I start by saying it was a joy to be in the Chamber to listen to the maiden speech by my hon. Friend Stephen Morgan. I am confident he will be a strong advocate for his area. I would also like to take this opportunity to recognise my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth. NHS workers must take some reassurance in knowing that they have a champion in him.
As I have mentioned many times in this House, my constituency lies between two hospitals: Dewsbury and District hospital, which has recently seen a significant downgrade; and Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, which is earmarked for future downgrade and closure. Sadly, and probably as a consequence of these NHS cuts, I receive a large number of hospital complaints from constituents covering a variety of different issues. There is, however, one common theme in all the letters and emails: no one wants to point the finger of blame at NHS staff, because they can see how hard they are working, often in unsafe conditions mainly due to chronic understaffing issues.
In March this year, it was reported that there were over 30,000 vacant full-time positions across the NHS. There are nearly 200 vacancies at just one of my local hospital trusts alone. This means that in many hospital wards across the country, staff are having to do the work of two or even three people. We have all heard the stories of NHS staff working 12 hour shifts without food, water or even toilet breaks, where staff are close to breaking point mentally due to the undue stresses of their everyday working life. Yet they are consistently ignored when they ask for what should be their basic right: a decent pay rise to reflect the work that they put in on a daily basis in circumstances some of us in this House can only imagine in our worst nightmares. They are, frankly, heroes.
As we have heard from many of my colleagues today, NHS workers have reported having to: cut back on food shopping; miss meals in order to feed their children; use debt services, taking out payday loans or even approaching loan sharks; and even resort to food banks when the money runs out at the end of the month. Many are leaving the profession to take alternative work in different sectors. Some tell me they choose to work in supermarkets, where the pay is broadly similar but without the stresses and strains of working in a stretched industry where many workers are left feeling undervalued and burnt out from trying to keep up with the unprecedented demand for care. Many worry about the future of their registration, given the pressures they are having to work under.
By undervaluing our NHS workers to this extent, the Government are presiding over what could be the worst staffing crisis ever seen in the NHS since its inception in 1948. NHS bursaries have been slashed, and we hear that nurse staff recruitment from EU countries is down 96% on last year, mainly because of uncertainty over Brexit. In addition, a huge proportion of the existing workforce is due for retirement in the early 2020s. Instead of looking for solutions to this problem, the Government have chosen to inflict a seven-year, real-terms pay cut on our NHS staff. Yesterday, they came out and offered nothing more than a sticking plaster, with no offer of new money, saying that one group of public sector workers were more valued than another, and a vague promise that maybe in the future there could be a little bit more money made available, but no details on for whom or how much.
Those of us on the Labour Benches know how those on the Government Benches feel about our public sector heroes. We heard that loud and clear in June this year when they voted to keep the public sector pay cap and then cheered in celebration at their “triumph”. That will stay with me for the rest of my life. These are people who often put their lives on hold for us and put their lives at risk for us. They clearly deserve a pay rise to reflect their dedication and commitment.