It is a pleasure to follow two such thoughtful speeches, and, in particular, the powerful speech made by my hon. Friend Heidi Alexander. I congratulate her on her appointment, and on the vigour with which she put the argument.
Three weeks ago, I went to a “keep in touch” meeting with doctors at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. Two hundred and fifty doctors turned up, and their anger at the Government’s threatened imposition of this contract had to be seen to be believed. They were so alienated that I had a hard job trying to persuade them that it was just the Secretary of State’s incompetence which was to blame, and not a malevolent wish on his part to dismantle the NHS.
At a time when doctors, like other staff in the NHS, are working under such pressure, and when the Secretary of State knows that he needs to carry staff with him if further reform and efficiencies are to be delivered—including the better seven-day hospital services that we all want to see—it is beyond belief that he has simply stumbled into picking a fight with the core clinical work force in our hospitals, threatening to impose a contract that will leave some of them earning significantly less and many vulnerable to working significantly longer hours, thus risking a return to the dangers of the past.
No one, including doctors themselves, wants to see this degenerate into industrial action, but, as with other groups of workers whom we do not expect to strike, a particular responsibility is imposed on employers and the Government to listen, to be fair, and to negotiate in good faith. That is why it is so damaging that the Secretary of State gives such a strong impression of doing the opposite: threatening when he should be listening, and using weasel words when he should be showing how assurances can be delivered. As the public well understand, the success of the NHS is hugely dependent on the dedication, good will and trust of its staff. By mishandling the contract in this way, the Secretary of State is putting all those at risk, and, once lost, they could be hard to win back.
No one should be under any illusion about the damage that the contract—were it to be imposed in the way that the Government want—could do to patient care, and would certainly do to recruitment and retention in the English NHS, especially in high-cost areas such as Oxford. I already know of local GPs who have moved away, including one who found that he had a better quality of life as a locum than as member of a practice, and then found that it would be better still in Canada than in our NHS. At my meeting with doctors at the John Radcliffe, a show of hands was taken to find out how many of those who qualified would move to other parts of the UK or abroad if the contract were imposed. A sea of hands went up.
If the Government want to make good the damage that they have been inflicting and settle the issue of this contract, it should not be hard. In his letter to the chair of the BMA junior doctors committee, the Secretary of State said:
“I share exactly the same aims for the new contract as you do.”
If that is the case, the way forward is clear. First, the Secretary of State should reopen negotiations, without preconditions, lifting the imposition of the contract. Secondly, he should keep the financial penalties that protect staff from working excessive hours. Thirdly, he should show flexibility on the reimbursement for Saturday working. Fourthly, he should give a clear guarantee that no junior doctor’s pay will be cut as a result of the contract. That is what our motion calls for: it would deliver a new contract with safety for patients and fairness for doctors. It is what the Government would do if they had any sense, it is what the public wants, and I urge the House to vote for it.