HL Deb 03 July 1974 vol 353 cc303-7

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, in reply to a Private Notice Question put down by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, I should like, with the permission of your Lordships, to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I should also like to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for the fact that I have not been able to give him a copy of this Statement, but I have only just received it myself. The Statement is as follows:

"Industrial action is being undertaken at some hospitals by several groups of workers.

"Action by these groups is connected with negotiation of salaries for new senior management posts in the reorganised National Health Service. The Staff Side is considering a revised offer made in the Whitley Council last night. In view of this I would hope that the staff concerned will carry out their full duties.

"The technicians' action concerns an arbitration award of 1972 which could not be implemented under the previous Government's statutory pay policy. The Management Side have made offers for implementation after the ending of statutory controls but agreement has not yet been reached. I am keeping in touch with health authorities as regards the maintenance of essential treatment for patients.

"I announced on May 23 that Lord Halsbury had agreed to take the chair of an independent Inquiry into the salaries of nurses and midwives. This was welcomed by the Staff Side of the Nurses' and Midwives' Whitley Council. But one Union, the Federation of Health Service Employees, maintained their view that nurses should receive an interim payment before the Inquiry had reported. They advised me on June 21 that they had imposed certain restrictions on the work of their members and that these would be extended from July 1.

"Having appointed an independent Inquiry I was, and am, unable to agree to make interim payments but I spoke to Lord Halsbury and in order to remove any doubts about the timing of his Report I issued a Statement on June 28. In this I indicated that Lord Halsbury had told me that he would be in a position to give me a firm date for his, Report at the end of July. He was of the view that his Report would be completed by the late summer and I have no reason to believe that it will be delayed beyond then. But I made it known that should it appear in a month's time that the Report was likely to be seriously delayed I would then consider asking Lord Halsbury to make an interim recommendation.

"On June 29 COHSE announced that they had called off their industrial action except for a refusal to undertake non-nursing duties, to work with agency nurses or to work with private patients. The position is not yet clear and action is sporadic and localised. Some nursing and other staff, including some who are not members of COHSE, are threatening to refuse to work with agency nurses or to provide services for private patients. At Charing Cross Hospital certain staff threatened to withdraw their services, including domestic, catering and linen services, unless the private wing was closed by the end of June. To safeguard the patients the Area Health Authority proposed that patients receiving treatment in the private wing should be transferred to general ward beds. In view of subsequent representations from the consultants responsible for the treatment of the private patients on clinical grounds the authority is having further discussions with the union and is meeting the consultant staff this afternoon.

"In all these discussions the concern of the Area Health Authority has been and will be to safeguard the interests of patients as a whole. As the House is aware, it is the policy of the Government, as set out in our Manifesto and reiterated since, to phase out private practice from the Hospital Service and while I can understand the feelings of the staff I cannot condone the action they are taking. We believe that this issue must be dealt with by the Government of the day, and in an orderly way. We established immediately on taking Office a Joint Working Party with the medical profession about this and other aspects of hospital consultants' work in an effort to reach agreement and I hope to be in a position to present our proposals early next year."

The Statement concludes by saying:

"I would ask all those who work in the National Health Service not to damage these negotiations or the interests of patients by action of this kind."

My Lords, that ends the Statement.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister very much for the full Statement he has made. There are two points in it which I find encourag- ing. The first is the Government's firm decision that they cannot condone action of this kind which may possibly damage the welfare of patients. Something which must be accepted by those who work in the Health Service in any form at all from the top to the bottom, is that the welfare of the patients must be the paramount consideration and it should not be jeopardised at all by trying to play about with Party politics, which can come from another part of the world entirely but not from Health Service employees. I am very pleased to know, too, that the Area Health Authorities are taking what action they can to safeguard the patients. These are two very encouraging matters and I should like to thank the noble Lord for them.

I would also ask him a question on a minor point. Last night I saw in the Evening Standard, which is a moderately reputable paper with quite a large circulation, that members of the National Union of Public Health Employees (I think they are called) had been to the Department of Health and Social Security and somebody there had advised them to take the action they are taking now at Charing Cross Hospital. This is something I find very difficult to believe, because I know the Department fairly well. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to deny that, which will give comfort to me and to other people who read the same article in the newspaper.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising this matter and for giving me an opportunity of replying to this particular point. There is no truth in the allegation that the Department of Health and Social Security have advised members of the National Union of Public Employees to refuse to feed or care for patients in private wards of the Charing Cross Hospital. I would make that quite clear. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State was aware of the decision of the management to transfer patients from private wards, but accepted that this was being planned in the interests of patients.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we very much welcome the fact that the Government do not condone the action taken against private patients? Is he aware that private practice has been a perfectly legal part of the National Health Service ever since it began in 1948, and that regardless of what the Government may have in mind it is still a perfectly legal practice within the National Health Service; and it is really monstrous that any union should try to act unilaterally in this way and discriminate against private patients, who are not only paying the rates and taxes which support the National Health Service but also paying the full economic cost of their treatment?


My Lords, what the noble Lord has said is perfectly right and this is the view that the Government take, and I hope I have made it very clear to your Lordships. Whatever may be the philosophic difference on the matter of private patients between noble Lords opposite and noble Lords on this side of the House, that is a matter to be determined in the future. But the position at present must be maintained, and it is certainly the view of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that this position should be maintained.