HL Deb 23 June 1982 vol 431 cc1047-52

3.43 p.m.

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

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will now intervene to repeat a Statement being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services in another place. The Statement is as follows: On 10th June I told the House that the Government were considering the points made by the Royal College of Nursing following the ballot on the pay offer of 6.4 per cent. I reported also the initiative I had taken in asking Mr. Lowry to undertake consultations with the health service unions affiliated to the TUC to establish if there was any common ground between us. My objective has been to secure agreement so that negotiations can be resumed in the respective Whitley Councils. Following careful consideration of the position and after consultation with some of the chairmen of the Management Sides of the Whitley Councils I entered discussions with the representatives of the health service unions and professional bodies. I was able to tell them that the Government had decided that a further £90 million would be available for Great Britain in negotiating a new pay offer—partly from the Government and partly from the existing health service budget. Together with the additional resources made available in March this year this would increase the average pay of nurses and midwives and the professions supplementary to medicine by Vs per cent., ambulancemen and hospital pharmacists by 61 per cent. and other groups of staff by 6 per cent. The increases for particular grades would be for negotiation within the Whitley Councils. These improved offers both maintain the special position of nurses and other staff providing direct patient care and bring offers to all groups of staff on a par with other recent awards in the public sector. My honourable friend the Minister for Health and I have been in discussions over the last two days with the Royal College of Nursing and the Health service unions affiliated to the TUC. I am glad to report to the House that the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, the Health Visitors Association and the Association of Nurse Administrators have agreed to recommend to their responsible bodies that their negotiators be authorised to return to the negotiating table. I hope their Whitley Council will resume discussions very shortly. Regrettably the representatives of the health service unions rejected the improved offers out of hand and were unwilling to resume any negotiations. They intend to report this back to the full TUC health services committee with the proposal that industrial action should continue. Mr. Speaker, the Government have moved substantially to improve the offers to the health service. The average increases in pay offered for health service staff range between 6 per cent. and 7.5 per cent. This compares with 5.9 per cent. for civil servants, 6.0 per cent. for teachers and 6-1 per cent for the armed services. I do not believe that the health service unions are justified in rejecting this offer and I deplore their decision to continue a campaign of industrial action which can only harm patient care. I hope that they, and in particular their members, will reconsider the position very carefully and I urge them to return to negotiations in the Whitley Councils. My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for repeating the Statement, which he has done so clearly, to indicate to the House the Government's position. The Government's move to increase their offer is an indication of the justice of the health workers' claim. They are indeed among the lowest paid workers in the country, performing a vital service to the community. The National Health Service means teamwork, and ancillary workers are an essential part of that team. It is regrettable that strike action has again to be taken, but morale is low in the health service. The workers feel that they are being made to bear the brunt of the Government's pay policy. When one is on low pay, increases to better paid sections of public services only irritate.

So far as nurses pay is concerned, has agreement to accept been given not only by the Royal College but by other unions covering nurses? I rather gather from the Statement that the nurses affiliated to TUC unions have not yet accepted. It must be borne in mind that nurses and other health workers face increases in their accommodation charges, as the Secretary of State has recently instructed health authorities to increase rents in line with the £2.50 guideline increase in council rents. In addition, there are increases in cost of meals taken on duty.

It might help the House to relate percentages to actual facts. We should bear in mind that the revised offer really means an increase for nurses of £1.18 per week, on average, and for ancillary workers £1.34. There has been a regrettable situation in the negotiations in the last two days, which is not on the best lines of establishing good relations. On Monday, the department offered nurses 7 per cent. and ancillary workers 5.5 per cent. On Tuesday, 22nd June, the Secretary of State agreed to meet the TUC Health Services Committee at 12 noon. He then delayed the meeting until 2.30 p.m. He then delayed it again.

Meanwhile, at 3.50 p.m. the Royal College of Nursing held a press conference at which it announced that the Secretary of State had offered nurses 7.5 per cent. and the ancillary workers 6 per cent; and 20 minutes later the Secretary of State came to tell the TUC Health Committee the same news. That is not the way to establish good relations with the TUC Health Committee and, as one very much involved voluntarily over the years with the health service, I very much regret the continuing dispute and the industrial action.

As it is continuing, regrettably so, will the Government refer the matter to ACAS? Will they consider arbitration? At present—this is not new—industrial relations in the National Health Service are in a poor state, which is acting against the public and the patients' interests. It is all very well for some people to say that people in the public services, especially in the NHS, should not strike. That is no solution. The situation will not improve until the Government supplement collective bargaining with proper arbitration to ensure a fair rate for the job. And will the Government cease taking advantage of the specalised position of health workers, and, first, set up an inquiry into the whole position, and, secondly, establish adequate and fair negotiating machinery?

3.52 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches would also like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. We, too, must of course deplore the initiation of strike action and its continuation on the part of the health service workers. We recognise the difficulty in which the Government find themselves, in that they have an incomes policy for the public sector but no incomes policy throughout the country as a whole. I know that the noble Lord will tell me the Government have not an incomes policy for the public sector—but a rose by any other name, and this looks more like an incomes policy than most incomes policies that we have had in the past.

The Government have been singularly unfortunate in their handling of negotiations in the public sector, both last year and this year. If they mean business by negotiation, if they really want the Whitley machinery to work—and I believe they probably do want it to work, and we on these Benches certainly want it to work—I would suggest that there really must be adequate scope for genuine negotiation; but to be told that there is a fixed amount, as the National Health Service workers were told in the first place, and then in face of resistance to give a bit, the £90 million with which the Government have came back, is no way to continue negotiations. Either the Government have to recognise that there must be sufficient flexibility in their offer to enable negotiations really to take place or they must accept that it is a hidden diktat which the health service workers are unlikely to accept. The Government need to consider their whole practice of negotiations in relation to the public sector.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, was not able more warmly to welcome the Statement. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, was perhaps not quite as anxious as the noble Lord, but I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, that arbitration is really no solution to this problem. Arbitration is not an extension of free collective bargaining, because arbitration will result in imposing upon one side or another a settlement which they do not wish to accept and would not have accepted in the first instance.

It is for the Government to decide how much money is available and for the Whitley Councils to conduct detailed negotiations and make the detailed offers to the individual and varying grades in their varying councils and within different skills, and that is what we have done. We made a certain sum of money available, additional Government money, and as I have warned your Lordships on many occasions we have had to make a further inroad into this other fund available to the health service from within its existing budget. As I said, I believe in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, a week or so ago, there was no possibility of a significant new offer without some erosion of the health service's existing budget; and I fear that that is what has had to happen.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that in 1974 the party now in Opposition had got itself into exactly the same mess as the present Government, then in Opposition, have got themselves into now? Does he remember that, being then Chairman of the Doctors' and Dentists' Review Body I was asked to Chair the equivalent of a review body for the nurses, midwives and paramedical professions and that for a period of about six months my two review bodies had linked, through me, the entire structure of the National Health Service, upper echelon and salaries, under their control and we brought a rational structure of differentials into being, and that this rational structure gave universal satisfaction to everybody concerned? Does the noble Lord also recall that when I laid down my task I warned the then Minister at the Elephant and Castle—it was Mrs. Castle—that the system would simply slip back into the mess from which my colleagues and I had rescued it so long as there was no continuing review body? I wanted to see the Whitley Council schemes dissolved for the purposes of the nurses, midwives and paramedical professions and a standing review body set up instead.

The unrealistic factor in the present system of going about it is that the hands are the voice of Esau but the voice is the voice of Jacob. Behind it all always is not the employer, the National Health Service, but the Treasury. It is the Treasury who cooks up what is to be given away, not the employers. The whole of this negotiating machinery is largely bogus as it stands at the moment. That is why there is this slippage.

Why did the particular scheme of differentials which my committee and myself agreed upon give satisfaction? It was because we took an enormous amount of trouble to try to ascertain the right point at which to level peg the centre of gravity of the nursing professions, and we chose the station sergeant in the police force.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl, but after a Statement it is proper to ask a question rather than make a speech. If the noble Earl could put his point in the form of a question then others would have an opportunity to raise questions on the Statement.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, my question to the Government spokesman was: does he remember that? I then asked what it was. However, if I have not the ear of the House or the Front Bench and they want me to wind up quickly, I will certainly do so. The secret of it was to level peg one thing with another. Does the noble Lord remember that that was what I did?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Earl had a distinguished role to play in these affairs in years past, but whatever negotiating machinery is devised somebody has to find the money to meet these wage settlements. If we were to give teeth to the Whitley Councils and, for example, were to give them a total say over how much money they have to dispose of, that would be, in effect, an open-ended commitment; and the Government cannot enter into an open-ended commitment. We have a clear and binding duty to control public expenditure one way or another, and to give, particularly, health service pay negotiators an open-ended ability to conduct their negotiations would be a wholly unacceptable imposition on the public purse.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, if the Government wish to remove inconsistencies and a sense of injustice on this question of arbitration in the public sector, why is it that arbitration under pressure was conceded to the Civil Service? Why is it that arbitration under pressure was conceded to the teachers? Now the noble Lord is saying that the Government must decide on the pay of the health service workers. Why cannot arbitration given to one section of the public sector be applied to others, and what alternative is there for resolving differences between the Government's workers and the Government themselves if arbitration is not available?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the distinction between the award to the teachers and the civil servants on the one hand, and to the health service workers on the other hand, is that in the first two cases the awards were contained within existing cash limits of around 4 per cent. It has not been possible to do that with regard to the health service award. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the health service altogether employs something like a million people. Your Lordships will appreciate, therefore, that a very tiny percentage increase can mean a very substantial sum altogether in public expenditure.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that what irritates and annoys the TUC negotiators is that their highest level is the lowest level in public service? The Government are not fair at all. It is absolutely unfair for the police, for the armed services and, for example, the firemen, to have a certain high level, while, when the nurses want to negotiate on that basis, the Government forbid it. Is the noble Lord further aware that the activities yesterday of the Secretary of State, who, having made a firm appointment and called the TUC leaders to meet him, kept them waiting for four hours while he did a secret deal with the Royal College of Nursing, will mean that student nurses—the most hard-pressed of all—will get an extra 69p a week? Is the noble Lord aware that the Secretary of State may have succeeded in splitting the solidarity of Britain's health service workers, but the annoyance and the bitterness is so great that it may well turn into a pyrrhic victory for the Secretary of State?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is, of course, the case that the health service unions are already taking industrial action, and have been for some considerable time, while the nurses are not doing so, have not done so, and, so far as we know, will not do so. It is, thus, hardly surprising that, if there is any difficulty, my right honourable friend is anxious about the health service unions who have already taken industrial action. Indeed, as I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, the other day, even emergency cover has in some places been withdrawn. However, it is the intention of my right honourable friend to get a settlement in this matter and that is why he has made the additional funds available to which I have referred today.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, have the Government considered the possibility of permitting disputes in the health service such as this to be submitted to some form of independent arbitration because, as he rightly says, the Government in the last resort are the pay master, the Government, as it were, being permitted to refrain from accepting the outcome of the independent arbitration subject to an affirmative resolution by both Houses of Parliament?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not think that the Government can abandon responsibility for determining the sums of money available for these matters. We have long said that it is necessary to contain the growth in public expenditure and we have, therefore, to contain the growth in funds available to the health service. That is why my right honourable friend has to set the total sums available to the Whitley Councils for the negotiations in respect of their different grades. Within those total sums, it is, of course, open to the Whitley Councils to allocate the money as best they can and as they think fit after discussion between the management and staff sides.