Making sure The King's Fund's message gets heard

It's all change at the top in health following September's Cabinet reshuffle. 'The Health and Social Care Act may be on the statute book but the NHS will remain high on the agenda until the next general election,' suggests Patrick South, Head of Press and Public Affairs at The King's Fund.

Following September's reshuffle, there are a number of new faces at the Department of Health, including:

  • Secretary of State for Health: Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP
  • Minister of State for Care and Support: Norman Lamb MP 
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health: Anna Soubry MP
  • Parliamentary Under Secretary of State: Dr Daniel Poulter MP 

'It's unusual to see four new faces in a ministerial team after a reshuffle,' says Patrick. Could this mean a bumpy ride ahead as controversial reforms are implemented, in financially tough times, with new people in the driving seat? 

'Perhaps,' says Patrick, 'but I don't think we'll see substantial changes to the big picture. These changes in personnel are likely to mean tweaks to how existing policy is implemented rather than a significant change in direction.'

What are the new priorities?

'Our priority will be to engage with these new ministers,' explains Patrick. 'Some – such as Norman Lamb, who was Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Health from 2006 to 2010 – are already familiar with our work. Shortly after his appointment, Norman Lamb gave a speech at our event, Making health and wellbeing boards a success; in this, he talked about the importance of our work on integrated care and his commitment to further engagement. He also likened political reshuffles to the challenges we face in implementing integrated care for patients: 'For reshuffles to work, every part of government needs to be supportive of all the other parts. The same is true if we want to make people healthier and improve local services.'

The appointment of Jeremy Hunt was a surprise to some. Commentators have suggested that he has been drafted in as a communicator, to soothe ruffled feathers following the Bill's passage through parliament. Patrick understands this point of view: 'There are some bridges that need to be rebuilt, for example, in the medical profession. You can understand why the Prime Minister wants someone who is going to reduce the noise that has dogged the reforms to date.' What about The King's Fund's perspective? 'Jeremy Hunt is new to us,' says Patrick. 'Like many organisations in the health sector, we are keen to engage with him and develop an understanding of his priorities.'

What can The King's Fund offer to politicians?

'We provide independent, high-quality analysis of complex policy issues; this is appealing to ministers, opposition spokespeople, back bench MPs and peers.'

A survey of MPs carried out by ComRes, a research agency, at the end of last year showed that the Fund is seen as influential and politically neutral. 'In a complex and politically sensitive environment, our independence is a vital asset and is core to our vision and values,' says Patrick.

Our independence was demonstrated by our work on the Health and Social Care Act. As the Bill went through parliament, a key part of the Fund's role was to identify risks and suggest changes that would improve services for patients – such as placing a stronger emphasis on delivering integrated care. 'The Bill was high profile and hotly debated and we engaged directly in that,' explains Patrick. 'Because of our objectivity, we weren't pigeon-holed into the "for" or "against" camps. This gave us a stronger platform to influence and inform the debate.'

Looking ahead, this reputation for independence will stand us in good stead as we embark on a programme of work that argues for a fundamental change in approach to tackling future challenges in health and social care. We published the first paper, Transforming the Delivery of Health and Social Care: the case for fundamental change, of our Time to Think Differently programme earlier this month. Engaging with parliamentarians and providing objective evidence to support our view will be essential as we ask these challenging questions.

Considering our future plans, Patrick concludes: 'It's a privilege to be a part of an organisation whose expertise and independence is valued by parliamentarians and whose views are actively sought by them. Our work looking at the future challenges facing the health and social system should have a greater impact because of this.'