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NHS Strikes

Volume 827: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 6 February.

“I am grateful to the honourable Member for his Question, which I am taking on behalf of the department as the Secretary of State is attending a COBRA meeting focused on minimising the disruption experienced by patients because of today’s walkouts.

In preparation for today’s industrial action, we have again drawn on extra support from a range of places, including military service personnel, volunteers and the private sector. People should continue to use NHS 111 if they need medical help and to dial 999 in the event of an emergency. Yet even such strong contingencies, including more people trained to drive ambulances and doctors redeployed to other parts of the system, are no replacement for having the right people doing the right jobs.

Any strike inevitably means that some patients will have their treatment delayed, and I know that people are being contacted if their appointments need to be changed. About 88,000 procedures or out-patient appointments have been postponed as a result of industrial action over the last eight weeks, so I am disappointed and concerned that patients are facing disruption once again, especially because strikes by Royal College of Nursing members have now come together with action by GMB and Unite members in eight ambulance trusts.

I recognise that there have been efforts on behalf of unions to ensure that derogations are in place to keep people safe, and I acknowledge that some aspects of that can indeed be challenging, but it is essential that all unions adhere to a set of derogations at a national level so that we can plan and act with certainty. I have also been heartened to hear that on previous strike days, some devoted ambulance workers and nurses who received calls while on the picket line returned to work where derogations were not going to be met. That is a real tribute to the care and dedication we see on the front line day in, day out.

Ultimately, both staff and the public should no longer be in this situation, because we all know that industrial action is in nobody’s best interests, especially given the collective challenges we face to help the NHS recover from the pandemic. Despite what the honourable Member for Ilford North, Wes Streeting, might imply, there is much common ground, not least our shared desire to improve the NHS and deliver better care. Last week we announced our plan to recover urgent and emergency care—the second of three plans to cut waiting times in the NHS, including our elective recovery plan and our primary care recovery plan, which will be published in the next few weeks. With such important missions ahead of us, and fewer than two months left of this financial year, it is time to move forward, to look ahead and to come together in the interests of the patients we all serve.”

My Lords, the Minister regularly refers to the independent pay review process, even though it may have suited the Government to ignore its recommendations in the past. Ministers have said that it is time to come together in the interests of patients, while NHS employers and staff, and the public, all want to see negotiations. Can the Minister explain why the Government have not come together with the unions to sort this out? If they do not do this, how will this dispute, which is unprecedented in the history of the NHS, ever be resolved?

Clearly, we all want to resolve the dispute, and many meetings have been held with the unions to date. We believe in the independent pay review body; it is something we have backed since 2014. In the circumstances, April is very close—it is a matter of six or seven weeks away—and we enter into the new pay deal then. I would expect the pay review body to take all these factors into account, including historic inflation and inflation going forward, and put forward something that is fair and reasonable on that basis. I believe that is the foundation for a solution.

My Lords, the Government’s response to NHS staff seems to be to offer them jam tomorrow, when they are struggling to pay for jam today. Does the Minister accept that, if the Government do not lift the funding constraints on the independent pay review body so that it can make a decent settlement for 2023-24, the entire process risks losing all confidence and the independent pay review process itself could become irreparably damaged?

I would not say that six or seven weeks is jam tomorrow; I would say that it is jam pretty soon. That gives us a basis to go forward. The noble Lord’s basic point of allowing the pay review body to take all factors into account is fair: we need to give it the freedom to be able to do that.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his replies. It seems, from what he is saying, that they are going to run out the clock and hope for deliverance next year. I think that is acting irresponsibly. Does the Minister not agree? He probably will not agree, but comments from some of his colleagues have been less than helpful. Does he understand the strong feeling among NHS staff when Ministers talk about unions failing to maintain decent service levels, as it is 13 years of Conservative Government that have led to this failure?

I totally agree with the noble Lord that constructive dialogue is the way forward, and language and actions are important as part of that. I am glad to say—and I thank the unions for their part in all of this—that the first priority for everyone is to protect life. We all appreciate their role in ensuring those minimum derogations are in place, to make sure that those key life-threatening situations are well-handled and catered for.

My Lords, the Minister and other Ministers have often mentioned that the lowest-paid workers have been given a higher percentage uplift—I recall 9% being mentioned. Does he accept that 9% of a small amount is a very small amount, and does not buy an awful lot more food? Does he accept that this is why people are campaigning for a proper percentage increase to match inflation right across the board?

In the case of the lowest paid, it was made sure that everyone received at least £1,400, so there was a pound note amount there. I note, in the case of the calculation, that 9.3% is fairly close to the rate of inflation, which is about 10.5%. It is not exactly the same, clearly, but it is pretty much the impact that the cost of living will have had on them. The other thing that I would note at this point is that they will have been protected from energy bills by the unprecedented steps that the Government took there, because of course that had a big impact on people’s cost of living as well. So it is a range of measures. Is it a challenging time? Absolutely, but we are seeking to really try and protect those who are on the lowest incomes.