HC Deb 21 June 1974 vol 875 cc851-5
Mr. Raison (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if she would make a statement on the threatened extended industrial action in the National Health Service.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

I understand that the Confederation of Health Service Employees has announced its intention of intensifying its industrial action among its nursing members in National Health Service hospitals in a number of ways. If carried out, this action will inevitably cause inconvenience and hardship on patients as well as placing a burden on staff not involved.

Lord Halsbury's Committee is already at work and I understand that he hopes to be able to report by the late summer. I should also stress again that any increases arising from the inquiry will be backdated to the date of my announcement. It was in the light of this assurance that the Staff Side of the Nurses and Midwives Whitley Council issued a statement following my announcement in which it said that, provided the Committee reported within a reasonable period of time, it would regard these developments as an answer to its representations, and it recommended the suspension for the time being of all forms of industrial action and urged all constituent organisations to adopt this policy.

I should hope that, in view of this, and in view of the recent additions to nurses' pay, COHSE would, even now, call off its action. In the meantime, I hope that the whole House will join with me in paying tribute to the vast majority of nurses and their representative organisations who are behaving responsibly.

Mr. Raison

Is the right hon. Lady aware that we on this side entirely accept what she has just said? We supported her decision to set up an inquiry and to backdate to May the payment resulting from it, and we agreed to accept its findings. Is she further aware that there have already been rather disturbing reports of deteriorating standards of care, particularly in psychiatric hospitals, about which there have been accounts of wards being locked? If Mr. Spanswick of COHSE means what he says—that there is no doubt that this action will affect the patients—this must give very serious cause for concern.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is unacceptable that industrial action should take the form of people refusing to carry out part of their duties, presumably without loss of payment? Will she take urgent steps, in which she will be fully supported by the Opposition, to do all she can to persuade COHSE to call off its action as quickly as possible?

Mrs. Castle

I am glad that we are in agreement on this matter, at any rate. As the nurses had been due to have such an inquiry for two years when the Opposition were in office but did not set it up, I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman supports our action in setting up this inquiry. However, in view of the speed with which the present Government acted, and in view of my categorical assurance to nurses that the award will be backdated to last month, I should have thought that those concerned would have realised that their claim for an independent review had been met with the utmost speed and that the Government had no interest in delaying the inquiry's findings.

I repeat that Lord Halsbury has said that he will act as quickly as is compatible with the carrying out of a proper review. Therefore, I reiterate my appeal to the members of COHSE to fall in line with the vast majority of the 400,000 nurses, of whom COHSE represents 20 per cent. at most, and please to put the interests of the patients first.

Mr. Grimond

As the Secretary of State has said, speed is extremely important. However, can she give more precise information about the phrase "the late summer"? Is there any hope that the report will be in her hands by the end of July?

Mrs. Castle

I should have doubted that. The Halsbury Committee is taking written evidence now, and it has asked for all written evidence to be in by the end of this month. It will then take oral evidence. But I repeat that it would be contrary to nurses' interests for me to try to twist Lord Halsbury's arm in order to hurry the report, because the nurses asked me to institute a thorough and unfettered inquiry in depth. Lord Halsbury is aware of the need to produce the report as quickly as is compatible with that aim of the nurses, and he has lost no time in getting down to work.

I cannot be more precise because I am not dictating to Lord Halsbury about his findings or his method of working. This is a free and unfettered inquiry in the interests of nurses. But I say this for the reassurance of nurses: if the report happens to be produced when Parliament is not sitting, that in itself will not hold up action by the Government. We have pledged ourselves to act upon the report as quickly as possible.

In the meantime I must repeat to Mr. Spanswick, who wants a down payment of £4 to the nurses, that since I set up the inquiry the nurses have had the increase under stage 3 of £2.25 a week or more plus £1.20 increase under the triggering of the threshold agreement. If later today there were to be further triggering of the threshold, the nurses would benefit. Therefore, nurses in the meantime are being insulated against an increase in the cost of living.

Mr. Spriggs

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the reply that she has just given? However, is she aware, as I am sure she is, that from past experience when this House has been waiting for a report we know that we can wait for many months before it is produced? In view of the fact that this report may take a little longer than all of us would wish, will she reconsider her attitude towards an interim payment to the nurses in this case?

Mrs. Castle

If there were any danger of this report being protracted over a longer period and if, in the meantime, nurses' pay was static while the cost of living was rising, I should accept my hon. Friend's suggestion, because I know the low base from which the nurses start and their representations for this revaluation.

I have given careful consideration to that request. But knowing that the nurses have had their stage 3 payment, knowing that unlike many other low-paid workers they are covered by the threshold agreement and will have continuing increases if the triggering off continues, and bearing in mind also that I have given a pledge that the findings will be backdated so that the nurses will be entitled to a pay increase as from now, I came to the conclusion, which I think that the majority of the staff side accepted, that it was better in the interests of the nurses that we did not get into a long haggle about a down payment now. A down payment would have to be arbitrarily fixed, with no agreement as to whom it should cover, with some members of COHSE saying that it should go only to lower-paid nurses, others saying that it should go across the board, some wanting one figure and some another.

Rather than enter into that kind of wrangle over an interim payment, I think that the majority of nurses support me when I say that it is better for Lord Halsbury to have a free and unfettered rôle ahead. We are talking about disruptive action by fewer than 20 per cent. of the nurses. On the basis of Mr. Spanswick's own claim, we are talking about a membership of 70,000 out of a total of 400,000 nurses. It is a minority who, by their action, are putting additional burdens on the remainder of the nurses and their organisations who are acting responsibly. I think that we can give more attention now to the constructive response of the majority rather than to the disruption of the minority.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member to ask a brief question. This is Private Members' time. Mr. Monro.

Mr. Monro

I appreciate that the right hon. Lady is not responsible for the National Health Service in Scotland, but has she heard from the Secretary of State for Scotland about the position in Scotland, especially in relation to psychiatric hospitals? Will she accept that I strongly support her view that the members of COHSE should return to work until the inquiry reports, which I hope will be as soon as possible?

Mrs. Castle

I only heard the latest announcement by COHSE late last night. Clearly, in the short time that I have had before replying to this Private Notice Question, it has not been possible for me to make the detailed check for which the hon. Gentleman asks.

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