Choice of Tory peer as NHS England chair 'risks politicising health service'

A Conservative peer and former health minister is set to become the next chair of NHS England, the government has revealed - in a move doctors' leaders say risks over-politicising the health service.

Lord Prior (Photo: UK government Open Government License)
Lord Prior (Photo: UK government Open Government License)

The government revealed today that Conservative life peer Lord David Prior was its choice to replace outgoing NHS England chair Sir Malcolm Grant.

Lord Prior, MP for North Norfolk from 1997 to 2001, entered the House of Lords in May 2015 and was immediately appointed parliamentary undersecretary of state for health, a position he held until December 2017.

The BMA warned that appointing a Conservative member of the House of Lords who was until recently a government minister to an influential role in NHS England sent 'entirely the wrong message' - and warned that the NHS must be 'free of party political interference'.

Commons hearing

Lord Prior, the current chair of University College London Hospital NHS Trust and a former chair of the CQC and the Norfolk and Norwich University NHS Foundation Trust, will attend a pre-appointment hearing with the House of Commons health select committee on 10 September 2018.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: 'We love the NHS and are determined to guarantee it for everyone for the long term. Lord Prior brings huge experience to this important role where he will help deliver the long-term plan for the NHS.

'He is enormously qualified, having led an NHS trust, been a former health minister and a chairman of the CQC. I look forward to working with Lord Prior closely and want to thank the outgoing Sir Malcolm Grant for his service to the role and the NHS.'

A BMA spokesperson said: 'The BMA has repeatedly warned of the dangers of over-politicising the NHS. The appointment of Lord Prior, should it go ahead, sends entirely the wrong message both to the medical profession and to patients who want an NHS working in their best interests, not in the interests of party politics.

Independent NHS

'We need an NHS that is run by an independent board free of party political interference and therefore the government should seriously reconsider their choice of chair for NHS England.'

Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders said: 'Patients and their families will have real questions about the independence of the NHS under this government when key positions are repeatedly being filled by Tory party grandees.

'The secretary of state must urgently clarify how he will guarantee NHS England’s independence through this appointment, and publish the justification behind rejecting other candidates without a direct link to the Conservative party.'

Tower Hamlets LMC chair and acting chair of Doctors in Unite Dr Jackie Applebee said the choice of Lord Prior 'makes a mockery of [the government's] repeated protestations that politics must be taken out of the NHS'. She pointed out that another Conservative peer - Baroness Harding - is the current chair of NHS Improvement.

NHS funding

Dr Applebee said that as a health minister, Lord Prior had helped to oversee 'the most unprecedented squeeze in NHS finances since its foundation in 1948, the pay freeze for NHS staff, and nurses using food banks'. She added: 'If Lord Prior is appointed, which seems likely, this does not bode well for those of us who campaign for the NHS as Bevan intended it, free of the market, publicly funded, publicly provided and free at the point of delivery.'

Lord Prior's stint as an MP was ended in 2001 when Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb - himself a health minister under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government - was elected MP of North Norfolk, a seat he still holds.

Lord Prior is a trained barrister and former investment banker at Lehman Brothers.

Outgoing chair Sir Malcolm Grant predicted earlier this summer at an event hosted by Babylon - the private company behind the controversial GP at Hand service - that new technology would 'significantly disrupt' the NHS over the coming years.

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