HC Deb 11 April 1978 vol 947 cc1159-62
3. Mr. Townsend

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the progress made in improving industrial relations within the National Health Service.

4. Mr. Crouch

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the progress he has made in improving industrial relations within the National Health Service.

22. Mr. Hodgson

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the progress he has made in improving industrial relations within the National Health Service.

23. Mr. MacKay

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the progress he has made in improving industrial relations within the National Health Service.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)

Considerable progress has been made in implementing the recommendations contained in Lord McCarthy's report aimed at improving the NHS Whitley Council system. As further steps, I expect the General Whitley Council shortly to consider how to establish more effective industrial relations machinery at all levels of the NHS, and my Department is mounting the first of a series of intensive industrial r[...]ions training courses for selected [...]. More generally, I recently [...] a meeting, which I believe to be the first of its kind, with leaders of the medical profession and the NHS trade unions. The meeting was fruitful, and I hope to follow it up with further joint discussions of issues relevant to industrial relations.

Mr. Townsend

Is it not a fact that the level of disruption caused by the action of ancillary staff in hospitals has reached disastrous proportions? Does this not show that there is something rotten in the whole state of the National Health Service?

Mr. Ennals

The hon. Member must get the matter into proportion. The NHS employs an enormous number of staff all over the country and in general industrial relations have been extremely good. When there are isolated outbreaks they do get widespread publicity. I have made it clear time and time again that I deprecate any industrial action—by doctors, nurses, porters, telephonists or anyone else—which endangers the care and health of patients.

Mr. Speaker

I shall call first those whose Questions are being answered.

Mr. Crouch

Does the Secretary of State accept that, like him, I am not fed up with the National Health Service? The Secretary of State knows that I work in it. However, does he agree that the industrial relations problem cannot be brushed under the carpet? Does he agree that the time has come for a more positive course in man and woman management to be introduced into the NHS?

Mr. Ennals

Certainly; there are such courses. In my answer I said that we were having intensive training courses in personnel matters. I must say that I wish that more of the hon. Members' colleagues would make statements like he has done, supporting the NHS. As for industrial relations, under Lord McCarthy's reforms the Whitley Council management sides have been made more effective and representative. Manpower and pay information units have been established within the Department. Also, the personnel function is being improved and developed.

Mr. Hodgson

Does the Secretary of State agree that the anxieties of patients and relatives have been greatly exacerbated by the activities of telephonists which are not directly concerned with the health of patients but are concerned with their psychological state? His statement today shows complacency, self-satisfaction and lack of urgency in getting to grips with the problem.

Mr. Ennals

The hon. Member's comments are absolutely ludicrous. There has been a great deal of exaggeration. The hon. Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan) referred on 13th March to widespread industrial action in the NHS. This is not so. Hon. Members must keep this matter in proportion. When there is action by the telephonists it is right that we should speak out clearly, as I have done. But happily such action is being taken in only a few small parts of the country, and it is diminishing.

Mr. MacKay

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that the action taken by the telephonists and other ancillary workers is affecting the morale of patients and the medical profession? The patients' health is affected because of the action.

Mr. Ennals

I much resent the fact that everyone seems to be picking on one particular industrial dispute. I am very concerned about this. The telephonists have received a 10 per cent. pay increase but they say that they are dissatisfied with their pay and status. This is being properly considered by the Ancillary Staffs Council. To blow this up into a wider issue is unfair. Hon. Members should look at the whole breadth of the National Health Service, and the amount of time that is being lost in industrial action is very small indeed.

Mrs. Castle

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of improving industrial relations in the NHS is to introduce a system of common waiting lists for all patients in NHS hospitals in order to end queue-jumping by private patients who can afford to pay? Will he make a statement about the report of the Health Services Board asking him to phase out common waiting lists? He has had this report for several months.

Mr. Ennals

It is true that the Board has made recommendations to me, as it is obliged to do by legislation, on the establishment of common waiting lists. It is essential that we should have these to stop any sort of queue-jumping. I am consulting about this recommendation and at the right time I shall make a statement to the House.

Mr. Rooker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that since the day when the NHS was reorganised by the Conservative Party in 1974, the ambulance service in the West Midlands has not worked properly in the interests of the people there? What will he do about it?

Mr. Ennals

I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would table a specific Question about that matter.

Dr. Vaughan

Does the Minister realise that instead of making remarks about being cheesed off by militants we would like to see some much more positive action? Out of these discussions with the BMA and the TUC, will he produce a code of behaviour for people working in the National Health Service?

Mr. Ennals

Frankly, I am a bit cheesed off with the hon. Gentleman. It was he who, in the House on 13th March, referred to widespread industrial action when we had no such thing at all in the National Health Service. This sort of exaggeration is trouble-making.

The meeting that has been held between leaders of the National Health Service unions and the BMA was a cordial one. One of the ideas that I raised at the meeting, which received a good reception, and which will be discussed at our next meeting, is precisely the proposal for some sort of code of practice to improve industrial relations within the NHS.

Mr. Litterick

Does the Secretary of State agree that a basic cause of demoralisation amongst NHS staff is the deliberate reduction of real wages through the operation of wages policy and by the severe cuts in capital spending in the NHS, which has prevented these conscientious people doing the best possible job by their clients?

Mr. Ennals

First, I very much respect the way in which workers within the NHS have been prepared to settle this round of pay negotiations within the Government pay guidelines. I think that we owe them thanks for that.

Secondly, I do not believe that there is deep demoralisation within the NHS. It is [...]to say that those working in the Health [...]rvice recognise that they could do a better job with more resources. That I do not doubt.