§ 8. Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)
If he will make a statement on the pay of medical laboratory staff working in hospitals. 
§ The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham)
For the first time, we have offered all medical laboratory scientific officers—MLSOs—a guarantee of rises above projected underlying inflation, not just for one year, but for three years. In addition, trainees have been offered increases of up to 26 per cent. for last year, all MLSOls have been offered 7.1 per cent., and we have offered to increase the minimum national starting pay for MLSO2s by 7.1 per cent. If accepted, all that would be backdated to 1 April 1999. We are also discussing positively with the NHS trade unions proposals to reform and modernise NHS pay, as we outlined last year in "Agenda for Change".
§ Mr. Benn
When I recently visited the pathology laboratories at St. James's hospital in my constituency, I met staff there who are committed to the work that they are doing, but concerned about the reward that they receive for that job, and about the difficulties that they face in recruiting adequate staff. I welcome the step that the Government have taken to recognise that problem through "Agenda for Change". Can my hon. Friend tell the House how soon he expects proposals to be forthcoming so that those staff, a vital group of backroom staff in the NHS, receive the reward that they feel is long overdue?
§ Mr. Denham
We are making good progress with the NHS trade unions, and I hope that we continue to do so. We hope to reach broad agreement about how the proposals would be implemented this summer or later this year. They would then have to be implemented effectively and properly by NHS employers throughout the country. On our side, we are determined to make good progress with the trade unions and, with good will on their side, I am sure that we can do that.
§ Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
I welcome the Minister's announcement today. Does he accept that there is still a pretty wide disparity in pay between medical laboratory staff and other professionals in the NHS, particularly after four years' service, when the disparity is about £4,000? Does he agree that there is an overwhelming case for medical laboratory staff to be included in pay review body reports?
§ Mr. Denham
As I should have said earlier, I pay tribute to the work done by all our medical laboratory staff, to whom hon. Members on both sides have referred. They do a tremendous job and are a key part of the health team. With regard to the disparity in salaries between those jobs and other professions, any existing disparities certainly did not begin to emerge over the past three years, but are a much more long-standing part of the pay system. It is possible, and it is envisaged in "Agenda for Change", that some professional staff groups might become members of the pay review body system. It is too early in the process to have reached agreement on which groups those might be. That is part of the overall package of 15 measures that we are negotiating under "Agenda for Change" and on which we are keen to make progress in the next few months.
§ Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)
The Minister knows that there is a crisis of confidence in the laboratory service and a major problem with recruitment and retention. Why will he not give the simple undertaking, which the Conservative party is happy to provide, that in future all medical laboratory staff will be included in the full pay review structure?
§ Mr. Denham
The hon. Gentleman is unbelievable. His party was in power for 18 years and had the opportunity to implement his proposal. That the hon. Gentleman makes such a suggestion without prior notice or discussion shows that nothing that he says can be taken seriously. We have made it clear that some professional groups can join the review bodies. However, that needs to be part of a negotiated package of changes to the national health service pay system, which will benefit not only staff but patients. The hon. Gentleman's proposal to announce one part of the negotiation as Opposition policy is not credible. He shows no understanding of what is necessary to provide a modern pay system for the national health service.