David Babbs is the executive director of 38 Degrees
A couple of Fridays ago, I joined a group of 38 Degrees members in Sheffield who had met up to deliver a copy of our 390,000-strong Save the NHS petition to their local MP, Nick Clegg. 38 Degrees members are organising similar meetings with their MPs up and down the country, as part of our efforts to persuade the government to start listening to the concerns of patients, health charities, and practitioners about their plans to change the NHS.
Nick Clegg was keen to emphasise to us that he was listening. But one thing really concerned many of us. It became clear that earlier in the day, there had been an official “listening event” somewhere in Sheffield.
None of our members, who all had an interest in the issue, had heard anything about it. A volunteer in the 38 Degrees office had rung up the Department of Health just a couple of days earlier asking for details of “listening events” and it hadn’t been mentioned.
It seems to have been one of the public meetings promised as part of the “listening exercise” - but given the time and location were kept secret, it wasn’t exactly easy for the public to attend.
This seems to be the pattern across the country. Most of the “listening exercise” events seem to be invitation-only affairs, with times and locations shrouded in secrecy. John Cryer MP tabled a parliamentary question requesting the times and dates of listening events.
He was told that the times and dates “will be released alongside the NHS Future Forum’s report”, i.e. several weeks after the listening exercise has finished. That’s not much use to those of us who’d have been interested in attending an event and having our concerns listened to.
With such an opaque process, it’s not surprising that a recent You Gov poll funded by 38 Degrees members found that 95% of the public have no idea how to get involved in the “listening exercise”.
When this comes alongside bullish statements from the Secretary of State and the prime minister about their determination to plough ahead in the face of such widespread criticism, it’s not surprising that only one in five think Lansley is genuinely interested in listening. Many more suspect that the “listening exercise” is at best what Dr Hamish Meldrum of the BMA calls “a political device”, and at worst a sham.
If Andrew Lansley is hoping that he can use the listening exercise as political cover, claiming he’s listened before ploughing on regardless with his so-called reforms, 38 Degrees members are determined to do all we can to stop him. That’s why in the past few days thousands of us have donated almost £90,000 to run adverts in major newspapers challenging Lansley to start listening properly.
That so many people are willing to donate reflects just how high a priority this campaign is to 38 Degrees members. Hundreds of thousands of us voted to make it the number one priority straight after our success in stopping the forest sell-off. Over 390,000 have signed the petition, tens of thousands have emailed their MPs, and 38 Degrees members have already organised dozens of local events across the country.
The level of campaigning by not just 38 Degrees members, but also health charities, patient groups, professional bodies and trade unions reflects just how deep concerns about the direction of Andrew Lansley’s NHS plans are. It is extraordinary that he still likes to claim that this is all just based on misunderstanding, and is a “storm in a teacup”.
The BMA observes:
“It’s rather ironic that on one hand the Secretary of State says his proposals are there to give doctors more say, more involvement, to listen to them and to let them run the service, and yet when we tell them his plans aren’t working, he doesn’t seem to want to hear what we’re saying.”
For a Secretary of State currently presiding over a high-profile listening exercise, Andrew Lansley has yet to convince many of us that listening is really something he’s interested in.
38 Degrees members hope these adverts make more people aware of how they can work together to make their voices heard, and turn up the pressure on the Secretary of State to start genuinely listening, rather than just pretending he is.