HC Deb 15 March 1973 vol 852 cc1476-83
Mr. John Silkin

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Social Services whether, in view of the demand of the BMA for a full inquiry into the pay and structure of the ancillary hospital staff and the concurrence in that demand of the National Union of Public Employees, he will agree to the setting up of such an inquiry.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Sir Keith Joseph)

I have said several times that it is open to the trade unions concerned to put their case to the Pay Board, and I very much hope that they will agree to do so.

Mr. Silkin

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in the context of the dispute in the hospital service, that must be a very disappointing reply? Can he answer the following three specific questions? First, can he confirm that, in the report from the Department of Employment which he received in February 1972, it was stated: The Service has for a long time been able to get by on the goodwill of its employees. There are signs that a more positive approach is needed. Can he also confirm that no increase in pay has been received by the ancillary hospital staff since that date?

Second, does he agree that the Pay Board operates only in an advisory capacity and that, even if its advice were followed, it would not be until December of this year that the ancillary staff received a revised increase—in other words, nearly two years after the Department of Employment's report?

Third, is not the urgent need now to get the hospitals back to full manning? In view of the unanimity of those who work in the Health Service, will not the Secretary of State, who has the personal responsibility for the running of the Health Service, change his mind even at this late hour and fall in with their wishes?

Sir K. Joseph

The Department of Employment report was mainly concerned with industrial relations and pointed out that there was no personnel department in the National Health Service—a lack which this Government recognise and which we shall be putting right under the new reorganised Health Service from April next year. The ancillary staff received their last pay increase in December 1971 and would have been due for a pay increase four months ago, in December 1972, but suffered a deferment until this very week, when £2 extra for men and £1.80 extra for women is available once their unions accept the offer.

It is true that the Pay Board, which is ready in shadow form to receive their case, could only make recommendations to Government, but that would be true of an inquiry which might be set up.

As for bringing to an end the tragic dispute which has affected patients and their families, nurses and doctors and all other staff in the Health Service, of course the Government want it to come to an end. But I must say again that it is just not possible, in the national interest, to make a special case of any workers, even the hospital staff, because of the repercussions upon other unions and because of the pre-eminent necessity of combating inflation.

That is why the Government ask again that the unions should accept the extra which is available this week, put their case to the Pay Board and go back to their proper and I believe well-loved function of serving the patients of this country.

Mr. Fry

Will my right hon. Friend join me and many of my constituents in praising the public spirit of the hospital ancillary workers in Kettering and Wellingborough who, despite their low pay, have remained at work and not endangered the welfare of patients in my constituency?

Sir K. Joseph

I should like to take the opportunity to praise the hospital staff of all sorts who have, by their valiant efforts, maintained the service to the public as best they may, and to pay tribute to the ancillary staff where they have stayed at work and those who have carried out essential services under the agreement that their unions have made and have in general tried to fulfil.

Mr. Pavitt

Does not the right hon. Gentleman recall that in each previous pay freeze it has been the ancillary hospital workers who have been the first to be caught and that the only people in the National Health Service who have ever had retrospective pay are doctors? In view of the present situation, is it not time that he intervened so as to be able to put forward some constructive suggestions, such as those which have emerged in the gas industry, where there are possibilities of negotiating and conciliating instead of this stubborn attitude which means that these hard-pressed and hard-working people are being held to ransom by the rest of the nation?

Sir K. Joseph

I do not think that the ancillary workers, who have an offer this week of £2 extra for men and £1.80 for women, are being held to ransom by the nation. The formula which the Government are applying under stage 2 is particularly favourable to the low paid. Never before, I believe, has there been a case in which the extra offered to the lower paid is as close to the extra offered to the higher paid as in this case.

Mr. Edward Taylor

Would my right hon. Friend agree that, while a number of workers concerned are indeed low paid, this is not something that has suddenly happened in the last two years of Conservative Government? Would he agree that the right policy is to accept the increase and to have any major anomalies sorted out by the end of the year?

Sir K. Joseph

I agree with every word of my hon. Friend.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the ancillary workers and the nurses are probably the least militant section of the workers' movement in this country and that the fact that they are out on strike or threatening to strike shows the injustice that they feel has been meted out to them? Can the right hon. Gentleman really ask the House to believe that a £1 increase to the women in the service will increase their standard of living or even sustain their existing standard of living during the next six or 12 months? Will he give us the information to show to which figures that £1 is an addition for the women and the £2 is an addition for the men?

Sir K. Joseph

I readily acknowledge that the ancillary staff have been disappointed not to be offered the same as local government workers accepted last autumn. There is a 40p a week difference between what the local government workers accepted and what the ancillary workers have been offered. The £1.80—not £1—extra a week for women will be followed by a further 80p a week in October as a further step towards equal pay, which will raise the average pay of women in the service from just under £21 a week to just under £23 a week, which is well above the average pay for women in this country.

Mr. Farr

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the only way to make this policy work is to have no exceptions whatever, and that if exceptions were to have been made, an even more deserving case is that of agricultural workers, who could probably have had an exception if one had been going?

Sir K. Joseph

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right—that this policy, which is in the national interest, depends upon no exceptions being made. The Pay Board and its recommendations for stage 3 exist to consider anomalies arising from the interaction of the standstill and stage 2.

Mr. Edward Short

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is now the second strike which could almost certainly have been settled if the Government had been prepared to swallow their pride and accept proposals made from the Opposition Front Bench? The first strike was the gas workers' strike. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made a proposal for a Royal Commission, which the Prime Minister turned down out of hand. The second strike is the present strike, and a proposal has been made that could end it. Is it not outrageous that these two damaging strikes should be allowed to continue and that the Government should sit there and be unprepared to raise a finger to stop them?

Sir K. Joseph

The Government are not prepared to give way to rampant inflation—as right hon. and hon. Members opposite were in their last year of Government. It is common ground that if any special case is made during stage 2 other unions will seek to follow the precedent. Other unions are not prepared, so far as I can tell, to regard the hospital workers as a special case.

Dr. Summerskill

Does the right hon. Gentleman claim that a rise of £1.80 for the women is helping the low paid and the furtherance of equal pay, which his Government claim to be undertaking? Will he bear in mind that two-thirds of the hospital ancillary workers are women? In fact, lie is giving his proclaimed £2 to only one-third of the hospital ancillary workers. Those women do not feel that he is fully recognising the work which many of them have given since 1948 to the hospital service.

Sir K. Joseph

The women in the service are being offered £2.60 extra this year—that is £1.80 this week and a further 80p in October. That is a sizeable extra in proportionate terms on their earnings, and a much higher one on their basic rate. It represents far more for the low paid and for women than the Labour Party were prepared to provide during their period of office.

Miss Joan Hall

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a lot of the people out on strike at the moment, including many hospital secretaries, did not want to go out on strike in the first place? They want to get back to work but they are not allowed to do so by certain people who are intimidating them?

Sir K. Joseph

There is certainly evidence in some areas of a most praiseworthy devotion to patients. I would rather not say more than that at the moment.

Mr. Harold Wilson

As the right hon. Gentleman is standing on no other argument except that there must be no exception during phase 2, will he say why the Government allowed newspaper proprietors in the standstill during phase 1 to pay in respect of a previously concluded agreement, which newspaper proprietors said did not qualify under phase 1 and from which two leading newspapers dissociated themselves, saying that it was not allowable? Will the right hon. Gentleman say why the Government allowed that, and why he cannot allow this particular case under phase 2?

Sir K. Joseph

I am not standing in the way, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. This is a perfectly reasonable offer to make to the ancillary staff. It is the second best in the history of the National Health Service. The Pay Board is available to consider a case for further treatment during stage 3. I am not ashamed of this offer.

Mr. Lomas

As the secretary of the NUPE Members of Parliament, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he will agree that a basic rate of £18 a week is just not good enough and that the average earnings are well below the average earnings in other industries? Will he not further agree, if he considers the whole object of the Government's policy of £1 plus 4 per cent., that all that is happening is a widening of the gap and that the differentials are not narrowing? Does he not consider that these people, who do a useful job of work in the hospitals, deserve more than £18 a week, and deserve some sympathy from the Government?

Sir K. Joseph

According to my figures, 0.3 per cent. of men are on earnings of £18 a week or under. The offer will increase their pay to £20 a week. That applies to the bulk of the men—in fact, all the men. The average earnings are just under £28 a week for 46 hours. That gives a very different impression. The offer will raise their average earnings—that is the offer which is available this week—to £30 a week for men and just under £23 a week for women.

Mr. Redmond

Has my right hon. Friend any information to show how successful in marketing are the companies who are making disposable bed-sheets? If the companies are successful during this strike, what will it mean in redundancy for hospital ancillary workers?

Sir K. Joseph

I am glad to say that in most cases, although not in all, the pledge of the unions to keep the essential services maintained, which includes the laundries, is being fulfilled.

Mr. John Mendelson

I return to the advice given by the medical consultants, which prompted the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin). Is it not clear that it is the Government's rigid attitude against the use of any other type of inquiry or any of the traditional conciliation machinery, and their rigid opposition to the proposals of the medical consultants, who know the position as well as if not better than the right hon. Gentleman, which is responsible for the dangerous industrial situation as it is developing?

Further, does he agree that the advantage sometimes of other inquiries is that they leave room for manoeuvre? However, if he sets down what the result of the inquiry must be in advance, people can have no confidence in his administration.

Sir K. Joseph

The British Medical Association's proposal was to have an inquiry whether through the Pay Board or by some other means. The Pay Board is available and I hope that the unions will apply to it for consideration of their case.

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