HC Deb 27 July 1971 vol 822 cc503-10

7.14 a.m.

Dr. M. S. Miller (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

Unlike the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), I cannot claim to have had the advantage of 3½ hours' refreshing sleep or even a look at today's Daily Mirror. I have been waiting all night and this morning to enter this part of the debate. I sat through the whole of the debate on the situation on Upper Clyde Shipyards and unemployment in Scotland, and I should dearly have liked to take part, but I could not do so because of the rule which lays it down that this is one debate and, if I had entered at that stage, I should not have been able to do so now. I had to make a choice, and, knowing that my hon. Friends were more than adequate to the task of dealing with U.C.S. and unemployment in Scotland, I decided to pursue to the bitter end the task which I had allotted to myself originally.

It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and I criticise Whitley Councils on subjects so totally dissimilar. The matter I want to raise deals with medical laboratory technicians. The background is that there are about 10,000 of these in the National Health Service. My union, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs organises about half of those people. Here I want to declare an interest. The union has said that it intends sponsoring me, but for the duration of this Parliament I do not suppose that this applies. It will in any future Parliament to which I have the good fortune to be elected.

Three other unions, N.A.L.G.O., N.U.P.E. and C.O.H.S.E., organise in total about 1,200 workers. The terms and conditions of these technicians are negotiated by the Whitley Council, specifically by the professional and technical (B) Committee of Committee A on which A.S.T.M.S. has five seats and the other three unions have three seats each. The position at the moment is that on 15th June, 1971, by a majority of 8–5 with A.S.T.M.S. voting against, the unions on the Committee decided to accept an offer to settle a salary and restructuring claim which had been outstanding since April, 1970.

My union informed the secretary of the staff side that it objected to this agreement. On 17th June the staff side secretary replied to the effect that an agreement had been made but that the agreement required confirmation by the Secretary of State for Social Services. At that point A.S.T.M.S. wrote to the right hon. Gentleman asking him to withhold this approval. An acknowledgement was received on 25th June and on 30th June the Department of Health and Social Security issued a circular, No. K/P155/08B, which could be interpreted as the go-ahead, the authority to proceed. The right hon. Gentleman wrote on 5th July saying that he saw no reason for not confirming the agreement. On 13th July I asked the right hon. Gentleman to withhold approval on the ground that the trade union representing half of the employers had voted against the terms of the settlement. I received the reply that the right hon. Gentleman did not intend to withhold approval since: The agreement was properly reached in accordance with the constitution of the Whitley Council."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th July, 1971; vol. 821, c. 45.] I want to deal first with the inadequacy of the proposed salary scale and secondly with the principle involved in union negotiations.

First, I deal with the salary scale. Under the new proposals, there are six main categories of medical laboratory technician. There is, first, the junior technician; the second category is that of technician; the third and fourth are two grades of senior technician; the fifth grade is known as chief technician and the top grade is principal technician.

The salary scale is loaded in favour of the highest grades, with little benefit to the lower. As examples of this, I take the case of the junior technician. A junior technician at the age of 21 will now earn £792 per annum. Under the old scale he received £779. He thus gets a munificent increase of £13 a year. This employee will have an ordinary national certificate, usually four O levels at the age of 16, and a further three years practical training in laboratories plus theoretical instruction at technical college. Although he is not a fully qualified technician, he has a position of considerable responsibility. He takes part in all the technical work of the laboratory and is used in the "on-call" duty system. I could give other examples of the junior technician scale which show proposed increases ranging from £2 per annum to a maximum increase of £18.

The next level is that of technician. This is the first fully qualified level and it requires State registration and higher national certificate in medical laboratory technology, and once that certificate is gained the employee becomes an associate of the Institute of Medical Laboratory Technology. With these qualifications, the first grade of technician shows an increase from the old scale of £1,129 per annum to £1,131—a £2 a year increase. This is for someone who will have spent at least five years from the age of 16 in equipping himself for his career and is generally in his mid-twenties. Unless he is specifically promoted, he will automatically progress up the scale and will reach a maximum, under the new proposals, of £1,830 per annum in twelve years.

The next level is that of senior technician. Here, additional qualifications are necessary. He must have at least four of a staff serving under him or, alternatively, eight years post-registration. From here, further promotion depends upon further qualifications, a fellowship—F.I.M.L.T.—and also numbers of staff under his control. The top grade of principal technician must have 63 of a staff under his control. The top grade in the first category of senior technician will now attract a salary of £1,830 per annum. This level equates with an assistant experimental officer in the scientific Civil Service.

After a series of visits to Civil Service scientific establishments, for example, the Weybridge Veterinary Establishment and the centre at Porton, A.S.T.M.S. maintains that this level should be equated not with an assistant executive officer, but with an executive officer and that the top rank, the principal technician, should be equated with a chief executive officer in the scientific Civil Service, but no chief executive officer is required to have a staff of 63 under him.

Because the only worth-while increases are earmarked for the higher grades, the total extra cost of this settlement is a ludicrous £300,000 per annum for all 10,000 people in this service. The Whitley Council therefore appears to have bought the considerable influence of the top grades. In my opinion and that of the union, there has been a shameless disregard of the needs of the lower levels. A look through the proposed scale will show exactly what I mean, for the increases for people up to the very top of the senior scale are small—£34 per annum is the maximum—but in the chief technician scale there are increases which range from £271 to £427.

So much for the general inadequacy of payment and particularly the poor remuneration of the lower levels. I come to the principle of negotiation. There is certainly something wrong with negotiation machinery which rides roughshod over the wishes of the majority. A.S.T.M.S. represents one half of these employees and we want fresh negotiations to produce a salary structure with realistic levels at all grades, levels which will attract and retain staff at all levels.

This is an urgent matter and we want the Secretary of State to meet us, but in the meantime we ask that he should withhold his approval until a settlement more suitable to all employees is agreed. At a time when doctors in the National Health Service, with very few exceptions, have received substantial increases—I have mentioned this before and I do not object to the relative affluence of the British doctor—and when there is no great complaint, financially at any rate, emanating from the medical profession, it is ludicrous and shameful that the branch of the service which sustains not only the day-to-day investigations which are necessary but those which make possible the much more sophisticated techniques of modern medicine on which health and general well-being of the community so depend should be so shabbily treated.

Pathology, Haematology, biochemistry, histology, bacteriology are all investigations which need the skill of the medical laboratory technician and it is about time that we paid him adequately for this skill.

7.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Alison)

Perhaps I may start by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Dr. Miller) on exercising his self-denying ordinance in the matter of forgoing the U.C.S. debate and on his successful outcome in persevering, after a protracted night, through to an eloquent morning. I ask him to forgive me if, in speaking to him privately beforehand, I in any sense introduced doubt into his mind about what he should do, but I thought it better to report to him completely the situation, being uncertain how the night would work out. All's well that ends well, at least in this respect.

As the hon. Member has made clear in this short debate, the salaries of the groups of individuals of whom we are talking—the medical laboratory technicians—are negotiated by the Professional and Technical (B) Whitley Council, which is also responsible for the terms and conditions of service of other National Health Service technicians. The management side is representative of hospital management boards and management committees, and the staff side comprises several unions. The hon. Member listed them.

Under the constitution of the Whitley Council, the composition of each side is a matter for them alone. The staff side of the relevant committee of the Whitley Council consists of representatives of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, the National Association of Local Government Officers, the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees, which the hon. Member described as C.O.H.S.E.

The negotiations which led up to the settlement which is now, unfortunately, under dispute first began, I understand, as early as February, 1970, when the staff side of the Whitley Council put forward a pay claim for a 25 per cent. increase. In June last year, the Council reached agreement on a salary increase of 15 per cent. with effect from 1st April, 1970, subject to any further adjustment which might be justified by the results of a detailed review of comparisons which had been made some years previously of the responsibilities and pay of medical laboratory technicians and com- parable workers in Government scientific establishments.

In June this year, following lengthy negotiations, the two sides of the Council agreed on the adjustments to be made to salaries and grading. These added retrospectively a further 3 per cent. from 1st April, 1970, to the 15 per cent. already agreed, making a total of 18 per cent. overall. I want to make it clear that it was not a 1971 salary settlement which was in question but a modification of a settlement going back to as early as April 1970.

In the National Health Service, students train in service on a good salary whilst studying to obtain the higher national certificate they require to become a medical laboratory technician. They receive £537 at age 16, rising to £660 at the age of 18 if they have the appropriate intermediate qualification, and £1,062 if aged 25 or over. Immediately on qualification, normally at the age of 20 or 21, a technician will automatically receive £1,131 or £21.75 per week rising to a maximum of £1,830 in the basic grade.

The hon. Member has mentioned £1,830 as a salary which might be paid after 12 years. Most technicians, however, will have been promoted from technician and will be earning well into the £2,000-a-year bracket by the time they have completed 12 years' service. After two years, many technicians will be earning £1,359, or £26 a week. Earnings are often higher than this since many technicians often undertake emergency work at night or at weekends. Most technicians can expect to be chief technicians by their early thirties on a salary scale from £2,148 to £2,610. The maximum salary of the class received by a principal medical laboratory technician is £3,465.

After the Whitley Council agreement had been recorded and accepted by the Secretary of State, representations were made by the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs to the effect that they had not voted with the rest of the staff side in favour of the settlement, that in their view the number of seats they had on the staff side did not match the number of their members compared with the other unions, and that therefore the Secretary of State should withdraw his approval of the settlement so that negotiations would continue.

As I have explained, neither I nor the management side of the Whitley Council have any locus in determining or influencing the composition of the staff side. Indeed no records are kept by management of the unions to which individual members of their staff belong. This has been an integral feature of the constitution of the Whitley Councils since they were established. Ever since 1948 representation on the staff sides has been a matter which the unions concerned have resolved for themselves in an orderly and constitutional manner. It is regrettable now that patients should be inconvenienced because a union sees fit to draw public attention to the question of their representation in the Whitley Council.

My Department, although given no formal advance notice of the proposed strike on 22nd July, asked hospital authorities for reports of any incidents of withdrawal of labour and its effect on patient care. The reports we have received so far indicate that the strike action had widely varying effects in different parts of the country.

Dr. Miller

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Secretary of State has no authority to withhold his agreement? If he has authority to give agreement if it is necessary for his agreement to be given under the terms, surely he has authority also to withhold his agreement? In circumstances in which half of the employees are represented by one union with a smaller number of representatives in the negotiating structure, surely that is one of the occasions on which the Secretary of State could use his discretion, and at least lot us discuss the matter.

Mr. Alison

As I was trying to explain, this is precisely the field in which, constitutionally and technically, my right hon. Friend cannot take official cognisance of what goes on, because these are strictly matters for the members of the staff side to determine amongst themselves. I cannot on behalf of my right hon. Friend enter in any way into a dispute which might be occurring on the staff side. It would not be proper for my right hon. Friend to exercise discretion in a dispute in which he has no proper part at all.

To return to what I was saying, it seems that in the majority of hospital groups normal or near normal working was maintained, although there were some hospital groups where only emergency services were provided, and normal work had to be postponed. One cannot be certain that postponement of normal work would have no adverse effect but at least the results do not appear to have been serious.

I trust the question of union representation now will be pursued constitutionally. In the meantime, I have authorised hospitals to implement this settlement which has been properly reached in accordance with the constitution of the Whitley Council and which, although high in comparison with settlements being reached elsewhere, represents in my view a reasonable resolution of the outstanding issues of last year's general pay agreement.