Skip to main content

National Health Service (Industrial Relations)

Volume 961: debated on Tuesday 30 January 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he last met representatives of the National Union of public Employees to discuss industrial relations in the National Health Service.


asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he last met representatives of the National Union of Public Employees to discuss industrial relations in the National Health Service.


asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects to meet the health services trade unions.

Last Thursday I met representatives of the management and staff sides of the Whitley councils for both ambulance men and ancillary staffs. The staff sides included representatives of NUPE. Following that meeting urgent discussions between the two sides have taken place, and are continuing, with a view to finding a framework within which a settlement of the claims could be reached.

What specific proposals does the Minister intend to incorporate into his promised patients' charter which will ensure that patients do not suffer from the activities of certain members of the National Union of Public Employees, such as those about whom we read daily?

I have never promised a patients' charter. That would be a very rash thing to do. I have had discussions with both the unions and the professions. It is extremely difficult to draw a clear line between urgent and emergency cases and those where delays will be harmless. I believe that everyone working in the Health Service recognises that. The unions have come out strongly in favour of support for the emergency ser- vices and it is essential that we ensure that they are able to see that their members respect that in different parts of the country.

Is the Minister aware that the call for the Prime Minister to intervene arises from the fact that many people consider? Is that right hon. Gentleman aware that today NUPE has called out all 483 members at the Westminster hospital and that more than 200 hospitals are closed or partially closed? Will he, for the first time, tell the House what action he intends to take to deal with this appalling situation?

We must get our facts right. It is not true that 200 hospitals, or anything like that number, have closed. It is true that a significant number of them are dealing only with emergency cases, and I am very worried about that. The effect of industrial action in the Health Service is extremely serious. Between a third and a half of our hospitals are now reduced to emergency admissions, and over most of the country the ambulance services are giving emergency cover only.

As I said in answer to a previous question, the trade unions have told their members to maintain emergency services, but there are some situations—I believe that Westminster is one of them—which cause me very great concern. The threat to patients' safety and well-being is now, in some areas, so great that I have asked the general secretaries of COHSE and NUPE to meet me. I intend to impress upon them the seriousness of the position and the importance of redoubling their efforts to ensure that industrial action is kept under control.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the need to admit anyone to hospital is an urgent issue of some character, but that the official policy of COHSE, right from the beginning, has been to see that proper and effective emergency cover is provided in all those cases which COHSE and the medical profession recognise as being emergencies?

As nurses now have a special claim waiting to be examined, and acknowledging that they did not get all that was recommended by Halsbury, what progress is being made on that claim?

The position of COHSE is absolutely right. It has sought to limit action to non-emergency cases. As I have said, however, it is very difficult to draw a line. Each individual's case is for him an urgent or emergency case. For elderly people and long-stay, high-dependency people in long-stay hospitals, it is urgent that they should be properly looked after. It is not just a question of admissions.

I know that senior officials of the unions involved are concerned about this matter. I understand that they have been giving urgent consideration to it and that they are preparing detailed guidance for their members on the importance of preserving essential services.

The Government are giving serious consideration to the nurses' pay claim. I think my hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister received the staff side of the nursing Whitley council only a few days ago, and I met the chairman of the management side only a few days ago.

Will the Minister consider the situation at a hospital much nearer to his own constituency, to wit, the St. Andrew's hospital at Thorpe, Norwich, which is now in great trouble and is, I understand, taking in no more patients?

Yes, I am aware of the situation in the Thorpe hospital. This is one of many situations across the country in which management is having to deal with action that has been taken, and is having to deal with it in the best way that it can. One cannot get away from the fact that where this sort of action is taken, inevitably there are consequences for patients, both those in hospitals and those waiting for admission. One cannot escape from that.

My right hon. Friend points to the difficulties, but does he realise that in establishing a code for picketing there were difficulties there, and that it is even more imperative that, where human life is at risk we establish with the unions a code of conduct to avoid the distressing circumstances that have occurred over the last two or three weeks?

I appreciate what my right hon. Friend has said. I have said that these are matters which I shall raise when I meet the general secretaries of COHSE and NUPE. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Very soon. It will not be easy to draw up a code of conduct, because the circumstances of every case are different, but I think that we shall determine it. For instance, there are some severe problems with the laundries. Hospitals cannot function without clean linen, sterile dressings and equipment, so the strike action in laundries and sterile supply units imposes a serious threat to the safety of patients. Those are the sorts of issues that I shall raise with the union general secretaries.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the actions of quite small numbers of laundry workers are resulting in large numbers of beds being closed, such as in Exeter, where 300 out of 1,000 beds have been closed? Will he now authorise the use of voluntary labour to keep these ancillary hospital services going?

There are certain circumstances in which, even in emergencies, staff may not have been prepared to fulfil their duties, and those are the sorts of circumstances under which volunteers can help. There are other ways in which volunteers can help. But we must be very careful in handling these industrial disputes to ensure that we do not take action that will make them worse and provoke a greater response. We have to avoid that.

On some of the particular cases that have been raised—the hon. Gentleman has just raised one—we have set up a hot line between my Department and the trade unions at national level to deal with cases in which action has gone beyond the level approved by the unions. In many cases we have been able to bring about an improvement in the situation.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that so long as this industrial problem continues the Tories will have a field day blaming the Government and condemning the strikers, seeming to speak on behalf of those who want the hospitals to flourish properly and giving the impression that they are in favour of lots more money for the strikers and for the hospitals? Will my right hon. Friend be guided by the experience of the lorry drivers' strike, which is now drawing to an end, and understand that if we are to resolve this problem that will be achieved not by standing up to strikers and Labour supporters but by getting a settlement, and that that settlement will have to be well over the percentage terms that have already been offered to the unions?

There are two parts to that question. On the latter one, I agree that it is urgent that we should get a settlement. Where we are dealing, as we are with some of these cases, with low-pay situations about which people have strong feelings, the Government are not inflexible. The Prime Minister has taken two initiatives which I believe point the way to settlement. These are the sorts of things which are now being considered by the staff and management sides.

On the first part of the question, I am afraid that it is true that whenever there is a situation such as this right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition will always exploit it to the maximum degree. They will overstate the case to their own advantage. At the same time they preach the case of free collective bargaining, which has never been in the interests of the low-paid.