Bishop of St Albans calls for more personal responsibility and new social contract between citizens and the NHS

On 14th January 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Turnberg “that this House takes note of the ability of the National Health Service to meet present and future demands.” The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate:

StAlbans171115The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I am glad to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, on her maiden speech. Due to the pressure on time, I want to focus on one very small area, which has been alluded to by various noble Lords but which I want to develop a little. It is the pressing and vital need to reboot the concept of a social contract, which lay at the heart of the national health system as envisaged by Beveridge and which balanced rights and responsibilities, not least against the background of living in a time when people have increasingly emphasised rights and perhaps downplayed the sense of duty and responsibility.

In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers produced a report on the 65th anniversary of the NHS, which identified two key factors that would be essential for the future of the NHS. One of them was the extent to which people took personal responsibility for their own health and care, and that of their families. Then last year, when the independent research published by the Commonwealth Foundation revealed the UK’s health system to be at the top of the league among nations in the developed world, the one area where we did not score highly was in the prevention of illness. That report highlighted the particular problem of large numbers of people in this country with unhealthy lifestyles.

It is deeply concerning that so many illnesses are caused by addictions to alcohol and smoking, while we have the highest rate of child and adult obesity in Europe. Estimates of their cost vary but just those three areas could well be costing as much as £17 billion per annum. To address these issues requires a deep cultural change across our nation, along with a renewed emphasis on personal responsibility for our health and for exercise, for people of all ages. But of course these sorts of changes are some of the hardest to make. The need for a new social contract between citizens and the NHS is urgent, with a much greater emphasis on what we need to do in response to what the NHS provides. Indeed, this message needs to be reinforced every time anyone comes in contact with the NHS.

While laws and taxation have a contributory factor, we need to create a climate which celebrates health and people taking responsibility for it, for them and their families. There is a great deal of evidence that one of the most powerful factors in bringing about such behavioural change is the influence of peer groups. We need to work consistently with health campaigns, sports and leisure clubs, statutory and voluntary youth and children’s groups, schools, colleges, churches and everybody from the Mothers’ Union to the WI and the University of the Third Age to think how we can celebrate the need for personal responsibility. It needs to be undertaken over the long term; we are talking in terms of decades. If we are to see significant change then the evidence of the campaign to reduce smoking, which has halved since the 1970s, shows that it can be done but will take time and consistency.