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HSJ100

005 - Stephen Dorrell

Chair, Commons health committee. NEW ENTRY

Stephen Dorrell is a rarity among MPs: he understands health. A former health and treasury minister, Mr Dorrell was the last Conservative secretary of state for health in the 1990s.

Even before he was elected as chair of the health committee, Mr Dorrell remained a powerful voice in the health debate. In 2007, he was appointed by leader David Cameron as co-chair of the Conservatives’ public service improvement group, which looked at ways to improve health, social care, education and social housing. He was also one of the first politicians to openly warn of the impending financial crisis facing the NHS and the need for a significant transformation in health services to allow the NHS to deliver value for money in the years ahead.

Given that this government has relatively little past ministerial experience, Mr Dorrell was always going to be an influential backbencher. But since becoming the first elected chair of the health committee, he has shot to prominence as a figure of real stature. Drawing on his experience, he set out immediately to make the health committee a forum for forensic thinking about the healthcare system.

Since the general election, few politicians - or indeed select committee chairs - have done so much to engage in the policy debate or to hold the government to account.

Despite being one of the most outspoken champions of markets in healthcare, he has voiced the anxieties of many with his take on Andrew Lansley’s health reforms.

In particular, he has questioned the pace of the structural reorganisation of the NHS when faced with an unprecedented financial challenge. And his experience of GP fundholding - which he oversaw as health secretary in the 1990s - informs the health committee’s scrutiny of GP commissioning.

He has an obsession with who will do what he calls the “heavy lifting”, which is to say a commitment to putting in place strong delivery mechanisms.

As health secretary, Mr Dorrell was recognised as having an air of approachability and popular appeal. He jokes that “a politician approaches every problem with a completely open mouth” - but for him the opposite is true. He is all ears.

At least partly as a result of this, he is being asked to speak at more and more roundtable discussions, to stand on podiums at more and more conferences, and is becoming an increasingly familiar face in the press and media. Indeed, some would say that he is more recognised in public that the entire health team save Mr Lansley.

The eventual impact of the government’s NHS reforms is still to be determined. But as with previous reforms, such as the introduction of foundation trusts, parliamentary scrutiny has a key role to play.

With much of the detail of the government’s reforms - on GP commissioning, the role of Monitor, the powers of the commissioning board, and so on - still to be finalised, the health committee and Mr Dorrell’s chairmanship will perform a critical function.

Nick Seddon, deputy director, Reform

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