Health unions have angrily accused chancellor Gordon Brown of intervening in NHS pay talks to force through an effective salary cut.
It would be the second time this year that he has interfered with negotiations at the two supposedly independent boards that determine NHS pay.
New Labour boasts it wants a first class health service. But it wants cuts, and health workers on second class pay.
In March the treasury said pay increases for 2006-7 should be “based on our 2 percent inflation target”. On 13 July Brown wrote to the chairs of the pay review boards, repeating that pay rises should be 2 percent.
Now, under further pressure from Brown, health secretary Patricia Hewitt has called for any pay increase to be pegged to 1.5 percent.
This means a pay cut once inflation is taken into account.
The unions’ preferred measure of inflation – the retail price index – hit 3.6 percent last month. Rocketing fuel prices are likely to drive this to 4 percent by the end of the year.
The 1.5 percent pay settlement could amount to an effective pay cut of 2.5 percent by the time it is introduced.
Even Brown’s favourite inflation measure is running at 2.5 percent and rising, meaning a pay cut of at least 1 percent.
To add insult to injury, Hewitt claimed that any pay rise above 1.5 percent would hurt patients, resulting in more job losses and service cuts.
Karen Jennings, head of health at the Unison union, replied, “I don’t like the threatening tone of the department of health’s evidence. It is outrageous to suggest that unless staff take what is effectively a pay cut, jobs will go and patients will suffer.”
She added that the pay deal would mean “less than 2p an hour extra for newly qualified nurses and paramedics”.
Amicus, another union with health service members, threatened industrial action. The union’s national health officer, Kevin Coyne, said, “Unless an improved offer is put on the table we will not hesitate to proceed to ballot for industrial action.”
The pay row comes at a time when relations between New Labour and health unions are already deeply strained.
A new dossier compiled by campaign group Health Emergency (go to www.healthemergency.org.uk) confirms that over 20,000 NHS jobs have been lost since February last year.
These job losses are not being driven by pay rises for health workers. They are driven by the policies of marketisation and privatisation within the NHS.
Investment in the NHS comes with strings attached – increased paperwork to create an “internal market” and increased involvement by big business, which means siphoning off public money as private profits.
This week Epsom and St Helier Hospitals NHS Trust in Surrey announced that it would slash 170 beds and 480 jobs in order to claw back £24 million. The trust is not in deficit but has been told to make huge “efficiency” savings.
At a thousands-strong protest in Epsom in early October campaigners said that they feared the local maternity and paediatrics services would be closed.
Another march is planned in the area on 25 November.
The threat to these services comes as nearby hospitals have admitted that they are already unable to cope with the pressure on neonatal services.
The Observer reported last Sunday that St George’s Hospital NHS Trust, south London, had to close its doors to premature babies 71 times in the last six months.
According to Health Emergency’s campaigns officer, Geoff Martin, five intensive care cots for premature babies have been mothballed.
Nearby Kingston NHS Trust is planning to cut another 100 jobs and make 20 compulsory redundancies.
Martin said, “NHS trusts across the country are imposing blanket recruitment bans as they try and claw back over £1 billion worth of debt. These cuts, imposed by central government, are hitting life or death services.”
Next Wednesday health unions are set to lobby MPs. The NHS Together lobby will challenge the government’s reform agenda and the threats to the future of the NHS from:
by Marion Snee, nursing auxiliary, Ninewells hospital, Dundee
I think a 1.5 percent “increase” is rubbish, complete rubbish. Nurses get a poor deal all the time. We’re overworked, stretched to the limit and we never get a decent rise.
I work as a nursing auxiliary. I haven’t yet been moved onto the new Agenda for Change pay scale. I earn £13,600 a year.
Just 1.5 percent more is only about 50p a day extra for me, at a time when many prices are rising steeply.
If there’s money to fund an illegal war, there’s money to fund a decent pay rise for nurses.
I think it’s time that the unions stepped up a gear in the fight over pay and called us out on strike.
There have been doubts among nurses about taking action in the past because it would affect patients.
But if we struck there would always be a few people left on the ward to deal with emergencies.
I believe that nurses and other staff would be prepared to come out on strike.
The lobby of parliament starts at 11am. For more information go to www.nhstogether.org.uk
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