HC Deb 12 December 1989 vol 163 cc827-9
1. Mr. Allen McKay

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will meet representatives of ambulance staff to discuss pay and conditions.

7. Mr. Adley

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the future of the National Health Service ambulance service.

16. Mr. Yeo

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what recent representations he has received regarding ambulance men's pay.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

The pay and conditions of ambulance staff are the responsibility of the NHS management executive and I have no intention of meeting staff representatives myself to discuss this with them.

As for the future of the ambulance service, health authorities will remain responsible for operational arrangements.

Mr. McKay

Will the Secretary of State give his blessing to the talks that are likely to take place on Thursday? Will he assure the House that neither he nor any Government Department will interfere with those talks in any way, and that any increase will not have to be met from the existing budget but will be Government-funded? Failing that, should we not take the matter to arbitration and stop pussyfooting about?

Mr. Clarke

I followed with interest the announcement of a fresh meeting on Thursday, which I heard of when I left the Chamber last night. The management made its final offer to the trade unions in the Whitley council and the other negotiating body last week. The management made it clear this morning that its last offer is final. Nevertheless, it has agreed to talks, and I hope that Mr. Poole will have something new to say when he arrives at the talks on Thursday.

Mr. Adley

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that approximately 10 per cent. of ambulance service work deals with emergencies and that approximately 90 per cent. is important but routine transportation? If that is the case, does it not make sense to respond to demands for parity with the other emergency services by restricting parity to those who provide an emergency service? Does he agree that, not to put too fine a point on it, NUPE's record on public service industrial disruption is second to none?

Mr. Clarke

The final offer made by management last week would provide £500 each year on top of the general offer for those with paramedical training. People involved in the service tell me that they are sure that the future lies in developing the accident and emergency part of the service and giving the necessary training, status and pay that follow to those who require it. Northumbria and Wiltshire have found that the same rules need not apply to the important but routine services that account for 90 per cent. of the work. NUPE's campaign reminds me of some of its other activities. The union has taken extreme action against patients from time to time in the past.

Mr. Yeo

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Conservative and Opposition Members who are concerned about the NHS should oppose industrial action under any circumstances? Does he further agree that the best way in which people can have their claims reasonably considered by management is to withdraw any form of industrial action?

Mr. Clarke

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. In comments on the dispute, it has sometimes been lightly assumed that people who fall outside the TUC guidelines and are not emergency cases can lose the service without suffering hardship. Many elderly and sick patients have great difficulty getting to hospital for the treatment that they require, because of the industrial action that has been targeted at them. That is no way to solve problems of pay and conditions in the NHS. For that reason, management was right to keep revising its offer until it put forward the final offer which, I am glad to say, is still being considered by one of the trade unions involved.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to pay tribute to the ambulance staff in London who have maintained a 999 service without pay for the past two months, while the Army and police simply could not cope? Does he think that the best way of dealing with the problems of the ambulance service in London is to pay and equip the staff properly and stop abusing them and trying to break the union and the dispute as he has done?

Mr. Clarke

I gladly pay tribute to the work of the ambulance service in London and elsewhere when it is working normally, as it was until the dispute started. Obviously, we are grateful to it for the accident, emergency and other services that we are accustomed to it providing. But the idea that it continues to offer those services in London is a myth that has been completely exploded by events. We should also pay tribute to the Army, the police and the members of St. John Ambulance and the Red Cross. The people of London must be grateful to them for the provision of the accident and emergency services which the trade unions sought to deny them.

Mr. Shersby

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is already a significant pay differential between ambulance staff with paramedical skills and those without? Does he further agree that that fact has not come out during the dispute?

Mr. Clarke

There is, and the offer by management concentrates on recognising those skills yet further. That has not been brought out; nor have many other facts. The figure of 6.5 per cent. is no longer used by anybody, but until recently it was being trailed about as the offer made to ambulance men in London. The present 18-month offer is worth at least 9 per cent. to everybody, but for those people in London who acquire the paramedical skills that we want more people to have, it is worth more than 16 per cent. That is why I trust that on Thursday the unions will tell management that they accept the offer.

Mr. Robin Cook

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the week before Christmas the London ambulance service can receive 200 calls an hour? How can the Government hope to respond to those calls with only 100 Army and police vehicles? Does the Secretary of State realise that Thursday's talks are the last chance to make sure that those calls are answered, and that he cannot leave it all to Roger Poole to make a success of the talks?

Has the Secretary of State yet answered the letter from the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), a Minister of this Government, who has written from the safety of his constituency to say that he can see the logic of the ambulance staff claim? If the Secretary of State cannot even convince the man who was once his Parliamentary Private Secretary, is it not time that he stopped pretending that everybody but himself is wrong about the dispute?

Mr. Clarke

I would take the hon. Gentleman's concern about the accident and emergency service in London more seriously if he would condemn the actions of those who have withdrawn it and made it necessary for the police, Army and voluntary bodies to provide that necessary service. I am astonished that Labour Members are prepared to maintain the fiction—that the service is being offered by the unions—which union leaders have largely abandoned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) may not yet have received a reply from me. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to purport that my hon. Friend supports the ambulance men's industrial action, I do not believe him. The information on which he relies sounds like the same sort of partial quotation that has come from too many people in the trade union and Labour movement during this dispute.

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