Rex Box Politics Podcast
Dyslexia, digital and Ronnie Wood's pick-me-up: in conversation with Matt Hancock
MATT: So Matt, we’ll come on to your day job later, but normally when I do these things - we've done them at previous party conferences; good to talk to the politician, but the person and their background - I wanted to speak to you particularly, because everyone says they want a backstory, and yours from the Tory Party is extraordinary. You were privately educated, and then you went and did a PPE at Oxford, which will come in hugely useful when the inevitable leadership bid is launched; but just talk to us a bit about-
MATTHEW: Well, I began in an NHS hospital like everybody else. I grew up in a family that was dominated by the small business that we ran. My stepdad wrote the code - it was an early computer software business - my stepdad wrote the code and my mom ran the business, so you can see who wore the trousers in our family. They built that business; it underpinned, I suppose, the values that I've got and why I've ended up as a Conservative, because they worked extremely hard. They believed in aspiration and the ability to reach your goals.
MATTHEW: Yeah, the 3½ and the 5¼ floppy disks; in fact, there used to be an eight-inch one even older than that. We had this guy who came and worked for - it was the first person that Mum and Bob employed - he did a year for us, and I remember he wrote a game for us kids on the computer. Then he left us, it was really annoying; he left after a year to join this obscure startup in Seattle called Microsoft. We couldn’t understand what he was doing; he said “They're hardly paying me anything, they're gonna give me shares”, and we thought “You’re nuts.” I think he was their employee number 25. So anyway, I got the tech bug and that's where I learned the value of enterprise.
MATTHEW: Well, yes; and there was one particular moment that really got me interested and led to the path of getting into politics eventually. I grew up, I was interested in the technology; I was also interested in the business. I was interested in how the business works; how do you make it successful? Then in the early 90s recession when I was a teenager, there was a big client of ours that owed us money and was late in paying its bills - still a big issue today with small businesses - and we got to the point where if the check didn't arrive by the end of the week, then the business was going to go bust. We employed, I don't know, 20/25 people; and they would have all lost their jobs, and the house was on the line, and my mom and my stepdad obviously didn’t…You know, they'd put their all into this, and it was through no fault of their own. I felt this real sense of injustice; it was a nervous time, we nearly lost everything. Thankfully the check did arrive with the two or three days to go, and the business was saved; and then somebody very helpfully invented the internet, and it took off. After that things were more comfortable, but it changed me, because until then I was focused on how you do business, how you how you build a business; and that made me ask the question, “Well, how does the whole system work? How can a perfectly reasonable, successful business almost go under because of something completely outside their control?” That led me to be interested in economics and study it; then PPE kind of brought in the politics side, and then I went and worked at the Bank of England. Whilst at the Bank of England I realised that actually, all the big economic decisions are made in Westminster; so that's how I ended up here.
MATTHEW: Do you know, if I had my time again I would have gone to more lectures, because they were fascinating; I don't think I appreciated it as much at the time. It's such an extraordinary place, and I was more interested-I was very social, I ran the ball. I was their social secretary of the college; when I was Culture Secretary earlier this year, there was a moment when suddenly I thought “I’ve gone from being the Social Secretary of Exeter College to the Social Secretary of the country.” I was more interested in college life, social and quite sporty; I didn't do any politics. I had a great time.
MATT: There's an interview which is coming out this week that you've done with GQ, where you've talked - I think for the first time - about the fact that you're dyslexic. I was just interested in why you thought you wanted to talk about that, and why you’d not talked about it before, the impact that it’s had. What impact has it had on you?
MATTHEW: It's funny, I feel quite nervous about it; I haven't talked about it before. In politics, I didn't talk about it because it feels like - it felt like - weakness, to about having a problem like that, which millions of people have. I thought that the weakness of it sort of put me off; people might look down on me because of it, but actually the truth is it's given me some real strengths. I can't read as quickly as some other people can, but I can remember details and numbers and language; I wonder whether that's partly because of it. I took some inspiration from Ed Balls when he talked about having a stammer; I saw what he did, and then I saw how people reacted to the fact that he talked about it. Other people came forward, and then someone else who's dyslexic - and who I didn't know for ages was also dyslexic - we had this kind of moment; we talked about the workarounds that you have, and the different ways that you have of looking at things. He really encouraged me to say something in public, and to say the message to anybody who is dyslexic, is that you can achieve; you can achieve whatever you want to. Whilst it may make it harder to do some things, it makes you better in other ways; the research shows that people who are dyslexic make lateral connections more often, and actually in politics it's those sort of human and lateral connections that are often the more valuable ones. We've got a brilliant civil service who are brilliant at straight line thinking, and part of our job is to make the connections. So here I am, but God, I feel uncomfortable talking about it; but it's great to be able to say things in public.
MATT: I know when you’re reporting on politics, there's just so much written material, reports, you've got speeches and red boxes - not my Red Box, you've got your red box - How do you deal with all that? I mean, other people who aren't dyslexic complain about just being swamped by that amount of reading information.
MATTHEW: So clarity matters. Actually the best advice, when it comes inside the government; the best writing uses fewer words rather than more. I live by this adage of Mark Twain’s, “I didn't have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one instead.” I'm quite clear with the civil service teams inside the government that they need to write with clarity, and as much brevity as is possible. Those long, long paragraphs of dense words, especially people using long words where a short word will do; why do it, you know? So I'm well supported; I've been well supported in the six departments I've been in by civil servants who are up for that. There's more that they can do, there's no doubt about that; and then actually outside of the formal government processes, really good journalism is brief too. Really good journalism has clarity, and I find that helps me.
MATT: They were so successful they weren’t needed anymore, all the problems were solved. Let's rewind a bit; so you were at the Bank of England when you were snapped up by George Osborne in the (UNCLEAR) position, to be his chief of staff?
MATT: And then you have this sort of extraordinary leadership with George Osborne, where for a long time you were pretty shackled to him; people said that you were incredibly close to him and loyal, maybe a mini-George or whatever actually, over time. Was that a hindrance for a while, do you think? Particularly when you then became an MP and then became a minister, it was always reported as being "Oh, that was a Osborne request”.
MATTHEW: Oh, I see; it doesn't matter now. The truth is that I've worked very closely with George on the economic arguments, that were the big arguments of the decade between the crash and Brexit. That was the big argument at the time for a decade;he and I thought very, very similarly, and instinctively would have the same response. There was very little effort to be in exactly the same place, I'd know how he'd respond to something. Funnily enough, I disagree with him on Brexit; and that's the big issue of the period that we're living through.
MATTHEW: I voted Remain, but I fully accept the result and I want to get a good deal; I'm (UNCLEAR) four/full square behind Theresa May, and that isn't entirely true of George. Facing those economic challenges that we faced in that first Parliament in coalition, we did, as a government, some extraordinary things, and turned around this economy - the record numbers of jobs I'm incredibly proud of, and the national living wage at the same time. The biggest pay rise for the lowest porter, those paid in the lowest quarter in the economy; the biggest pay rise ever for the people earning in the bottom quarter. It's worth saying it again, it's creating record jobs- (APPLAUSE) Thank you very much, sometimes we don’t. Because the economy is going well, and there's this politically more contentious issue of Brexit, we don't talk enough about the fact that we turned that around, (UNCLEAR) and I think (UNCLEAR) you did a remarkable job at that.
MATT: In the early days when you were more Junior Minister, you probably in Westminster had a reputation for being very confident. Do you think that was a fair perception? Actually now that you've spoken about your dyslexia, do you think you were overcompensating?
MATTHEW: Maybe I was, I don’t know. I don’t feel more self-confident than other people but, people do say this to me. You look at the challenges coming down the track, and you do your best and that's all you can do. Somebody told me something very, very early on when I was in politics - I think probably before I was an MP - which is that if you go into politics to achieve a specific thing and you won't be happy until you've achieved it, that is an honourable course; but it can be a very frustrating course. If you go into politics to make life better for your fellow citizens and to serve your country, then instead of all the frustrations, what you see from the platform that you're given in politics as a backbench MP - as a minister in the cabinet - that is a massive opportunity, and I very much put myself in that second category. So I see the fact that I have been asked by the Prime Minister to be the Health Secretary as a huge opportunity, to do what I can to improve the health of the nation. You do what you can; you can't do more than you can. You do your best and you throw yourself at it; I'd say more optimistic than self-confident. It sometimes comes out that way, I can see that, but it hasn't always been the case; my dyslexia sometimes got in the way of this. In the 2001 election I went and helped out in the Guildford seat, and the sitting Tory MP - really nice guy called Nick St Aubyn - he wrote the copy [of] his election address, and he asked me to mock it up into a leaflet. I pulled out this sentence which I thought characterised what he really stood for, and put it in as a subheading. It said “I want to UNITE the community”; I thought “Great”, pulled it out, uncontroversial. It was only after I'd sent it to the printers, and only after they'd sent it to the Royal Mail; and only after it had landed on 50,000 letterboxes in Guildford; but I spotted that I'd written “I want to UNTIE the community.” Poor Nick lost his seat by 800 votes. He's forgiven me - as Jeremy Corbyn might say, I consider him a good friend - and about two weeks after that election, I bumped into Owen Patterson, who I knew because I’m Cheshire and he's next door. He said “Matt, your political career is over before it's even begun.”
MATT: Owen bang on once again. One thing, I think, that changed - certainly in the Westminster bubble - that changed the view of you was when Theresa May became Prime Minister. There were lots of people who had been in the cabinet; she offered them other jobs that were not in the cabinet, and they either decided to go and pursue other things or flounced off depending on what (UNCLEAR) you want to use; but you didn’t. You went from being Cabinet Office Minister, and you took essentially a demotion to be in the digital minister in DMS; and sort of totally threw yourself into it, in a way that I don't think that quite a lot of the lobby even knew there was a Digital Minister until you’d-
MATTHEW: I’ve got a great Brits story as well. I nearly gave it in my speech, I decided it was too risqué. I went to the Brits this year; I was late because of a vote in Parliament, and I turned up and I was sat next to Ronnie Wood. I turn to Ronnie Wood - this is a true story - and I said “I’m absolutely starving, I've missed the main course”. He reached down into a bag next to his feet - I said I could do with a pick-me-up - he brought out a wrapped-up tin foil like this and handed it to me. I thought “Oh my God, this could be a career ending moment”; I unwrapped it, and it was a Babybel. That's the rock'n'roll you get in DCFS.
MATTHEW: I have this attitude which is, if the Prime Minister called you into Downing Street and asks you to do a job as a minister, that is a huge privilege.; It's absolutely extraordinary, the things that you can do from that position, and it's true that I was asked to go and see the Prime Minister in the House of Commons; which if you don't know, during a reshuffle is very bad news. They let people go in the Commons, because then it's all behind closed doors; and then they do the hirings and the promotions in Downing St, because then you get to walk up Downing St and have your photo taken. So I went in, and the Prime Minister…It had been briefed to the journalists that people would be fired until 11 o'clock and then she'd start hiring people, and I was asked to go at ten to 11. I walked in and I sat opposite the Prime Minister in her Commons office, and I looked up at the clock above her head and it said five past eleven. I said, “Oh, it’s five past eleven; this must be good news”, and she said, “Well, it depends how you react. I'd like you to be the Digital Minister.” I'm from a tech background, and I enjoy being a minister; it's something I think I could make a contribution to, so it was all done and dusted in about two minutes. I accepted and I loved it; it’s absolutely fantastic. There’s so many really interesting questions in the world now that really need answers, and it's the sort of area that Britain can provide a global lead as well. Our ability to be embracing of the future, yet also making sure it's done in a sensible, moderate and reasonable way; especially around the future of the internet. You know, to be in a position where people can take you seriously when you give a speech entitled “The Future Of The Internet” - for somebody especially from a tech background, and from a business background - so suddenly the tech sector that I literally grew up in yeah was the sector I was responsible for looking after. It was brilliant; I had a great 18 months in DCMS.
MATT: And one of the hallmarks of your time now since you've been Health Secretary is how much technology seems to be informing your approach, and the way you talk about it; whether it's a GP app that people can use instead of going to see their GP, or on that the flip side, guidance. You were talking at the weekend about guidance, proper Public Health guidance on how much you should be using social media and that sort of thing. Do you feel in a way that the Digital Minister jobs slightly makes it seem like you've got digital, and you've got phishing, and you've got small business; actually, digital is across everything?
MATTHEW: It is; and before I was doing the Digital Minister job, I was in the Cabinet Office doing the Digital Transformation of government, so I've really spent three years of ministerial life driving the digital agenda. My first job was solving the Y2K bug in COBOL - not the whole thing, just one bit of it - and there's a big advantage to the fact that the people who are put into the ministerial jobs are also local MPs, so they understand the effects of all policy areas on their area. So you're a generalist in covering everything, you know things; but I also feel the tension that you go into a department, if it isn't your background, people are right to ask, “Well, what value are you going to add?” In health I'm absolutely determined to improve how good it is to work in the NHS and in social care, and the workforce side. And of course, I’m grasping the policy areas - like getting more money into prevention and social care reform - that I just spoke about on the on the stage, but I hope I can add some value with my experience of the technological revolution. I also understand why for a long time, nobody in a leadership position - either politically or within the NHS itself - has driven the tech agenda, because Hospital IT is something that has led to a few people losing their jobs, and to Andy Burnham losing ten billion pounds. It's been a disaster in the past.
MATTHEW: Actually, there's a funny story about that, which is that fact comes from a Labour Party FOI. They FOI’d every hospital in the country to find out how many fax machines; they did this when Jeremy Hunt was the Secretary of State. They released it by total coincidence into the weekend when I was appointed on the Monday, and I've used it as a motivating argument; so I just want to say thank you to John Ashworth and his research doing all those FOIs, and contributing to my party conference speech. The truth is there's a huge way to go; we've learned how to do it in other parts of government, not by top-down imposition of a single solution but also not by just letting individual organisations get on with it. Rather, we set standards of interoperability, of cybersecurity and of privacy; then you can buy whatever you like, so long as it meets those standards. It's a working method that's been proven to work, and I've led projects with this method where it's worked; I've also led ones where it hasn't worked, so I've seen the sort of ugly consequences when you get it wrong. I'm absolutely sure that this can revolutionise tech in the NHS.
MATT: Let's talk about a couple of things in your intro; explain how you see the idea of, instead of going to the GP surgery, using an app. How does that work; what's your long term, if you could pan out - I don't even know, is it five years, ten years, twenty years?
MATTHEW: Oh no, it's much, much sooner than that; and it's starting to happen already. My GP is on an app, and I did that when I was in the DCMS because my GP retired - GP retirements is another issue that I’m having to deal with - but it’s convenient for me, it works for me. You use the app, and you can either interact with the AI, the machine, and it can tell you lots of things, like “I’ve got this symptom, what should I do?” Then you can escalate and have what's essentially a Skype conversation with the GP, and if you need to see a GP physically you can go and see one. The absolute core point is that we should be using technology to make life easier for people, for patients; and also to reduce the burdens and the pressures on the professionals, so that they can spend more time with people who need it who don't want to use the technology. The care always has to be available face-to-face, human to human; you can't and shouldn't get away from that, but you can provide better services in a way that people interact with - in the same way that I haven't been into a bank building for years and years - and it's hugely more convenient for me to do that on my phone.
MATTHEW: No, on the contrary; I think we need more GPs as well as more technology, and the reason is that we need to spend more effort, resources, time on prevention in the community, rather than people going to hospitals. That's the only way to make The NHS sustainable in the long term.
MATT: And what about the use of data, which you've also talked about; there’s a huge amount of data about where you can sort of map lifestyles and health outcomes in different areas. Can you end up using that to predict, and then target treatments in different areas? How far do you think you can go?
MATTHEW: If you were to end up in the A&E here in Birmingham, at the moment it isn't always the case that they will be able to find out from your record, even if they know your name; whether, for instance, you have a penicillin allergy. That could be a life-or-death piece of information that they might need. So first of all, data is all about improving care; second, use of data can improve research and we can get better cures - I talked about that with expanding the Genomics project in my speech today - really exciting cutting-edge cures, and for the first time it's a new technology that could reduce costs in the NHS. Traditionally new drugs have come on, they've been more expensive; technology's been a driver of cost, actually. These sorts of technologies can reduce cost in the NHS, that's good; and then thirdly, one of the areas I'm really excited about that Public Health England is doing a lot of work on is what I call predictive prevention. I hope you like that new alliterative name that we came up with! This is about saying that so far through history, public health has essentially dealt with populations as a whole. The anti-smoking campaign on TVs targeted everybody, but using data - both medical data, appropriately safeguarded of course for privacy reasons, and using other demographic data - you can work out that somebody might have a higher propensity to smoke. Then you can target interventions much more closely to try to improve the health of the nation, so I think that that predictive prevention in public health is exciting; but it's really in the foothills.
MATT: Is that sort of targeted; like political parties or news organisations can target people on Facebook with messages, and you could do that with public health? Or is it identifying, “We think you” - you might get a letter in the post, or an email or whatever saying “We think you are at risk of…”
MATTHEW: Yeah, that's not really what Public Health England are into, but there's opportunity there. It's all got to be done very carefully; this whole (UNCLEAR) data piece has all got to be very careful. Ultimately, it's got to be based on people's consent; it's got to be based on high quality and standards of privacy. Fortunately, I spent two years of my life putting the Data Protection Act into force through Parliament; I apologise for all those emails you might got last May-
MATTHEW: Well, there's a lot of work on cancer in the long-term plan that we're writing with the NHS. We've proposed a budget of £20 billion extra a year over the next five years, and there'll be a plan that comes alongside that; tackling cancer is an important part of that plan. What we're proposing to do is try to get earlier diagnosis of cancer - where you can actually use the sort of technology we were talking about - because Britain is pretty good at treating cancer once it’s spotted, but we have still have higher deaths than our peers than similar countries on the continent from cancer because we don't spot it early enough, so there’ll be a lot of effort on that.
MATT: There were lots of demands already on the NHS, which that money is… there are some people that say, even though it's a phenomenal amount of money, “It's still not enough”, there’s growing demand and all that.
MATT: Then there is the huge issue with Social Care, and the concerns about funding for public health and that sort of thing as well. Realistically, you can't go back to Philip Hammond and say, “Well we've spent all of that on managing demand in the NHS, we need another load of money for social care”; or can you?
MATTHEW: I want to spend as much of that money as possible on prevention rather than cure. I think that you can only really get a big switch out of the secondary and acute sector into prevention when the budget is going up, so this is an opportunity. Now, I'm acutely aware that last time there was a big increase in the NHS budget in the mid-2000s, a lot of that was frittered away; the general consensus was that that didn't get the improvements that we needed to see, so I'm very aware of that. Now, there will be more support needed to stabilise the hospital sector, but ultimately I want to get as much as possible into prevention. That's GPs, pharmacies, out into the community services and mental health services.
MATT: One of the big stories which seems to be constantly bubbling just below the surface at the moment is the crisis in local government, particularly shire councils; but local government has taken a huge hit financially. Ultimately, they are the front line of social care; and then if people end up in hospital, then your department ends up (UNCLEAR ‘paying up’. How concerned are you about the stability of local government?
MATTHEW: Well, I can see the pressures; and in fact, today's announcement of an extra 240 million to help with social care - to get people out of hospital when they don't need to be in hospital medically - that's a response to these pressures. So I understand it; it's an ongoing conversation with the Treasury.
MATT: Oh, that's ages in politics these days. I don't want to dwell on it too much, but just on Brexit; how confident are you of - if we sat down like this at Christmas - a deal will have been done and Parliament will have voted for it?
MATT: Perfect, that’s…bang on message. And finally; given you, like me - my birthday is always during the Labour Party conference, so you have to basically spend your birthdays always with essentially people from work - what you're gonna do-
MATT: Well, we all hope that it goes better tomorrow. It's been an absolute pleasure, thank you Matt. As this is a Times Red Box event, I obviously have to plug The Times and Red Box. You can go to https://www.thetimes.co.uk/subscribe/redbox/; you can have me sort of taking an amusing look at politics every morning in your inbox, and you can get all the access to The Times and the Sunday Times online as well. It's been an absolute pleasure; please thank Matt Hancock.
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