HL Deb 25 January 1982 vol 426 cc749-52

2.38 p.m.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the functioning of the National Health Service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Elton)

Not entirely, my Lords. But we do have a service which is of immense benefit to the nation, and we are continually seeking ways to improve it.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that kind and generous reply. Would the Government be prepared to look very carefully at the working conditions and remuneration of Britain's nurses, who make such a massive contribution to the National Health Service, and may they be treated as generously and as properly as other sectors of industry that are now approaching the time for making claims to the various Whitley Councils?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I cannot, of course, anticipate any exchanges which may take place in negotiations of this nature. The noble Lord may be interested to know that the total of all nursing and midwifery staff in England, including unqualified staff and agency nurses, increased from 358,447, in whole-time equivalents, in September 1979 to 370,000 in September 1980—an increase over the year of about 11,500.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, in backing up the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, I should like to ask that the nurses be treated more generously than other people in industry because of their very noble habit of not going on strike.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Government are well aware of the very valuable work done by the nurses and the way in which they do it, but I am not prepared to anticipate any future negotiations.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, although the noble Lord has quite rightly said that the Government are seeking to improve the National Health Service, can he tell the House how the health service is being improved by the expenditure of £100,000 a year on keeping St. George's Hospital empty and on proposing to sell this very valuable site for peanuts—for £23,700? Surely that does not help the National Health Service.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I should like to explain the background to that question. Roughly half the site is vested freehold in the Secretary of State; the other half, of which a proportion is occupied by the medical school, is also held freehold, but the freehold is subject to special provisions in the conveyance and those provisions restrict the site to use as a hospital and a medical school. If that use ceases, an offer back, a preemption right, must first be made to the Grosvenor Estates, from whom the site was originally acquired in 1767, before it can otherwise be disposed of. As my right honourable friend is satisfied that there is no further health service requirement for the site, he has concluded that the best course of action is to dispose of it for the best commercial price which can be obtained within the restrictions imposed by the covenant. Our part of the site is a key to the whole development. We expect to realise several million pounds from it and the transaction to be very lucrative for the National Health Service.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that much of the increase in the number of nurses that he has mentioned goes back to three years ago? Last year those nurses finished their three years' training and became fully qualified nurses. Is there not a danger that that has now dropped off and that we shall not be in that happy situation because of the current lack of attraction to the service? Will the noble Lord please again bear in mind the point which has already been made, that because these young men and women do not threaten any militant action or anything of that character it would be extremely wrong if they were in any way victimised because of their faithfulness and loyalty to their great profession?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not think that I can embark upon a discursus upon the whole of our policy towards nurses, particularly in view of the lack of precision of the noble Lord's Question when he tabled it. It was difficult to anticipate what he had in mind. I shall take on board what the noble Lord has said and whether I agree with him or disagree—and I expect it will be the latter—shall write to him.

Lord Segal

My Lords, have the Government any views as to how the site of St. George's Hospital should be utilised?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as I have said, my right honourable friend is convinced that there is no further National Health Service requirement for the site. No other National Health Service function in London is suitable for relocation here, which could only be done in any case at heavy capital cost. Therefore, we intend to dispose of it for the best commercial price we can obtain. It is of course subject to planning conditions and that will be the forum in which to discuss this focal point in London.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether he is prepared at this moment to state that as a result of the sale of St. George's the several millions that are to accrue to the National Health Service rightly belong to the South-West Thames Regional Health Authority?

Lord Elton

My Lords, no; the noble Baroness may not ask me that.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, although I fully understand his inability to make full comment on negotiations which are proceeding, does the noble Lord not agree that it is time that lip-service about the value of the nursing service should be implemented by making nurses a special case? Furthermore, is he aware that all consultants depend absolutely and completely on adequate nursing care and skill in order to make sure that their treatment is in fact successful? So nurses are a special case. Will he and his Government bear that in mind?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the staff side of the Nurses' and Midwives' Whitley Council has not yet submitted a pay claim to take effect from 1st April next, although it is imminent. It will then be for the two sides of the Whitley Council to negotiate on this. As regards the improved longer-term arrangements for handling nurses pay, a tripartite meeting between the Secretary of State for Social Services and both sides of the Whitley Council is planned for early next month. I very much hope that these discussions will result in useful progress being made towards improved arrangements. The Government are committed to the principle that a better system is needed.