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Hospital Consultants

Volume 885: debated on Tuesday 28 January 1975

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7.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if she will make a statement about the progress she has made to date with the negotiations with hospital consultants.

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if she will make a statement on the state of her discussions with the British Medical Association and the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association about a new contract for consultants employed in the National Health Service.

24.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what further discussions she has had about the pay and conditions of service of hospital concultants; and whether she will make a statement.

Following my statement in the House on 13th January—[Vol. 884, c. 33–42]—an initial clarification meeting between Health Departments' officials and representatives of the consultants took place last week. I understand that the professions will be considering later this week the response I am sending them.

What is the Secretary of State doing to dispel the distrust which the consultants now feel of her?

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) has contributed her quota to any sense of distrust. I made a statement to the House which was widely recognised as being a very forthcoming one, to which the vast majority of the people in the country felt the consultants would respond. I then suggested that an initial exploratory meeting could be held to clear away some of the doubts and misunderstandings about our proposals, with a view, hopefully, to our going into negotiations in the joint negotiating committee. That exploratory meeting has been held and the profession's representatives will be considering my response.

We are glad that talks about talks are now beginning, but does my right hon. Friend appreciate that many of us believe that talks should not go ahead until the sanctions called by the BMA and HCSA have been called off?

The consultants have frequently said to me that they did not wish to be pressured on the kind of contract they took under the National Health Service. I sympathise with that view and I have tried to reassure them. But, equally, I say to them that Governments cannot negotiate under pressure and duress, and that therefore the purpose of the initial exploratory meeting was to lay the foundations for sanctions to be withdrawn.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many members of the public are very worried about the continuation of the dispute? What information has she about the number and proportion of consultants who are participating in the work-to-rule?

Without notice, I cannot give the actual number and proportion. As I said in my last statement, the action is widespread but uneven in its incidence. In certain areas consultants have decided to take no action and have pressed for negotiations to be resumed. I am only too anxious for that to happen, and I hope that the initial exploratory meeting will have paved the way.

Does my right hon. Friend envisage that the settlement—when it comes—will be within the social contract, as at present outlined by members of the Cabinet at least, and in line with the pronouncements of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the past 10 days?

The settlement, when reached, will of course be priced by the Doctors' and Dentists' Review Body, which in any case is due to review consultants' pay this April. The body has shown great care in taking the social contract into account in, for instance, refusing to recommend a breach of the 12-months rule. I have made it quite plain that since the body has clearly shown that it has the social contract in mind the Government will feel under strong obligation to implement its recommendations.

Will the Secretary of State take the House a little more into her confidence by saying what response she has sent to the consultants? Will she tell us, bearing in mind that the existing contract is based on a six-day working week, that she is confident that in this unhappy matter she has behaved in a way which is consistent with being a good employer?

I am not prepared to give the House more details, partly because the response has not yet reached the profession's representatives. In any case, I do not consider that it would help towards clarification of the issues, and, therefore, a settlement of the outstanding points, for me to disclose any of the details at this stage.

What has been the effect of the consultants' actions on the patients, particularly in relation to waiting lists and out-patient clinics?

Here again, the results have been uneven, though I am deeply sorry to say that waiting lists have lengthened in some areas.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the senior medical staff at Blackpool and Fylde hospitals are deeply concerned about the effects of the present situation on patients, the medical profession and the whole future of the health service? Is she also aware of the anxiety of these consultants about the need to bring this ugly dispute to a swift conclusion by reasonable negotiations rather than by attempts to impose an inflexible ministerial decision?

I am delighted to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman's comment, because it provides the hope that the consultants will help to resolve this difficulty, first by lifting sanctions immediately and, secondly, by playing their part in meaningful negotiations.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of those replies, Mr. Speaker, I beg to give notice that I reserve the right to raise this matter on the Adjournment.