In the weeks leading up to the General Election on June 8th, your Executive Officers are sitting down with the candidates for Member of Parliament in Cambridge and Chelmsford.
Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat Party candidate for Cambridge, talks to Grace Anderson about his plans for the future.
GA: The first thing I wanted to ask about was your political stance regarding resourcing the NHS.
JH: So I think – I’m really proud of the NHS, it’s a fantastic thing – but it has huge numbers of problems. Money is one of them, pay for staff, the organisational problems are huge. Actually, since I lost two years ago, I have been working about a day a week inside the NHS; on the body that actually commissions healthcare locally. So I’ve seen the realities of what’s going on inside the NHS when you peel it all back. There’s a huge amount that needs to be done.
"I’ve seen the realities of what’s going on inside the NHS"
In terms of money, we have to put more money into health and social care. We’ve said that we would put one penny onto income tax, so it’s properly fostered, and one penny on income tax raises six billion quid. Four billion of that would go into the NHS – and that’s the sort of money that you need – two billion would go into social care. If you invest in social care it’s better for people, but also it means you can save money within the NHS because you don’t have people stuck in a hospital bed when they would rather be at home getting care, it’s cheaper for them to be home getting care – let’s try and do that.
So six billion quid would be good and we’ve earmarked a billion of that for mental health. Mental health is something that has been neglected for decades; it still has far too much stigma around it, we don’t have very good treatment available, not much support, there’s not enough research actually to find out about what’s going on. And we can’t go on with mental health being ignored like that.
Six billion quid is the cash answer, and it’s fully costed. So it’s not a sort of hand wavey thing, it’s one penny on income tax which means that the top 10% pay about half of it – it’s the richest who pay and it gets you that. So if you care about the NHS, you pay a bit of money – we’ll be honest with you about that – and you get a better NHS.
I think there’s a lot more to do about getting rid of the internal market system. So there’s a system where bits of the NHS hire other bits of the NHS or private companies to do health care and I think it’s really inefficient having seen it close up. We would allow places to end it and get rid of this split because you end up with people inside the NHS negotiating with a bunch of other people inside the NHS about who’s going to pay for something.
That would also mean much less privatisation, which would be a fantastic thing. Labour massively increased privatisation and we have to stop that. We also have to stop all these ridiculous PFI contracts – the hospital in Peterborough, not too far from here and one of your campuses, the total repayment costs will be about two billion pounds, just under. Now that’s money that could be used for the rest of the NHS.
So there’s a lot of things there – also treating nurses and doctors better. So reintroducing the student nursing bursary, which is so important, I know ARU has some fantastic nurse training facilities, which I’ve been to see. Paying them better, ending this pay restraint because Labour’s never going to pay, and not doing something daft like driving away all of the non-British nurses to leave the country. Because you need good staff if you want to provide a better service.
"I know ARU has some fantastic nurse training facilities"
That’s a lot about the NHS, I’m also passionate about prevention. It’s often much cheaper to treat things early to stop them from being a problem then to wait until they’ve happened.
GA: And better for people as well.
Much better for people, yes, I would much rather help someone to not need dialysis than pay for the dialysis. I’d much rather help people in early stages of mental health conditions than to wait until it becomes really serious. Because it’s much better for them, it’s much cheaper, it’s a good outcome all around. The NHS doesn’t do anything big enough on early stage prevention.
The short answer is six billion quid extra, but there’s a lot more under that, because I’ve actually worked inside the NHS and know how to do something.
GA: We have a policy on standing against cuts to NHS services, particularly in terms of the bursary but also about the treatment of staff and some of the bigger issues in the media that the National Union of Students (NUS) have been campaigning on.
JH: Yes, absolutely, you have to pay people properly. We need to transform the NHS because it could be much better than it is. And that requires all the people that work in the NHS to feel valued. Because – and when I was the MP I argued against the restraint then - if you want people to be committed to improving things, why piss them off?
GA: Pretty much! My next question is – actually you’ve kind of answered it, but what is your vision for improving mental health support in Cambridge?
So mental health has just been neglected for decades. It’s always been ignored, because of misunderstandings about it. You know this idea of “Oh you’re depressed, just try and cheer up”. Now you would never say to someone with a broken arm, “Just try and hold the bone together again”! “Just cheer up” is ridiculous. There’s a whole cascade of this, so part of it starts with public mental health. So although we do public health, we advise people of risks of smoking and all sorts of other things, but there’s very little public mental health. There’s a lot of projects around looking at how we help children in schools to learn about how to be resilient to what will happen. We know one in four people have a mental health issue every year, one in four will have a serious condition during their life time. But you can help with some of the coping mechanisms at an early stage – so don’t wait -- help people much, much earlier. I think that’s a really key thing, so it’s just fewer people facing this without the tools for how to cope when things do happen, as they will do.
"So mental health has just been neglected for decades"
So I think that’s part of it. I also want to see mental health first aid becoming absolutely standard for organisations, the same way you have first aid at work as the legal requirement, there should be people who are trained to recognise mental health issues at an early stage but not a psychiatrist. I want to see that absolutely stand in every organisation. Then you go on to the actual services, we’ve made some improvements, so during my time working on the clinical commissioning group we massively reduced the waiting list on adolescent mental health services, massively reduced. It’s still too long, but we’ve got it down to less than a third of what it had been. We’ve introduced a few things like 111 option 2, which I hope people know about?
GA: I haven’t heard of it actually.
JH: So 111 is the non-emergency number, so if you have a – you know, I have this thing wrong with me can I get some help? There’s now an option where you can press 1 if you have a problem with physical health and option 2 if you need mental health support. So you can talk to somebody trained in mental health, rather than someone who could help with a broken arm who doesn’t really know about anorexia or whatever else it might be. So 111 option 2 is great. There’s also a new Sanctuary service in Cambridgeshire as well, for whom it’s appropriate it’s a place where you can go to and just get away and be; have some tea, talk to someone if they want and not talk if they don’t want to.
Those are part of that early phase of services. I think we need to change – there’s a big problem with eating disorders, it’s actually one of the most fatal mental health conditions that particularly younger people get. And again it’s too often treated as a physical health thing. I remember somebody coming to see me who was anorexic, and she realised she had a problem so she went to see her GP. They said “Look, the thing is you’re not actually light enough for us to put you onto the emergency weight gain programme. But at the rate you’re losing weight, you will be in about three weeks. So if you can come back then – and then we will start to fatten you back up again”. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, so we have to get in and really provide the support there. The right sort of support will be different for different people, so some of it will be intensive, some of it will be CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), doing a lot more of that. But it’s about providing the right thing in a non-judgemental, supportive way without very long time delays. That will stop things from getting to a much more serous level. You absolutely have to resort to the more intensive, residential programmes for some more serious mental health problems, but actually that’s not my priority. You do it, but you try as hard as you can to intervene earlier. To help people earlier.
"But it’s about providing the right thing in a non-judgemental, supportive way without very long time delays."
The other thing I’d say is that we need a lot more research on mental health. There’s a tiny fraction of money that is spent on trying to understand what’s happening with mental health and what actually works. To make people’s mental health better. I often feel with mental health, it’s a bit like where we were 100 years ago with physical health. So we’re still bleeding people to relieve the pressure, we’re still using leaches. I mean it’s not quite those things, but a lot of it isn’t based on “Ah we understand what is causing this so we know what will fix this”, we’re just sort of – “We don’t really know what’s going on so here’s a drug that seems to work but has all these nasty side effects”. We need things that are much better than that. I’ve been really passionate about all of mental health, but also trying to move from focusing on mental ill health to mental health. How do we make everybody’s mental health better so that issues of mental ill health are far less common?
GA: That’s really interesting. My next question is around how you would ensure that student housing is affordable and of good quality in Cambridge?
I mean, this is one of the huge problems – when you talk to students and look at the problems they most describe, they’re either mental health problems, stress and all sorts of other things, or it’s to do with the cost of being a student. And this is very hard, particularly hard in places like Cambridge which are so expensive by national standard. And yet people don’t often get the extra money that you get for being in London. So it’s a big problem. I think part of it is about making sure that where there is student accommodation provided by a college, by ARU or by another organisation, it’s designed well, managed well, and there’s some good examples of that. Some of the ARU housing seems, to me at least, to be very positively received.
When you go out into the wider private rented sector, it’s a lot harder to control. There’s a lot of things which I think we need to do, and when I was MP I tabled a Private Members Bill to tackle the housing market and to try and make a lot of changes to fix this. Some of the things I argued for – the bill didn’t pass sadly – have now happened but there’s still a lot more to do. For example, one of the things I wanted to do it ban these extortionate letting fees. The idea that you charge hundreds of pounds for somebody to change a name on a form – that is actually extortionate, and it should not be legal. I could live with them charging a pound for a photocopy, but the sort of prices that they charge are just extortionate and should not be allowed.
"One of the things I wanted to do it ban these extortionate letting fees."
One thing I pushed for and got, is that there’s now an ombudsman process where if your landlord is one of the dodgy ones there is a process where someone can rule on whether you’ve been treated fairly or not. It’s there in the private rented sector, everyone is supposed to stick to it, the problem is dodgy landlords are less likely to tell you that you have a way of complaining whereas the really good landlords will tell you – but they’re not the ones you have to complain about. I think there needs to be a lot more onus on landlords for basic standards. Like really good safety checks, you know. I think there needs to be much more frequent electricity and safety checks for example, there are some awful places where it’s just not good enough. Much more prompt action and better tools for landlords who rent things out where something is mouldy or dodgy or in any way like that. There needs to be much stronger sanctions against landlords who do that. It should be fixed immediately and if not, there is a strong series of sanctions against it.
And I think the planners need to be quite robust about not allowing some of the tiny places that are now appearing. That really are far too small for people to live in and the planners need to not allow that to happen. I think that would make quite a big difference, I think the simplest one is those letting agents. There’s a number of things that I want to do which are less relevant to students about longer secure tenancies, which are for people who are trying to rent and have a family where being kicked out is really complicated. That’s less so if you’re a student looking for something for a year. But I think we can get the standards up. There are landlords and agencies who do a good job, and there are some who are charlatans. We need to be able to tackle them and stop them from renting these places out.
One thing we did manage to do when I was in government was a private members bill from a friend which we did manage to get passed. It was to make it illegal to have revenge evictions. So this is where what would happen is when a tenant would say, “This place isn’t safe I’m making a complaint about it”, the landlord would say “In that case, I’m kicking you out. I’ll evict you”. Or they would threaten that if you make any complaints about safety they’d evict you. And that is now illegal which is really good.
GA: That is really good, I wonder if many people do know about that.
JH: Well hopefully anybody to whom it happens would ask advice, either from Student Services here or CAB (Citizen’s Advice Bureau) and they will know. It’s one of these things where what you’d like is for nobody to ever be caught up in that, rather than find a way to help afterwards. There are a more protections, but we need to go a lot further to respect how people live. And actually one of those things is getting prices down and more properties on the market. So in particular it really upsets me when you see empty properties – that’s just unacceptable.
GA: This next question is kind of similar, it’s about affordability of transport. We have a lot of problems where students at ARU can’t bring cars into the city centre. What thoughts do you have on making public transport more accessible and affordable for students?
JH: There is no capacity in Cambridge for more cars. Anyone who has tried driving in Cambridge will know why we can’t lift that ban. But yes, we have to sort out the transport system. That actually means encouraging people to walk and cycle, that’s the cheapest way to get around. It’s really good for your health, it’s a lot of fun, it’s a lovely area. So making walking and cycling better is something I’ve championed for many, many years. I actually secured a national legal requirement for a cycling investment strategy, bringing a lot more money to Cambridge to improve cycling. So that’s the first one, I hope people make use of that.
Obviously that won’t apply to everybody. Buses are ludicrously expensive in Cambridge; I’ve said it before that Stagecoach essentially run a monopoly. They have complete control, and they run a service for profit not for passengers. They’re quite clear about that, they aim to make as much money as possible, not to require a good service. And so buses have become ridiculously expensive here. And we don’t get a good service, we don’t get a service in the evenings, we don’t get a good enough service at weekends because they aren’t making money out of it. That’s not the point.
"Buses are ludicrously expensive in Cambridge; I’ve said it before that Stagecoach essentially run a monopoly."
There’s some new legislation which was initiated by one of my colleagues when we were in government and has now come through cross party support to try to allow somewhere like Cambridge to regulate the bus service a lot better. I think that would help, to say, “No look, we need a better service at these times, this is when people need to use it, not just when you make money."
Getting the prices down, one thing we’ve said nationally is having discount bus travel for young people. That won’t apply to everyone everywhere, let’s say up to 21, but that would really help at a time where people have less money, we want people to choose to take a bus rather than take a train. So I think a significant discount would be really helpful – I think it’s a third off, or a half off, I can’t remember off hand. I think that would help to get people to use that and make the most of it.
For some people train will be better. There’s actually now a Cambridge North station – it’s fantastic, it’s actually cheaper to take a train from Cambridge to Cambridge North than to take a bus between them. But that station is phenomenal, I’ve spent fifteen years campaigning for it, it’s my idea that goes back thirty years ago. I did a huge amount of work in fifteen years to make sure it actually happened. It’s really nice to see. But we need to get more of that – we need a new station at Adenbrookes which will help people trying to work in the hospital area and at all of our medical facilities there. Better East/West railing, but also to get the rail fares down as well. That’s a package.
I also think there’s some more creative things for Cambridge about possibilities of an underground, bullet buses, there’s very interesting ideas around it. I don’t know yet which of them add up but I’d really like to see it. Because Cambridge should be a city where there’s really safe, easy walking and cycling, easy buses and other public transport – do you really want to use your car? And the best way is not to hit people who need to use their car, there are people for whom that’s the only realistic option, but to make everything else so easy that you just wouldn’t choose to.
GA: What would you do to support international students currently studying in the UK?
I think we should be very proud of the fact we have people coming from overseas here, whether they’re students or not. I’m an internationalist, I’m proud of the fact that we have people coming here. We are better of financially, socially, culturally, economically – our food is better, because we have people coming here! So firstly I think celebrating that. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the last few years, led by UKIP, is some Tories and Labour becoming much more “anti-foreigner”. Much more anti-immigrant, saying, “We will control this, it’s a bad thing we have to deal with. It’s not a good thing we should be proud of”. International students are a particular case there; they’re actually one of our country’s best exports. We do phenomenally well out of international students coming here. But there seems to be national policy treating them really badly. And I think that’s short sighted, really really short sighted. We should welcome them.
Some of the problems we see are post Brexit referendum. A lot more hate crime, a lot more threats on people being here – we just have to stamp that out, zero tolerance. Part of that is having to speak out in favour of foreigners being here, combat those who think that it’s okay to demonise other people.
I think we need to have a visa system which actually isn’t a pain – because it’s so ludicrously complicated, so many people fall foul of things for silly reasons. It should be easy; we want people to come here so we shouldn’t make it hard. I’d like to reintroduce post study work visas. So that people who have graduated can stay and look for a job and we will guarantee if they stay that they can stay for six months to look for a job and they’ll get a visa in that first job. I think that’d be a really good thing to do – we’ve said as a party we’d reintroduce that, starting off with STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) subjects but then the plan is to extend it to everything else. Because once we’ve got people who are well trained here, that we know are good and are used to the UK, why would we want to kick them out again? It just seems like a really, really silly thing to do. It’s a nasty way to treat people.
Those are the main things. I think one of the issues that often comes up is this immigration target, about whether international students should be counted. I don’t think international students should be counted against an immigration limit, but then I don’t think there should be an immigration limit anyway. I think it’s a stupid idea to say we want to try to reduce the number of people coming to the country for some arbitrary reason. If you want to pick some immigration target, the best way to do it would be to ruin our own economy. I have to say Theresa May is doing her best on that, but that’s a really short sighted and silly way of doing it. We have seen immigration come down just in the last quarter; we’ve also seen the economy get worse, the pound collapsing. That’s not an achievement we should be proud of. But we should be really proud of our international students, they contribute a huge amount.
GA: I don’t know if you’ve seen, but recently there’s been some research published by the NUS on the views of not just home students but also UK citizens on how they regard international students. Often they aren’t considered as migrants, they’re thought of as part of our communities.
JH: Absolutely, as they should be. Migrants should be considered as part of our communities as well.
GA: Yes, definitely.
JH: Because they are – friends, colleagues, neighbours, and all the rest of it. But even – there’s a group called Migration Watch, which is a very right wing anti-immigration organisation, and even they’ve said they don’t think students should count in net migration figures. Because it’s a very different issue. We should be proud of these people, they are friends, they’re studying here. I’ve enjoyed teaching international students, hopefully they’ve enjoyed being taught! But we have to let the message go out that we are welcoming and we will make it easy for people to come here, study, work here afterwards if they want to.
GA: My final question – it’s a bit of an open one – why do you think that you and the Liberal Democrats are the best option for students studying at ARU?
JH: I think there’s a lot of reasons, one is that I’m fairly rare as someone who knows Cambridge as a person that grew up here as well as studying and working here. I’ve been coming to ARU – I’ve no idea when I first came here for something, because I grew up in this area and I think that makes a difference. I also have a track record of actually making things better. When I was MP, I got more money for schools and colleges here – Cambridgeshire schools have been underfunded for decades, I got them 3.2 million. I’ve worked in the NHS but also as MP I’ve got more money for the NHS, I got money for hospitals to move here – I’ve actually done that. I actually got money for improved transport; I managed to change the system so that we could start building council houses in Cambridge for the first time in decades. I’ve actually done all of that. I led the fight against fracking, I led for us on same sex marriage, I co-sponsored the legislation that means we pay our fair share of international development tax. There’s a whole lot of things there that matter locally and nationally that I’m really proud of. If you want an MP who will actually do things for you and your values, I hope you’ll vote for me.
In terms of students specifically, perhaps I should leave the last words to the NUS. The NUS is not famous for being a pro Lib Dem organisation I think it’s fair to say, but they wrote a very nice piece about me back in 2015.
“Huppert’s record in Parliament makes him a great friend to the student movement. He was at the forefront of the campaign to protect the disabled students allowance and a great champion of postgraduate students’ campaign for a fairer and more accessible funding model. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank him for keeping his word on tuition fees and for supporting students once in Parliament.”
"NUS’s view is that I fought for students. I’d love to keep doing that."