HC Deb 27 January 1998 vol 305 cc131-4
4. Mr. Sawford

What proposals he has to improve staff morale in the NHS. [23416]

Mr. Dobson

The election of a Labour Government committed to the national health service that we founded was a great start in raising morale in the NHS. Since being elected, we have—unlike the previous Government—listened to the people working in the NHS. Their views and experience are reflected in the proposals in our White Paper, "The New NHS", which will make the NHS modern and dependable. Working with staff, we are combating assaults on staff, introducing family-friendly employment policies, combating racism and promoting health and safety at work. We have also lifted the gagging clauses on staff which were imposed under the previous Government.

Mr. Sawford

Is my right hon. Friend aware that staff morale in my local health authority has been immensely improved this winter, due to the £1.6 million that the Government found for local health services? In Kettering, we have benefited from £93,000 for the expanded intensive care unit, which I had the great pleasure of formally opening the other week; £35,000 for extra staff in accident and emergency; £35,000 for the medical assessment unit; and £56,000 for the surgical assessment unit. Those are all positive developments which have affected staff morale in my local hospital. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House in what ways he will further involve local staff in all decision-making processes within the local health authority and the NHS?

Mr. Dobson

I should start by paying tribute to all the hard work done by people working in the NHS in maintaining services during the Christmas and new year period and during this period, as winter pressures build up. We are determined to ensure that the staff working in the health service—the people who have developed a vast amount of precious experience—have their say in how things go on in future. That is why we are to establish a new task force to look at how to improve staff involvement, drawing on the direct experience of people currently working in the health service and also, quite properly, drawing on the experience of other, private sector businesses which have a good success rate in staff involvement.

Mrs. Roe

What does the Secretary of State believe the effect on staff morale at the Whittington hospital in North London has been following the publication in last Saturday's Daily Mail of an article headed: How the NHS betrayed my Mum"? The article contained a description of the appalling treatment of a woman patient. Delays in her admission and diagnosis had culminated in her death, amid squalor, noise and broken equipment.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a disgrace that the chairmanship of that NHS trust hospital has been vacant for nine months—since 1 May 1997, when Baroness Hayman resigned to take up her post as a Labour Minister in the House of Lords? Is this not an example of the Labour Government's contempt for staff and patients?

Mr. Dobson

It is nothing of the sort—and the chairman's post has been filled.

The treatment of some old people in acute hospitals has proved to be indefensibly bad. That is why, before Christmas, I asked the health advisory service to conduct a survey of the way in which old people are treated in acute hospitals, a move which was welcomed by every organisation campaigning on the issue. We will take whatever answers the survey comes up with very seriously.

If the hon. Lady will give me details of the case that she cited, I will pursue the matter. The Whittington hospital serves people in my constituency, and—whatever fall from grace may have been revealed by the report in the Daily Mail—most of my constituents who have to go there tell me that they receive a good service from the staff.

Mr. Sheerman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that staff morale has improved a great deal since the Labour victory on 1 May? However, all those in the national health service feel better when everyone is pulling their weight. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is increasing discontent among staff and patients about the fact that doctors who are supposed to be national health service consultants spend far too much time—more than their contract allows—doing private work? That means a long wait for those whom they should be treating in the national health service.

Mr. Dobson

It is certainly the case that the previous Government introduced what they called a full-time contract for consultants, which allowed them to work less than full time in the national health service.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The pressures on the health service—there are longer waiting times, and it was reported today that 10 per cent. of patients had waited for four hours on trolleys in accident and emergency—reflect the staff shortage that the Secretary of State knows exists. We are talking about 8,000 nurses, 1,500 hospital doctors and 1,000 GPs. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House that his Department, he as Secretary of State and the Government will, in the near future, take the one step that, more than anything else, will guarantee good morale in the health service? Will they accept, in full and without phasing, the recommendations of the pay review bodies, so that the NHS can get back to work and do its job, and so that doctors and nurses do not lose theirs?

Mr. Dobson

The hon. Gentleman does not know what is in those recommendations, and he does not know what the Government's response will be. No one would wish to play down the significance of people's pay in relation to their morale, but—as staff tell me time and again—there are other important considerations, and we are addressing those important considerations.

Mrs. Mahon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the casualty watch survey, to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred, got it wrong about the four patients in Halifax? They had not waited 17 to 24 hours. They were in an assessment unit in proper beds, being treated by proper nurses and proper doctors. The community health council has now admitted that it was wrong.

Mr. Dobson

My hon. Friend refers to inaccuracies in the report relating to Halifax. We take any reports of such happenings extremely seriously. I have made it my business to investigate them all. One of those to which the British Broadcasting Corporation gave great publicity this morning referred to someone who, the BBC claimed, had waited 65 hours on a trolley at East Surrey hospital. That woman had come off an aircraft at Gatwick. She was believed to be suffering from malaria and was put in a separate room, which happened to be in the accident and emergency department, because it was believed by the people running the hospital that that was the best place for her to be isolated from the rest of the patients—to protect the patients and her. I do not know whether the BBC has given similar publicity to acknowledging that it was wrong.

Mr. Nicholls

With reference to the reply that the Secretary of State gave the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) some moments ago, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that when ward nurses compare their salary with his, they will be profoundly insulted? If he wants his earlier replies to be taken seriously, the one step that he could take today to improve morale in the national health service would be to respond to the call made last week by the Royal College of Nursing to accept the recommendations of the independent review group, when they come, as they were accepted by the previous Government. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that such an assurance should be given today, or when it comes to nurses' pay, is it all generalities and humour?

Mr. Dobson

When it comes to staging pay increases, the Tories are old stagers. They have been doing it for years. I do respond to certain calls from the Royal College of Nursing. The first speech that I made in this job to the RCN annual conference made it clear that we would abandon the previous Government's crackpot arrangement whereby there was a national agreement, and then staff and management had to negotiate about whether the staff would get 0.8 or 1.1 per cent. in a local agreement. That was a waste and totally stupid, as everyone had told the previous Government. We got rid of the arrangement, which is why I got a standing ovation at the RCN annual conference.