I am always surprised when I am called early, Mr McCabe, but it is always a pleasure to speak in such debates.
I thank Mr Cunningham, who is a friend as well as a colleague, for obtaining the debate. I, along with many others, signed the original early-day motion, as he mentioned. I have had the benefit of his knowledge in studying the background and making sure we were on the same page. When he told me the story, it resonated with me and I knew it would resonate with my constituents and with people back home who work in the caring services. It will therefore come as no surprise if my comments echo those of the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for persevering with the matters he is interested in. He was a Member when I first came to the House, and the two of us made friends quickly and have worked together on many things. I would say that he has signed all my EDMs and I have probably signed all his, so we have a mutual understanding. That is not because we are friends, but because we are of the same mind on the issues and we work together on them. I am pleased to do it. I think I signed his Coventry City early-day motion, and I think he even signed mine on Leicester City, so there we are. We crossed that divide as well.
I, like many Members in this Chamber, have been a consistent advocate of a pay increase for NHS staff. I lobbied the Government for it when my party came into the confidence and supply arrangement, and we thank them for the increase that they gave in response. I am fighting to equalise nurses’ pay on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, because there is a differential and we must close the gap. I am endeavouring, with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and the permanent secretary, to ensure that we move closer together. It is very simple to me: I see a group of civil servants working in conditions that are not acceptable and I know that what they should be paid is vastly more than what is there. It need to pay them what they should be paid. We appreciate them and all that they do, as the hon. Member for Coventry South said, and I thank them too.
I had occasion about two years ago to be cared for by nurses in hospital, so I know how much they do. I was there three times that year. The 1.5% rise does not seem like a huge amount, yet the staff felt that it was a gesture of appreciation. It was important that we made a move in that direction. The Government’s agreement was 3% over a five-year period. To accept, in the same breath, an 18% increase in the fee to practise is shocking and far outweighs any gesture we have made. Such an increase will mean a 40% rise in HCPC fees since 2014. How can that be acceptable? There is no fairness or sense of balance in the process.
I always relate my speeches in the House to what happens in Strangford, so that the people there know I am industrious on their behalf. The Strangford example I want to use today is of a district nurse who approached me a few weeks ago. She complained that those who have gone to the private sector to carry out personal independence payment assessments and the like not only get to work nine-to-five, have a company car and a higher wage, and are not run off their feet in an understaffed ward; they also have their registration fees paid. They get better conditions in the private sector, and their fees are paid, so we can understand how NHS professionals feel. My constituent said it is little wonder that wards are crying out for qualified nurses, while the assessors can find people left, right and centre. We have a dearth of nurses in Northern Ireland and are 1,500 short. The Minister knows I understand that that is not his responsibility; I say it just to show the situation we are in. We simply cannot compete with the private sector, but why are we competing against ourselves with the PIP assessments, which are carried out with public money? We are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and that needs to end.
We need to take the opportunity to assure paramedics, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, physiotherapists, radiographers, dieticians, chiropodists, podiatrists, orthoptists, clinical scientists and speech and language therapists that to ask them for a 40% increase in fees over five years is not acceptable. Yes, it may be only a pound a month, as some people have said, but the fact is that all bills, from gas to petrol to food, have risen. The issue is the combination of all those increases in bills. They all contribute to the lowering of income. We should want to encourage NHS practitioners—those in the health and care professions—to stay there and work in their vocation of choice.
I firmly believe that a message must be sent today from this place that we support health and care professionals in their fight for fairness and equality, and that we oppose the rise or will pay the fees on behalf of those who work full time in our NHS as part of our thank you to them. That would be an endorsement of their commitment to us as their patients. It is not even £9 a month per staff member, so can the Government not look after this and ensure that it is paid for NHS staff? Why are we asking them to pay it while those who work privately have theirs paid for? The issue is the imbalance. Those who work privately have this paid for, but that does not happen in the NHS. That is not the right message to send to dedicated NHS workers, and we must do better.