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Frank Dobson: Labour politician who became “best UK health secretary since Aneurin Bevan”

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 05 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6792
  1. Matt Limb
  1. Croydon, UK
  1. limb{at}
Photo credit: Glenn Corpus/Shutterstock

Frank Dobson was the first Labour health secretary for nearly 20 years when Tony Blair appointed him after the landslide general election victory of 1997. He served two and a half years, enough time to be judged the best health secretary since Aneurin Bevan, according to BMJ polling of top medical figures in 2013.

Dobson, a hero to many in the Labour party, was an MP in London for 36 years and held many of the top shadow cabinet posts.

But he admitted he made his worst career blunder when he quit as minister to stand for Labour as London mayor in 2000 and came a crushing third (Ken Livingstone won as an independent). He never returned to government.

At least by then he had already put in place “fairly fundamental things that have stood the test of time and are the bedrock of the NHS now,” his former adviser Joe McCrea told PA news agency.


Dobson set up two institutions that became central to the way it functions: the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE, now the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), and the Commission for Health Improvement (which evolved into the Care Quality Commission as the enforcer of clinical quality). Mike Rawlins, who was made NICE’s first chairman, knew him as a “shrewd” operator and a prolific user of the “f” word. Unusually, Dobson interviewed all NICE’s non-executive director candidates himself. When one asked him if the new body was going to work, he replied, “Probably not, but we’re going to give it a fucking good try,” recalls Rawlins.

Yorkshire born Dobson, a cheery and often fiery socialist of the “sane left,” was …

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