Newsmaker: Ready for his finest hour

Asthma UK chief executive Neil Churchill is targeting local inequalities in the standard of services for asthma patients.

Neil Churchill
Neil Churchill

Although Neil Churchill has become chief executive of Asthma UK at a time when the organisation is approaching something of a crossroads, he's keen to emphasise that he has not been brought in to spearhead dramatic change.

"We are coming to the end of a five-year plan and have to develop a new one," he says. "But it is not about major change. It's more that we need to respond to the changing environment."

This is not to say that Churchill shies away from major change. As deputy chief executive of Crisis between 1998 and 2001, he was instrumental in changing the homelessness charity's emphasis from rough sleeping to an approach based more on learning and skills.

One area in which Churchill would like to see Asthma UK improve is its negotiations at the local level. "We have done really well at winning national policy debates," he says. "For example, we were heavily involved in campaigning for the smoking ban.

"But we need to do more on a local level. There are huge discrepancies according to where people live. As many as 77,000 people are hospitalised each year because of asthma, and three-quarters of those admissions are preventable. Similarly, 1,300 people die from asthma every year, and 90 per cent of those deaths are preventable. For asthma patients, there is a six-fold divide between the best and worst primary care trusts. It's 10-fold for children. We need to engage with all PCTs better."

Churchill also wants to see people with asthma receiving better information. "My own experience of asthma is that when you go to your GP, you get given a prescription but very little information about how to manage the condition. We need to decide whether to try to tackle some of these issues by running local services such as mobile asthma clinics."

Churchill says that his personal experience of asthma was central to his joining Asthma UK. He says: "I had the symptoms as a child but wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult. It made me wonder why it had taken so long and if this was common."

Like most health charities, Asthma UK tries to influence policy in ways that will improve the lives of its beneficiaries. But Churchill is not in favour of relaxing campaigning guidelines.

"It's not so much the content of the Charity Commission's guidelines but the phrasing that makes it sound as if campaigning is controversial," he says. "The commission should be saying campaigning is a positive thing for charities to do. Having said that, charities can be quite creative under the current framework."

Churchill also believes that charities should avoid using simplistic arguments in their campaigns. "They sometimes make it sound as if there are silver bullets for issues, but many social problems cannot be easily addressed simply by setting targets.

"It's easy to use shock tactics, but we really need to engage with people on the ground and show how things can be done."

Although he is keen to see improvements at Asthma UK, Churchill is proud that the charity is seen as an enjoyable place to work.

"We have about 110 staff and are almost the perfect size - you can get to know everyone and just walk over to someone if you need to speak to them. People have a real sense of how their work impacts on the rest of the organisation."

But he is unequivocal about his aims. He says: "There are 5.5 million people with asthma in the UK and we should be touching the lives of as many as possible. In the next five years, I'd like to see us become the natural port of call for all of them."

Churchill CV

2007: Chief executive, Asthma UK
External affairs director, Age Concern England
1998: Deputy chief executive, Crisis
1996: Head of communications, Policy Studies Institute

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