I have already alluded to the fact that I am delighted that the Labour party secured this afternoon’s debate. We will support the motion if this matter goes to a vote tonight, but it will be interesting to see whether we actually reach that point. Maybe the House will agree that the points that have been raised today are such that we should send out a clarion call from this House that we agree with what has been said on both sides of the Chamber today, despite some of the party political divisions that might have informed some of the debate.
I too declare that, like many Members, I have members of the family in the health service. My wife was a nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, my daughter is a nurse in the Craigavon Area Hospital, my niece is a junior doctor in a hospital in Belfast, and my nephew is a trainee doctor. Many of us therefore see at first hand and hear about the needs of our health service from our relatives. From time to time we hear churlish points made to the effect that people do not care. I think all Members throughout the House know that at any moment they will know someone who works for or is being cared for in the NHS, and it is important to state that it is a brilliant service and that that service needs to be supported.
I want to raise two points. The first relates to the number of nursing staff vacancies that currently pertain in the NHS. I quote from a letter from Janice Smyth, a director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, in which she has indicated to me:
“The use of agency staff in Northern Ireland and associated agency costs have almost doubled” over the past few years, and that of course puts significant pressure on budgets. Also, it is unfair on regular staff in the service when they see the difference in pay that sometimes accrues. That is not to deny bank staff their right to that pay, but it does have an impact on people’s morale.
We have 1,300 vacant posts for nurses in Northern Ireland, and about the same again in the private sector. That needs to be addressed, and Northern Ireland has tried to address it by way of ensuring that the bursary remains in place. I believe that has been beneficial, but that is not the only answer. I also believe that the pay difference in Northern Ireland is dramatic and significant. It is important that I put this on the record. A care assistant in Northern Ireland earns about £17,500. Without the pay cap, they would be earning almost £20,000. A newly qualified nurse earns about £21,000. Without the pay cap, they would be earning about £25,000—a shortfall of £3,500 per year. For an experienced staff nurse, there is a significant difference: whereas they currently earn about £28,500, without the pay cap they would be earning £32,000—a shortfall of over £4,000 per annum. A highly qualified, experienced specialist nurse in Northern Ireland earns about £41,000; without the pay cap they should be earning £47,500—a shortfall of a staggering £6,500. That gap must be addressed, and addressed radically if we are to change things.
I would say to those members of the Labour party who chide us about the £1 billion deal: your party would have quite happily covered a deal that would probably have been better for us—those are the discussions we had in advance of the last election. In chiding us, you only hurt the public servants in Northern Ireland who are benefiting from that £1 billion deal that will allow us to allocate this money to relieve these costs.