Orders of the Day — National Health Service Pay

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 10th June 1982.

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Photo of Mr Robert Brown Mr Robert Brown , Newcastle upon Tyne West 5:30 pm, 10th June 1982

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moyle), I should declare an interest. I am a Member sponsored by the General and Municipal Workers Union, many members of which work in the Health Service. In addition, I had been Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Security for only a few weeks when, asked by Mrs. Barbara Castle to take responsibility for staff and industrial relations across the board, we had the first industrial stoppage in the Department. However, I do not accept responsibility for that.

The Falklands crisis and events in Poland have distracted attention from the National Health Service workers' battle on the home front. However, the significance of the fight that the Health Service workers are putting up today may well outweigh that of other battles in the long term. I shall return to that point later.

The Government have turned a co-operative and caring work force into an increasingly militant one through their rigid and insensitive attitude. Even the traditionally docile Royal College of Nursing, which has until now refused to sanction industrial action, has voted overwhelmingly to reject the paltry offer made to it. Does the Minister feel any pride in the fact that he has caused that historic decision to be taken by nurses of the Royal College?

The Government's response to the health workers' legitimate demand has been in marked constrast to their tax handouts to the highly paid and their latest round of huge increases to the top paid in the public sector. Some of the rises due to top public officials amount to as much as the lowest paid Health Service worker will take home in a year.

To deny Health Service workers the right to a living wage without recourse to industrial action is nothing short of a national scandal. Their speed of thought and action daily save the lives of scores of people.

The assault on the living standards of nurses and other National Health Service workers should not be seen in isolation from the overall attack on the NHS that has been carried out by the Government. The Government reduced the real level of expenditure on the NHS by half of 1 per cent. in real terms in their first year of office. The Treasury Select Committee estimates that over the next two years spending on the NHS will decline by over 2 per cent. in real terms.

The impact is far greater. Even if spending was maintained in real terms, expenditure would be inadequate to preserve existing services and to cope with the growing numbers of ill people imposing demands on the Health Service. A real growth in spending of 1 per cent. a year is needed to preserve existing services alone and to meet the demands of the increasing number of aged people.

At the same time, the Government have sought every possible means to undermine confidence in the NHS. Private medicine has been encouraged and supported. There have been attempts to introduce private medical insurance in the public sector. The principle of health care provided on the basis of need and not wealth is once more at stake. The concept of a Health Service funded from general taxation has also been threatened. There have been persistent rumours of Government attempts to introduce an insurance element, despite the almost universal condemnation of the medical profession and the trade unions in the National Health Service, as well as that of many other interested parties.

The Government have done everything possible to promote the privatisation of aspects of the Health Service through the contracting-out of its work. In that context, the Government's harsh and intransigent attitude to the lower paid in the NHS has been the final straw for the Health Service workers. The Government's pay policy in the public sector has long since revealed itself as no more than placating the strong and punishing the weak. Because of their reluctance to take industrial action, Health Service workers are in the weakest bargaining position in the public sector.

The Government's response has been to impose settlements on the NHS that have been successfully resisted elsewhere. I do not need to remind the House that in the public sector workers generally have not been restricted to increases of 4 per cent. The miners had an increase of 8·6 per cent., local authority manual workers 6·9 per cent., water workers 9·1 per cent. and civil servants achieved an increase—true, it was via arbitration—of 6·9 per cent. Meanwhile, higher paid public servants, whose pay is settled by an independent review body, have had rises of up to 18·9 per cent. Judges had an increase of 18·9 per cent. and senior civil servants had one of 14·3 per cent.

There are 270,000 ancillary staff employed by the NHS, half of whom are part-time. Almost 55 per cent. of the full-time workers, including 41,000 women, earned less that £75 a week in 1981. The average gross earnings for all ancillary workers in 1981 was £87·96 compared with a figure for the country as a whole of £140·50. Four per cent. of very little is indeed very little. I will not use the expression that a certain trade union leader used outside the House, but it is, nevertheless, true.

In spite of what the Secretary of State has said, the Government offer of 6·4 per cent. to the nurses was a blatant attempt to divide and rule Health Service workers. Even so, the gross increase for a staff nurse would be £5·46 per week, resulting in a net rise of £2·34.

For many years ambulance men have argued for the same status and pay as the two other branches of the emergency services, the police and the fire brigade. On 31 July 1981 the Secretary of State recognised ambulance men as an essential part of the emergency services. Despite that recognition, their pay remains far behind that of their colleagues in the emergency services. In the police, ranks below police superintendent earn on average—