March 14 brought some excellent news for health and social services in Wales, namely that Mark Drakeford, Assembly Member for Cardiff West and Professor of Social Policy in Cardiff School of Social Sciences, is the new Health Minister. This is very good news in a number of ways.
Bridging policy, practice…
Mark has first-hand experience of delivering community-based social interventions, having previously worked as a probation officer and then as manager of a community development project in Ely, Cardiff. He started his working life as a practitioner and has kept that front-line experience very much in mind in his time shaping policy over the last ten years, including spells as advisor to the Health Minister and as the most senior political advisor to the previous First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. At a time when some politicians seem increasingly divorced from ‘real life’, strengthening the links between policy and practice can only be a good thing.
And there is another branch to this bridge (tridge?) between policy and practice. As well as being a politician, Mark is a social science academic. He has researched topics including poverty and youth justice, is a former editor of the British Journal of Social Work, and has made an important contribution to the academic literature on social work and social policy. This combination of a strong knowledge base and an understanding of the vital role of social research bodes well for the progression of evidence-informed health policy.
Of course, evidence-based policy alone isn’t enough to tackle health inequalities; this needs be driven by progressive goals. Happily, this seems to be the case – Mark’s ideological commitment is to the enabling role of the state, and he believes in the public sector as a force for good. His aim for public services is ‘progressive universalism’ – universal services, but with additional provision for those most in need. His approach to health is very likely to prioritise tackling inequalities, and to emphasise health promotion and the prevention agenda. This has got to be good news for public health and social care practitioners. Mark is credited with the term ‘clear red water’ to describe the distinction between Welsh Labour and New Labour, and the separation of Wales from Westminster. The current discussion surrounding the potential development of a Public Health Bill for Wales has highlighted the public health opportunities posed by devolution, and the potential for Wales to make radical improvements to health and health inequalities. This new bridge between research, practice and policy represents a huge positive step.