Labour Party Conference: Burnham backs free social care for terminally ill people

by Scott Sinclair
Policy and Public Affairs Manager


There were challenging views, quality debate and key announcements at our Labour Party Conference fringe event in Brighton yesterday afternoon (23 September).

Run jointly with Help the Hospices and Sue Ryder, the event posed the question: can giving patients choice be cost effective for the NHS?

Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health gave an impassioned speech and responses to the audience, previewing some of the remarks he will make in his keynote address on health to the conference on Wednesday.

Key announcements

He said that he would be announcing on Wednesday Labour's intention to make social care free of charge for terminally ill people. This has been a key campaign for Marie Curie and our partner charities and this is a very welcome announcement.

He also announced that the Labour Party will vote on a motion to merge the NHS and social care services under a single budget, in order to provide 'whole person care', which he argues is potentially the most radical and important change to the NHS since its creation in 1948.

Acknowledging that this policy would lead to some tough decisions about hospitals, particularly as it would see the home become the default setting for care rather than hospitals, he said that they were decisions that nevertheless needed to be taken in order to ensure that we as a society are able to meet the demands placed upon us by the aging population.

Responsibility to guide patients

Dr Clare Gerada, the outgoing Chair of the Royal College of GPs, took a view on patient choice that was contrary to prevailing opinions, but deeply insightful. She pointed out that giving patients a choice about their treatment can in many cases be an abdication of responsibility by doctors, who, with their wealth of knowledge have an obligation to guide patients and even tell them what to do if necessary.

Andy Burnham picked up on this in his response. So often, he said, choice has simply been a proxy for introducing competition to the NHS. Competition, he went on to say, often gives patients and their families very little choice because while it lets them choose who provides their care, they often aren't able to choose how or where that care is provided.

This sentiment was shared by the panel, who rallied around the concept of shared decision-making, where doctors and patients work together to make the right choices.

Cost-effective care

Pushed by a member of the audience as to whether giving a patient what they want through shared decision-making was cost effective, the panel tentatively agreed.

Burnham was much stronger in his response, saying he thought it was definitely cheaper, particularly in the case of end of life care, where he thought it would always be cheaper for someone to be cared for at home than in a hospital.

The event showed there is a growing cross-party consensus that more needs to be done for people at the end of life. Particularly, people need to be helped out of hospital, the place most continue to die, against their wishes. Hopefully, this consensus will also be reflected in our next event at the Conservative Party Conference on 30 September.

Read our blog post from the Conservative conference

Read our blog post from the Liberal Democrat conference

Read more about our party conference events