Interview: The new face of RCGP finance

Dr Helen Stokes Lampard will take over soon as the college's first female treasurer. She spoke to Colin Cooper about her priorities and the challenges she will face.

Dr Helen Stokes Lampard: first female treasurer at RCGP (photo: Pete Hill)

The new treasurer has a new diary. Dr Helen Stokes Lampard is about to take over this highly influential post at the RCGP, after a year of learning the job as assistant treasurer.

Her previous diary was pink. The new one is big, black and embossed with the words 'Don't underestimate the Force.' She assures me this is a joke - a quote from Darth Vader in Star Wars. But some at the college might not be so sure.

Having just completed a £38m refurbishment of its new £34m headquarters, there might be concern among some members and staff that the college is overstretching itself.

But the need to consolidate the RCGP's disparate London operations on one site, and the money-making opportunities offered by the new premises in Euston, mean that the argument has long been won.

The message from the top is that membership fees will not rise to cover the £3m a year mortgage over the next 15 years.

Nevertheless, Dr Stokes Lampard will be asking the RCGP's ruling council for permission to conduct a broad financial review as one of her first tasks in the post.

Efficiency drive

'The next 18 months will be about streamlining and increasing our efficiency. I'll be gently challenging everything we do, by asking what's important and what we can do differently,' she says.

This follows the recent management review by chief executive Neil Hunt and a review of the college's committee structure by honorary secretary Professor Amanda Howe.

'People have to remember that money is tight,' says Dr Stokes Lampard. 'Whenever you move house, you always discover hidden costs and you don't book any exotic holidays for the next few years.'

The 41-year-old GP grew up in Swansea, South Wales, where her miner grandfather campaigned to have showers installed at collieries and her father became a headmaster after being the first person in her family to go to university.

She was aiming for a career in engineering when a good set of O level results reawakened her plans to become a doctor and she headed to medical school at St George's in London, with a strong sideline in student politics.

After four years in obstetrics and gynaecology, she followed her engineer husband to his new job in the Midlands, where she planned to work in the public health field.

But Dr Stokes Lampard needed to gain experience of general practice and telephoned the Midlands deanery for advice, where she ended up speaking to future RCGP chairman Professor Steve Field.

'That call changed everything,' she says. 'I felt like I had come home.'

He suggested a post in academic general practice and she started work at a Birmingham practice, spending half her time at the university. Dr Stokes Lampard is still a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Birmingham, but recently gave up her post as clinical director of the primary care clinical research and trials unit to allow for more flexibility around her RCGP work.

High flyer

Her new schedule, as the college's first female treasurer, looks something like this: one day a week seeing patients, two days of teaching and two days at the RCGP.

So why did this high-flying academic want to become RCGP treasurer? 'I was treasurer of the Midlands faculty for seven years and found it an incredibly privileged position.

'I love to know what's going on and there's no better way of understanding an organisation and having some influence, than being the treasurer.'

There is still a 'huge amount to learn' and she would have been 'terrified' if she had not spent a year shadowing outgoing treasurer Dr Colin Hunter. But she has no fear of numbers.

'Numbers do not frighten me. There are just more zeros involved. This is not high-level mathematics. It's all about the decisions that underpin the movement of money.'

Much of the past year has been spent building relationships throughout the college, with staff, faculties and the devolved councils in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

'This is important because it means when I have to say no, there will be a pre-existing relationship. So people will understand it's not personal - it's professional.

'If you understand people it's a lot easier to have a grown-up conversation. That's something I pledged to do on the hustings for this job and I try not to make promises that I cannot fulfil.'

Realising the potential of the faculties and bringing the wider college together in a 'more joined-up way' are high on the priority list for the new treasurer. 'We've recognised there's a huge amount of innovation going on out there and we want to share that,' she says.

She would also like the mortgage to be a 'minor matter' by the end of her maximum nine years in office.

'When the finances work well, nobody talks about it. I want to reach a situation where new GPs coming in to the college do not have to worry about the past. They can just work for the future.'

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