MPs are a vital ally for any chief executive, so it is critical to build a healthy relationship. Daloni Carlisle looks at the benefits of giving local politicians the red carpet treatment

With a tranche of new MPs set to enter Parliament tomorrow, NHS chief executives would be well advised to set up meetings with them as soon as possible.

As a chief executive, probably the most important political relationship you have is with your local MP

So says Richard Taylor, the NHS consultant who entered Parliament in 2001 as an independent candidate fighting to save his local hospital (see box). He argues that the relationship between MPs and the chief executives of both primary care and provider trusts is crucial - and he is not alone.

Sir Robert Naylor, chief executive of University College London Hospitals Foundation Trust, has a long-standing relationship with local Labour MP and former health secretary Frank Dobson.

With 25 years at the helm of high profile NHS organisations behind him, he has met every prime minister and health secretary in that time, developing a particular closeness with the Blair administration.

“As a chief executive, probably the most important political relationship you have is with your local MP,” he says.

He and Mr Dobson campaigned for years for a new hospital in the heart of London, although it was the then health secretary Alan Milburn who finally signed the contract that would see the multimillion pound venture built in 2001.

This is not the bread and butter of MP-chief executive relationships, though.

“One of the key responsibilities of a chief executive is reputation management,” says Sir Robert. “If your organisation has a good reputation it is easier to recruit and retain staff and to develop that important sense of pride.”

MPs can have a huge influence on this and need to be kept in the loop on trust plans and aspirations. “You really don’t want your local MP to make negative comments to the local media and undermine trust simply because the MP is not informed properly,” says Sir Robert.

“I know chief executives who have not had good relationships with MPs and their organisations have suffered as a result,” he adds, recalling one MP in particular. “It was very challenging. Any statement I made, the MP would contradict in the local media.”

The relationship is a two-way street, with MPs raising issues on behalf of individuals and the whole local community while chief executives make sure that their MP is informed of what the trust is trying to achieve, even if the MP doesn’t support it. “Frank Dobson did not support foundation trusts,” says Sir Robert. “That has not meant we do not have a good relationship.”

Agree to disagree

Mr Dobson agrees. “As an MP you want to represent the interests of the people who live in the area and therefore depend on the services of the hospital,” he says. “You cannot let disagreements over policy get in the way.”

He adds: “My approach to public officials serving the area is that they are decent people trying their best in sometimes terrible circumstances. They can come to me for help and I can go to them.”

Many PCT chief executives face a more complex set of relationships with several MPs. Tim Riley, chief executive of NHS Tameside and Glossop has regular meetings with no fewer than four MPs, two of whom stood down at the 2010 election. (For the record, all Labour - Tom Levitt, James Purnell, David Heyes and Andrew Gwynne).

“I think it is an absolutely vital relationship,” he says. “After the election, I will be proactive in meeting new MPs and looking for dialogue to help them understand our hopes and aspirations, and us to understand their agenda.”

How to befriend your MP

Dr Richard Taylor, the doctor-turned-MP for Wyre Forest says: “When I joined Westminster as an MP in 2001, I was surprised how few MPs had an expert knowledge of the NHS and how many of them showed antipathy to the medical profession, believing the stories about excessive private incomes.”

Later this week, a tranche of new MPs will be finding their feet in London and their constituencies. Don’t wait for your MP to get in touch, invite him or her to a one-to-one meeting where you can provide:

  • a brief profile of local NHS facilities, problems, areas of deprivation and your needs;
  • a briefing on how you are tackling safety, quality and reduced spending;
  • complete openness about cuts;
  • invitations to meet senior staff and tours of local facilities;
  • information about complaints and whistle blowing policies.

MPs can initiate adjournment debates on constituency matters and offers of help towards these would be welcome to MPs keen to establish their reputations.

Dr Richard Taylor is standing as an independent candidate in today’s election.