Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Jonathan Ashworth


NIALL PATERSON: The government has this morning pledged another £1.8 billion for the Health Service, part of which will go to fixing 20 hospitals in urgent need of repair. Joining me now from Leicester is Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth. Mr Ashworth, a very good morning to you.


NP: Let’s start shall we with that £1.8 billion of extra funding for the health service, presumably you welcome that with open arms?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well we’ll see if this money is ever delivered. Over the last two years 145 separate announcements for new beds, new equipment, upgrades to buildings have been announced by ministers totalling two and a half billion and only 100 million of it has ever actually been delivered. It’s sheer incompetence on the part of Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary. Look, our hospitals are suffering with their ceilings collapsing, sewage pipes bursting, cancer patients waiting for diagnosis have had their appointments cancelled because of faulty equipment, seriously ill mental health patients at risk of suicide are in old decrepit dormitory-style wards and it’s because Tory Ministers have done these smash and grab raids on the investment budget, cutting over four billion from those budgets and it means today that our hospitals, our NHS is facing a backlog of £6 billion worth of repairs, putting patient safety, patient lives at risk every day. It’s no wonder the top advisor to Boris Johnson says Tory MPs don’t care about the NHS.

NP: So how much would Labour spend on the health service in additional funding? The Health Foundation suggests a figure of £6 billion is necessary, is that one that you would seek?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well we at the last election said we’d want to invest an extra £10 billion in the capital infrastructure of our NHS. We could have a general election very soon, there’s speculation in the newspapers again today that the Tories are preparing for a general election, that’s what today’s announcement is all about and if a general election comes along in the next few weeks or in the autumn, then we will come forward with a new funding settlement for the NHS but what we are clear on is that we’re prepared to put more money into our NHS so that we can rebuild our hospitals, we can rebuild our doctors surgeries – and half of doctors say their surgeries, their local general practice surgeries are not good enough, so we can buy them modern equipment, so we can get our cancer diagnosis rates much better. Over 40,000 people wait beyond six weeks for a diagnosis, it used to be 3,000 nine years ago and that’s because we have got some of the lowest numbers of MRI scanners and CT scanners in the Western world. It’s simply not good enough, these Tory cuts are putting lives at risk and we have to put more investment into the NHS. We’re not going to get it with Boris Johnson.

NP: On occasion the Labour party has been accused of indulging in a little bit of project fear-mongering, I suspect people will make that accusation today about the latest piece of Labour research which suggests that signing a free trade agreement with the United States could see drug prices spiral out of control.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: It’s not remotely scaremongering, this is what the US’s own Health Secretary has said. The US has said that they want to force the NHS to buy American pharmaceuticals, American medicines, at more expensive prices so a trade deal with the US, not only will it mean more US firms coming in to run sections of our NHS, so privatising our NHS – and Matt Hancock is already allowing £9 billion worth of contracts to go to the private sector, but it will mean the US pharmaceutical industry forcing us to buy more expensive drugs, cancer drugs, asthma drugs …

NP: Why would that be any different under Labour given that you’re both going to have to sign the same FTA?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: No, because we’re not going to sign a trade deal with the United States that would allow the US to come in, buy up the NHS and force the NHS to buy pharmaceuticals from the US pharmaceuticals companies …

NP: So you are not going to sign this FTA with the United States then under a Labour government?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: We are not going to smash up the regulatory regime, the NICE regulatory regime that we have in this country, that has served us well for many, many years and which allows us to have pharmaceuticals, allows us to have medicines at reasonable prices. The US specifically want a trade deal to force us to buy more expensive medicines and it will mean the NHS forking out more for insulin, for asthma medications, for cancer drugs. I don’t believe that’s fair and Tory ministers should rule it out today.

NP: Well we should say of course at this point that the government has on a number of occasions said that the NHS is not for sale but I wondered …

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: This is about pharmaceuticals though, this is about pharmaceuticals though isn’t it, this is about the pharmaceuticals industry and the US Secretary for Health has specifically said he wants other countries, including the UK, to pay more for US pharmaceuticals. This would be a red line in one of their trade deals and that is why it’s so important and why we’re raising it today.

NP: I wondered if we could turn our attention to what happened in Brecon in the by-election this week. This was not a happy hunting ground for Labour admittedly but given how long this government has been in power, given the new leader and the popularity that we keep hearing is a tribute to him from senior Labour figures like yourself, why didn’t Labour turn up?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well I have been involved in election campaigns all my political life for 20 years and that by-election very quickly became a contest between the Liberals and the Tory party so it’s not surprising that the Labour vote would be squeezed in that by-election. In fact I remember by-elections when we were in government … sorry, I’m being attacked by flies here! I can remember by-elections when we were in government and we were going on to win subsequent general elections where the Labour vote was squeezed significantly because the by-election became a fight between the Liberals and the Tory party. That’s not unusual in by-elections and …

NP: Well it’s certainly not unusual in by-elections that Labour has fought recently. In Brecon you dropped your vote share by 12.5%, Peterborough you dropped it by 17%, Newport West 13%, in 2018 in Lewisham East you went down by 18%, 2017 you dropped by 2% in Stoke and 5% in Copeland. There is one direction of travel in all of this and it’s entirely the wrong direction for a party that says that it’s ready for a general election.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Yes, but in those by-elections like Lewisham and Newport we held on and actually Peterborough, which was a Tory seat until 2017, a seat that all the pundits and experts said we were going to lose to the Tory party, we held on to that Peterborough seat. That was a Labour seat between 1997 and I think 2005, so we lost it under the days of Tory Blair, we won it back in 2017 and we held on to it in a difficult by-election which every expert – and every time I came on shows like this they said, oh you’re going to lose your seat in the by-election aren’t you, it’s the end of Labour and we held on in Peterborough, in a key marginal, the sort of marginal seat which will be the electoral battleground between Labour and the Conservative party in the general election, whenever it comes.

NP: I’m sorry to bang on about this point but there are plenty of people within the party and without the party who make the point that Jeremy Corbyn has to have had a role in the poor performances that there have been. Their argument seems to be essentially ‘But we held on’, surely that isn’t good enough at this point in the electoral cycle? Pat ?? making the point on Twitter not that long ago. Surely it’s now time to wake up, smell the coffee and change the leader.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well no, of course we shouldn’t be changing the leader. Jeremy Corbyn has been elected by the party members and the party members want Jeremy Corbyn to go on and fight the next general election when it comes. I suspect it will come in the autumn, certainly reading today’s newspapers it will, and the reason that we don’t need any division in the Labour party is because we’ve got Boris Johnson who is a very right wing Prime Minister, who is taking us out of the European Union probably with no deal, yet a Treasury Minister on your programme last week saying we are turbo-charging towards no deal. No deal would be a catastrophe for the National Health Service, it will be a catastrophe for our smooth access to medicines when we import 37 million packs of medicine every month from the EU, it will be a catastrophe for our economy, it will need billions of pounds worth of investment. We have seen in the newspapers today that schools are worried about the supply chain for school dinners, we might not get school dinners in our schools and …

NP: Okay but …

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: That is the big divide in British politics and …

NP: It may be a big divide in British politics but how are you going to stop no deal? If you look at the papers this morning, Dominic Cummings and others are absolutely assured of the fact that you’ve missed the boat in terms of a vote of confidence. If the Labour’s party priority was to stop no deal why on earth didn’t you call the vote before Parliament rose for the summer recess?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: There will be opportunities for us when Parliament returns in September to stop no deal and …

NP: Not according to [inaudible], they feel that if a vote of confidence were lost there is insufficient wriggle room with the Prime Minister’s discretion that they could call a general election that would be after … they could call a general election which polling day would be after October 31st.

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: Well let’s see what happens in September because the government will have to bring forward appropriate legislation to prepare for this Brexit no-deal exit that they want and we will use all the means available to us in Parliament, working across the parties because we know there are plenty of Tory MPs who want to block no deal as well, particularly a lot of those who Boris Johnson had to have sacked from the Cabinet two weeks ago, we’re working with MPs across the House of Commons and we will work to stop no deal. Tory ministers are turbo-charging towards a no deal, that’s what the Treasury Minister said on your programme last Sunday, and I think to push us out of the European Union at the end of October/beginning of November on a no deal basis as we are going into winter, which is always a difficult time for the NHS, is the height of irresponsibility when we know that a no deal Brexit will be disastrous for the NHS. It will put lives at risk, that is the gamble that Boris Johnson is taking this October/November, he is playing with people’s lives and he is playing with the future of the NHS by turbo-charging towards a no deal.

NP: We are just about to run out of time but I just want to be absolutely clear about this, do you accept that you may have missed the boat in terms of a vote of no confidence, that the time just might not be there for a general election to take place before we leave the European Union?

JONATHAN ASHWORTH: No, I don’t accept that. I don’t agree with Dominic Cummings and … by the way, we keep reading what Dominic Cummings says and doesn’t say. We know he said that Tory MPs don’t care about the NHS, he’s got that on the record, why doesn’t Dominic Cummings just come out and do interviews because every newspaper seems to report what he is saying at special advisors meetings in Number 10. This guy is running Downing Street, he wants to take us out of the European Union with a disastrous no deal, he believes Tory MPs don’t care about the NHS – and I agree with him on that but I know that a no deal is going to be absolutely catastrophic for the NHS and is putting patient lives at risk. Boris Johnson is highly irresponsible by refusing to take it off the table.

NP: For the record, we have asked Dominic Cummings if he fancied coming on but unlike your good self he refused. Mr Ashworth, many thanks for joining us on Sunday with Sophy Ridge.