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Claire Ward: PDA director on Labour ticket for East Midlands mayor


Claire Ward: PDA director on Labour ticket for East Midlands mayor

Claire Ward has forged strong links with the UK pharmacy sector since leaving Westminster in 2010. Now she is back on the Labour campaign trail as she seeks to become the first elected mayor of the East Midlands. By Arthur Walsh

Claire Ward is once more gearing up for a big May election after nearly a decade and a half outside the political arena. Elected as the Labour MP for Watford in the 1997 general election just days before her 25th birthday (she recalls the “glorious sunshine” on polling day and the “mood for change” pervading the country that May), she is now in the running to be the first mayor of England’s East Midlands region.

Ward hadn’t envisaged a return to politics before the “fantastic opportunity” to represent the region she’s lived in for over a decade came along. Having been selected as the Labour candidate last August, she says getting back in campaigning mode ahead of the May 2 election has been an adjustment. But Ward, who represented Watford for the entirety of the 1997-2010 Blair/Brown era, feels she is the only candidate with the breadth of experience the role demands.

“Being mayor is not simply a political role. I think it’s a leadership role and requires somebody with a broader range of experience than just politics,” she says, adding: “I’ve got 30 years’ experience in politics, business, the public sector and the NHS.”

This includes a long-running relationship with the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), for whom she is public affairs director, and acting as chair of Sherwood Forest Hospital Trust since 2021 having been a director since 2013.

Tory rival Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield since 2017 and the current leader of Nottinghamshire City Council, could do with “focusing on the jobs he’s got and doing those right”, Ward says.

Has the campaign got nasty so far as the candidates seek to stand out from the pack? Ward gives a diplomatic answer: “One of the things about being mayor is you have to work with people across all the political parties, and I’m trying to maintain that ability to engage with people so that if I’m elected in May we can still work together.”

But she doesn’t hold back in her criticism of the present government: “The East Midlands region has been failed for a long time. We’ve got the lowest levels of infrastructure spending among all the regions, and that has held us back. Austerity, cuts in public services and long term investment have all been backed by my opponent who has been part of 14 years of the Conservative government.”

She rails against those who “think, in these dying moments of a conservative government, that they can throw promises of money out and expect people to be bought off and take it seriously”.

With the region home to a number of areas blighted by socieoeconomic deprivation, “it is absolutely essential that we have more investment and more opportunities to deliver real levelling up – not just pockets of money that perhaps don’t necessarily do what they are intended to”.

Key pledges

As mayor, Ward would have a budget projected at around £4 billion over the next few years, including dedicated settlements for transport and housing targets. “It’s about making sure we use this money to create a better place to live, work and learn and really level up.”

Key pledges include building more social housing and affordable units. “Although it’s cheaper than London and the South East, it’s still relative to earnings,” says Ward. “There’s a responsibility for helping to plan these things that comes with the mayoralty.”

Transport is also high on the agenda, with Ward setting out ambitions to build an integrated network across the region: “We’re looking at better ways to get people to the jobs and skills they need.

“And of course, mayors are about economic growth – they are tasked with bringing in more private sector investment to grow the local economy and create more jobs.”

Ward sees big opportunities in harnessing the region’s coal mining history and making it a centre for clean energy. A ‘hydrogen cluster’ is currently being brought together, creating job opportunities, while in Derby, Rolls Royce is developing nuclear-based small modular reactors.

Other key players in the region include Toyota, and the East Midlands Airport is the UK’s busiest freight airport after Heathrow. Of course, there is also Boots, “a key stakeholder in the region”, with its Beeston headquarters, as well as some “superb” universities and a range of pharmaceutical and bioscience companies.

Ward has spent much of the campaigning period going out to meet the local business community in an attempt to understand the challenges they face.

“These include skills – for example, many businesses want a review of the apprenticeships levy. Whether it’s large corporations like Boots or smaller employers, they want more flexibility because often they can’t meet the requirements to actually use it.”

Ward also wants training providers to work more closely with employers to ensure courses are designed around the skills needed in the region. And business owners are keen to hear about investment in the local economy through areas like logistics, says Ward, explaining that infrastructure is better in and around the cities but factories in more remote areas are “much more difficult for people to access unless they’re driving.”

She has been busy meeting small business owners like pharmacy contractors, which she describes as a key component in plans for a “revitalisation of the high street”.

Like most regional mayors (Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester is a notable exception), Ward would not have a health and social care brief if elected. Nonetheless, she is adamant that her plans to incentivise car alternatives like cycling and walking can play a key role in what she describes as the “healthier community agenda”.

“The determinants of health are things like having a good job and a good place to live, having the skills they need and having decent transport networks,” she says.

Her work with Sherwood Forest Trust has helped to inform her thinking about the different elements knitted into public health: “I’ve learned a huge amount, not just about the NHS but about working with people and partners across the area. One of the priorities for me when I took over as chair was to build partnerships with local authorities and other community organisations so we know we are discharging patients to good accommodation and good care packages.”

Work with pharmacy

Ward says she became aware of the challenges faced by the pharmacy network while she was an MP in the latter half of the 2000s. After leaving Westminster, she took up a position chairing the annual conference of Watford-based Sigma Pharmaceuticals. She then became chief executive of the Independent Pharmacy Federation, working there from 2011 until its 2015 merger with Pharmacy Voice, an organisation whose passing she regrets.

“Some rather short-term decisions were made,” she believes. “Because there are so many bodies and organisations competing to shout over each other, Pharmacy Voice was an attempt to bring them together and build better relationships across the sector. It’s a shame it didn’t work out, and one day people might feel the need to recreate it.”

Ward is not shy of criticising what she sees as other missteps by the sector: “The period of the community pharmacy organisations taking the Government – their one major customer – to the court of judicial review, it wasn’t a good look and it damaged relationships. That is something I hope we have moved on from now.”

Her time at the PDA has seen landmark events like the Boots’ union recognition battle, a vital step in the organisation’s efforts to carve out its singular position within the sector. She describes “moving from one side of the table (the owners) to the other side (the employees)” as having given her “a much broader perspective on the sector”. “I continue to talk with people who are owners and work in different parts of the pharmacy, obviously,” she adds.

Ward says the PDA supports pharmacists and tries to “prevent them from getting into those problems where they are at risk of appearing before the regulator” – something it seeks to achieve by looking at practice in the round and offering guidance. “It wants to help pharmacists be better at their job. At the core of everything we do, the PDA always starts with the patient; that’s the way all health organisations should operate. Good patient care means the right support for workers, the right tools and standards – all those things that mean healthcare professionals are able to give patients the best care.”

The organisation has been notably less enthusiastic about expanding the role of pharmacy technicians than others, and on issues like the pharmacist shortage debate has held positions that are not widely popular among the sector’s top brass. Would she agree that a degree of iconoclasm is part of the PDA’s remit? In response, Ward says the organisation “offers a strong and distinct voice on behalf of pharmacists. Companies talk from the perspective of the business, not necessarily what it looks like on the frontline”.

“Outside pharmacy and certainly in the political world, lots of people don’t really understand the distinction between pharmacy owners and the pharmacist – because the PDA only represents pharmacists [it currently has around 40,000 members], it has a very distinct view.”

Not content with gaining membership, and perhaps capturing a degree of credibility among pharmacists from more august institutions like the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the PDA is increasingly pushing for a seat at the table in sector negotiations. Ward explains: “I’m very much in favour of collaboration. The argument, quite rightly, has been that if you’re bringing in a new service, you can negotiate the funding with the contractor organisations, but the delivery generally isn’t going to be done by the owner unless it’s a small independent; it’s going to be employee pharmacists.

“One of the things we’ve been pushing very hard for is the engagement in tripartite discussions for the delivery of those services because we can help by looking at the ways in which the delivery takes place.

“We can help to support that delivery and look at whether or not there is adequate staffing, or whether patients are potentially being put at risk because there aren’t enough pharmacists available to deliver those services.

“It’s in pharmacists’ interests to deliver the services, and they want to – but they want to do it in the best possible way so that both patients and healthcare professionals are protected. If the pharmacist is over-tired, expected to do too much, then they’re not going to make the best clinical decisions.”

The Pharmacy First service is another issue on which the PDA has taken a somewhat dissenting view. “We welcomed Pharmacy First as an initiative; we want to see patients using community pharmacy more and we want pharmacists’ skills to be used. But we have been concerned about how the services are rolled out and the level of training and additional support on offer.

“The expectation that the pharmacist, who is also trying to operate in the dispensary and have consultations, is running a walk-in Pharmacy First service… You’ve got to have more support. That’s why that bigger conversation about supervision is taking place. We need to determine how the pharmacy team can operate at its best and the different roles people play.”

Does Ward feel that union recognition at Boots helped it to prioritise patient safety? She offers another diplomatic response: “The recognition agreement has been good for pharmacists, and I think it’s much better for companies to be part of that and work with their employees.

“I hope we see more companies recognising the PDA. It’s not a politically affiliated trade union, it’s a different kind of professional union – and the union bit of it is only one element. It does a whole range of things in terms of representing, defending and looking at policy.” Does she have any ideas about how the role of community pharmacy might continue to evolve? “It’s about the opportunity for community pharmacy to be that high street healthcare centre and deliver more services, with more opportunities for relationships with GPs and more referral pathways.”

With independent prescribing qualifications to become the norm, “we want to be able to make the most of that – it’s a really exciting future if we can grasp it”.

“We need a government who recognises the value of both community pharmacy and the wider pharmacist workforce – they’re not all going to be based in community.”

General election

At some time between now and January (“we’re probably looking at the autumn,” says Ward), the UK will have a general election which, according to the polls, could deliver an even more comprehensive Labour win than Tony Blair achieved.

“The country is ready for it; people want change,” Ward says. “The Conservatives have got to the point where they’re no longer governing; they’re too focused on their own internal party challenges and problems and balancing their different wings. There isn’t the attention on what people need, and the biggest thing facing people continues to be the cost of living – costs have gone up and wages haven’t kept to that level.”

Does Ward see greater determination in the prospective Labour team? Yes, she answers unequivocally, but adds: “There is no doubt that it’s going to be tough if we get a Labour government, because the financial situation is pretty dire. A Labour administration isn’t going to be able to work miracles overnight. They’ll have to grow the economy again to start putting extra investment in public services. That means encouraging businesses to feel they can invest again.

“Some of the decisions this government has made – for example, cancelling HS2 – have hit the confidence of businesses. They no longer have certainty that they can trust what the Government says in terms of long-term investment.”

I put it to Ward that pharmacy contractors, anxious for a fairer settlement, may not feel too heartened when they hear echoes of the Tories’ ‘magic money tree’ line in comments from Labour politicians. “But I think it’s also about working differently,” she counters. “The shadow secretary of state for health [Wes Streeting] has shown how invested he is in community pharmacy, and pharmacy more generally. He’s done lots of visits and speeches about the sector.

“There are opportunities to support the workforce and bring those skills out to the community and work better. We are keen to see more technology being used, more opportunities for research in pharmacy and innovation in the pharmaceutical sector. We’ve got to have that support for the science sectors to keep on creating new medicines.”

Streeting has also talked about allocating money away from hospitals and towards primary care to further the disease prevention agenda. With her NHS trust hat on, can Ward see resistance from hospitals? “Not at all. There will always be a need for hospital, but I would rather people were seen in the right place at the right time and prevent them having more serious illnesses and needing more serious treatment,” she says.

“We also need to recognise the health inequalities within our communities and I believe a Labour government will focus much more on that than we’ve seen in the past.”

Early start

Claire Ward had an early start in politics. Growing up in Hertfordshire with two Labour Party councillors for parents, she describes the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a pivotal event in forming her consciousness: “What I saw during that time was that the decisions politicians make have an impact on communities and families. Often, people don’t join the dots and recognise that those decisions are made because of a political ideology, and that therefore if you want to shape what happens, you’ve got to be involved in politics.”

Barely an adolescent at the time of the strike, Ward says that while she may not have fully understood the industrial politics around it, “I could see that these were families making a stand for their jobs and communities – people with children my age whose world had begun to fall apart”. The Wards were involved in support groups and ran collections for miners’ families.

“It’s an incredible privilege to be elected to serve people at whatever level – whether it be a councillor or a member of parliament,” she says. She stands by what she sees as the positive impact the New Labour government had on people’s lives, and singles out improved school performance and smaller class sizes in her home constituency as one of the achievements she is proudest of.

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