HC Deb 13 February 1996 vol 271 cc798-9
11. Mr. Barry Jones

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will take measures to improve the morale of nurses in the national health service. [13314]

Mr. Dorrell

High-quality health care requires high-quality clinical staff. That is why NHS trusts have greater freedom than ever before to reflect and reward the valuable contribution of highly motivated and skilled nurses.

Mr. Jones

Is not the Government's commercial approach to the health service making the professional lives of nurses quite intolerable? Is it not time that the Secretary of State took action to help our nurses, who are now under great strain because of Government policies?

Mr. Dorrell

The hon. Gentleman says that it is time that the Government took action. The Government have taken quite a lot of action over the past 16 years to improve the lot of nurses in the national health service. If the average nurse were now paid what he or she was paid in 1979, he or she would be paid £186 a week. A nurse now receives £311 a week. On average, nurses in the national health service today are £125 a week better off at today's values than they were when the Labour party left power. That is a single proposition for every nurse in the national health service to think about this evening.

Mr. David Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that nurses' pay was reduced by 23 per cent. in 1976? When that lot were last in power, not one hospital was opened in 1979, thanks to the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees, and if a loved one died in 1979 we could not even get him or her buried? When that lot were last in power, the national health service was a total fiasco.

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend, as ever, is accurate and rapierlike in his comments. Once again, he has underlined the central fact that, when nurses compare the records of the two parties, they will remember that the Labour Government cut nurses' pay and that the Conservative Government have increased the average earnings of a nurse in the national health service by £125 a week in real terms. Those are 125 reasons for supporting the Government in the development of the national health service.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The figures that the Secretary of State gave the House may be correct, but if two thirds of hospital trusts report difficulty in recruiting nurses, 75 per cent. of nurses regard staffing levels as too low to give adequate care to patients and 20 per cent. of nurses regard staffing levels as dangerously low, how will a below-inflation award of 2 per cent. assist either the recruitment of the additional nurses we need or the retention and morale of the nurses still in the NHS?

Mr. Dorrell

I have always thought that, like the Labour party, the hon. Gentleman and his party supported the principles of review bodies. The review body looked at exactly the case that the hon. Gentleman has set before the House—the proposition that there is a shortage of nurses in the NHS. It found there was not a generalised shortage, but isolated local shortages. The review body recommended in unambiguous terms that the right way to deal with the shortages was by locally negotiated pay in a national context. That recommendation has been accepted by the Government in full, and we are acting on it.

Mr. Thomason

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the worst thing for nurses' morale would be the election of a party that had no policy on NHS revenue funding, capital funding or primary health care?

Mr. Dorrell

My hon. Friend is exactly right. It becomes more and more obvious, week after week, that where there should be a national health service policy among Labour's Front Benchers, there is a vacuum.