review body. He recognised the importance of supporting the staff to care for their families and announced plans to extend the offer of flexible working to all NHS workers during this parliament, starting with 12 trusts piloting a new app-based flexible working system. 

He highlighted other policies to support staff, which included an announcement that when NHS land was sold to property developers, first refusal for the new homes that were built would be given to NHS workers. 

He congratulated and thanked EU workers in the NHS, saying they did a ‘fantastic job’ and that he was confident they would be able to stay. 

While many, including the NHS Confederation and NHS Employers, welcomed these announcements, it was clear throughout the fringe sessions and at our own private dinner with health minister Philip Dunne, that this wouldn’t solve the growing issues with workforce, not least because it will take several years to have an impact. The figures around nursing numbers are stark.

5. Social care, the dog that never barked

Somewhat surprisingly, the Conservative Party failed to discuss what they planned to do about the huge challenges around caring for the UK’s ageing population and the funding issues facing social care. 

Jeremy Hunt avoided the words ‘social care’ altogether. Conservative councillor Izzi Seccombe, the leader of Warwickshire County Council, voiced her irritation and concern about this in her contribution to our panel session and many Conservative councillors felt it had been an issue missing from the conference agenda overall. 

We will await with interest to see whether the promised social care white paper will see the light of day by a government, judging by this conference, clearly consumed with Brexit.

Healthcare on the brink

At 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.

Health and social care policy

Download our summaries of key health and social care announcements made at Labour and Conservative conferences.

Catch up on the four things we learned at Labour conference.

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