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Ann Keen: Former Labour Health Minister Shares Her Experience in the NHS and Parliament

Former Labour Health Minister, Ann Keen sat down with Chamber to discuss her experience and the future of the NHS workforce.

Ann Keen is a former Labour Health Minister, serving as Member of Parliament for Brentford and Isleworth from 1997 to 2010. She became Parliamentary Private Secretary for Gordon Brown and later, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health Services from 2007 to 2010. Keen led an independent commission on the future of nursing and midwifery, resulting in the Front Line Care report. The report worryingly stands as the last workforce strategy published by the Government. Given the recruitment and retention issues facing the NHS, a new workforce strategy is the top priority for improving health and social care performance.

Prior to her career in Parliament, Keen worked as a nurse in the NHS, later becoming Head of the Faculty of Advanced Nursing at Queen Charlotte’s and General Secretary of the Community and District Nursing Association.

Keen is chairing policy institute Curia’s workforce inquiry this year as part of the NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission, combining her expertise with leaders across the NHS and social care sector to find implementable solutions to current workforce issues.

What was it that first encouraged you into nursing and the NHS?

“A hospital is full of really interesting people from all walks of life and all over the world. I began as a clerk in outpatients but I moved to casualty, looking after patients’ families. Colleagues would ask why I didn’t think about nursing but I didn’t have the qualifications. I was then encouraged to take the relevant tests and gain qualifications and I was thrilled when I was accepted to be a nurse.”

In your clinical career, how have you seen the environment of the NHS change for frontline staff?

“There has been a massive change. When I started training in 1976, the model was all about obedience, it was about a hierarchy that you had to respect¾no one would ever challenge that because there wasn’t anything to question. The present conditions have thrown this out the window.”

“There is hope with the brilliant innovation that has taken the patient’s journey into the modern day, with specific treatments through genomics that can streamline the health service. Of course, nurses are at the centre of that.”

We are all worried about the current pressures facing the NHS, if there was one thing you could change overnight, what would it be?

“I would make sure the staff knew they were valued by investing in them and ensuring they are looked after properly. Their job is fascinating but it’s so hard emotionally¾the brain, hands and heart are used daily. Staff don’t feel comfortable taking breaks and that needs to change.”

“We’ve got to invest in all staff, particularly their education, to retain them. How are we losing so many? We know why, it’s because of this lack of investment in their education and pay and a feeling of being undervalued.”

“People are worn out; they are exhausted and now, patient safety is at risk.”

Moving to your parliamentary career, how and why did you enter politics to gain your first seat in 1997?

“I stood in ’87 and ’92 before finally getting there in ’97. The reason I wanted to enter politics was not to be a Member of Parliament, or because I wanted to be a woman in politics. What caught me was the opportunity to make a difference to my colleagues in the health service. I didn’t like how people were being left in the side room at the end of their life.”

“As Gordon Brown’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, I sat behind him when he announced the rise in pensions, the heating allowances and other things¾I was tearful because at last, I could see politics changing people’s lives.”

What has your experience been like as a woman in parliament and in the political world?

“I was one of ‘Blair’s Babes’ in 1997, we all came in colourful jackets and trouser suits, and I remember other MPs saying we didn’t look right. Older female MPs said they were so glad we wore trousers as this was frowned upon and it was 1997¾so there were challenges like that to deal with.”

“I’m afraid to say I did adjust to some behaviours, it’s almost a culture, but this did change over the thirteen years I was in Parliament. Of course, it was exciting to be there, and people would say ‘Gosh you’ve done well for a nurse.’ However, the whole experience was fabulous, and I greatly enjoyed it.”

As Chair of Curia’s workforce programme, what are you looking to see out of this inquiry?

“The workforce plan I completed with Gordon Brown in 2010 wasn’t taken seriously because there was no workforce crisis, and we weren’t planning for one. The workforce now is absolutely critical, investing in the workforce is essential to improve the health service.”

“We do know how to change but we haven’t got the people to enact that change. That is why I’m looking forward to undertaking this work with Curia, it has to be taken seriously because it’s the future of the NHS.”

Curia’s workforce programme

Ann is joining Lord O’Shaughnessy and Professor Bewick to steer the NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission’s workforce programme. Given the importance of workforce to the future of the NHS, the inquiry is a timely piece of work that will bring together leaders across Parliament, the NHS, life sciences and local government to enact positive change.

To read the Commission’s 2022 report see here.

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