Industrial Action in the NHS

4. Topical Questions – in the Senedd at on 7 December 2022.

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Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Government’s response to threats of industrial action across the Welsh NHS, and on its plans to try to avert such actions through negotiation? TQ696

Photo of Baroness Mair Eluned Morgan Baroness Mair Eluned Morgan Labour 3:49, 7 December 2022

I'm saddened that our health workers have got to a point where they feel they need to take industrial action. I fully understand and sympathise with their situation, but, without additional funding from the UK Government, there is simply no money to increase our pay offer without substantial cuts to staffing and essential services. I'm meeting with representatives of all healthcare unions next week to explore if there is any possibility or alternative that might help us to avoid industrial action.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

Dirprwy Lywydd, we're facing multiple disputes. Multiple unions have balloted on strike action. Ambulance staff are, of course, the latest to prepare to go on strike. The Minister has said again that it's all down to UK Government cuts, and I agree about their economic vandalism and the harm of their ideological-driven cuts to public spending. But, whilst pay is clearly central to these disputes, the truth is that much of this stems from health staff feeling over a prolonged time that they haven't been supported, and, on that, both the UK Conservative and Welsh Labour Governments have to take a long, hard look at themselves to realise that opportunities have been lost time and time again to show that support.

Now, today, I'm asking the Minister again: when is she going to negotiate? We have a Labour Government refusing to negotiate with trade unions. She said again that she is meeting unions; I meet unions. What we need to see is the opening of meaningful negotiations to try to avert the strikes. Now, let me quote the Labour Party leader to you on breakfast news this week. He said,

'These disputes are quite capable of being resolved', and, on Monday, at a Labour event, Keir Starmer said, 

'Government has been sitting on its hands throughout these disputes, rather than resolving them. Go to Wales and you will see a different government taking a different approach and some not dissimilar disputes have actually been resolved.'

Now, does the Minister know what he's talking about there? Because I don't recognise that as a reflection of this Labour Government's position on the current disputes—nurses don't, ambulance staff don't. As one Royal College of Nursing member told me, 'At this point, there's very little difference between the English and Welsh Governments. Neither are supporting the workforce, no social partnership, no communication, the same pay award. So, why should anyone vote for a Labour Government when nothing is different?'

What is the Labour Government here doing to try to resolve these disputes in Wales, and when does the Minister plan to start negotiating?

Photo of Baroness Mair Eluned Morgan Baroness Mair Eluned Morgan Labour

Thanks very much. It's all very well for you to say, 'Da iawn'. The fact is, we've got a set amount of money. That's it. Right? So, we've got a choice: you either cut services or you cut the number of people in order to give a pay rise. Now, I don't think that's a space that the trade unions will want to enter, but obviously that is an option. That's an option. But, I think we've got to be absolutely clear here: there is no more money. There is no more money. We're in Government—I think it's really important for people to understand—and we are working in a system that was agreed with the trade unions; it's an independent pay commission where everybody gives their evidence, they all say what they'd like to see, and this has gone on for years, and suddenly we're in a different place. Now, I understand we're in a different place because, actually, inflation is very, very different from what it's been in the past. So, I completely understand why these workers are upset. But, let me say again, let me be absolutely clear: it's not just about one group of workers; this is about all of the workers in the NHS. So, you can't single one group out and say, 'Nurses are more important than porters.' There is an 'Agenda for Change' and I am meeting with representatives of the health unions next week to see whether there is any scope anywhere for us to address this issue and to avoid that industrial action.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 3:53, 7 December 2022

Minister, the RCN informed me today that you have still not met with them specifically to discuss nurses' pay, and that you've not opened negotiations with them or through the Welsh NHS partnership forum, which I think is extremely disappointing. Frustratingly, you still point the finger to Westminster rather than take responsibility for your actions here. Now, this is your decision. They're your responsibilities. You've got to cut the cloth here as you see fit here. We've got 3,000 nurse vacancies, and a spend on agency nurses of £140 million. Well, that's due to your management of the NHS and your predecessors. These are decisions that you make here and you've got to take responsibility for what is within your gift. You had an additional £1.2 billion in the autumn statement. Now, the Scottish Government have offered band 5 nurses an 8.7 per cent pay award, which has paused strike action in Scotland, and the RCN are going out to ask members if that is acceptable. So, if the Scottish Government can get around the negotiation table and make an offer, why can't you? What is different here in Wales to the position in Scotland? Rhun has mentioned Keir Starmer. Keir Starmer is saying and implying that the disputes here have been resolved. That's what he's saying. So, can I ask you, Minister, have you corrected Keir Starmer or does he know something that we don't know?

Photo of Baroness Mair Eluned Morgan Baroness Mair Eluned Morgan Labour 3:55, 7 December 2022

Can I just be clear that the Scottish Government work within a different framework from the framework that we have? So, we have signed up to the independent pay commission. That's something that all the unions—they all agreed to do that. They all gave their evidence. We gave our evidence. They take independent evidence from people who know about the economy, inflation and all of those things, and then they come up with a conclusion. The system in Scotland is different. So, that is one reason why they're different.

And the other thing you've got to remember is they have offered a greater amount of pay and that has come at a significant cost when it comes to services. So, they've taken about £400 million out of the services. So, when next week you're having a go at me because of waiting lists, you'll understand that, actually, we've got to make sure that we're not only supporting people who work in the NHS, we're also supporting people who are waiting to be treated on the NHS, and that's the balance you have to strike as a Government. And we think it's right that we have to understand that there are people across the NHS who deserve a pay award, we've gone as far as we can, but I think it's really important that people understand that, however much we'd like to go further, if we were to respect and to give an inflationary pay award, it would cost us about £900 million. Now, that is a significant amount of money to come out of front-line services. That is a very, very difficult call, and I've got to make it clear that I don't think the public would be in a position where they'd say, 'We are happy for you to cut our services in order to pay that.'