Friday 3 November 2017

The 1% Problem

In one speech in Parliament, Jeremy Hunt scrapped the hated 1% cap on NHS staff’s pay rises (1), the cap that saw staff’s pay cut in reality. With one speech the seven year old pay cap was gone.

As nurses, this is what we wanted to happen, this is what we have campaigned for (2), we have even threaten industrial action for it (3), but this really a victory?

When Hunt was questioned by MPs, he wouldn’t say what pay rise NHS staff could expect, he wouldn’t say if he’d got the Treasury to fund a pay rise, but he did say that any pay rise would be linked to “productivity” (4).

Only a few months ago, Chancellor Philip Hammond was reported as saying, at a cabinet meeting, that public sector staff are overpaid, being paid 10% above their private sector equivalents (5). Now this is not true and is a distortion of the facts (6), which is unsettling enough for our Chancellor of the Exchequer to do, but it does show Philip Hammond’s attitude towards NHS staff’s pay. In his last budget he provided no increase to NHS funding (7).

A decent pay rise for nurses is urgently needed, and not just as a selfish pat on the back. The NHS is haemorrhaging nurses. There are 40,000 full-time equivalent empty nursing posts in the NHS, 1 in 9 of all nursing posts (8), Janet Davies (General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing) directly linked these empty posts to low pay and high workloads forcing nurses to leave the NHS (9). Since the pay cap was started in 2010, nurses’ pay has fallen in real times by 14% (10), which equates to nurses being at least £3,000 worse off each year (11). Fourteen unions, including the RCN and Union, have called for NHS staff to receive a 3.9% pay rise (12), which only seems fair to me.

In his announcement, Hunt did talk about any pay rise being linked to “productivity”(4), which is unbelievably arrogant. The NHS would be in a far worse state if it wasn’t for the dedication for its staff. This year we’ve seen NHS staff, and especially nurses, going above and beyond their roles when faced with the aftermath of terrorist attacks and disasters; the Finsbury Park mosque attack (13), the Grenfell Tower fire (14), the Manchester Arena bombing (15), Royal Stoke University Hospital fire (16), and the Westminster Bridge and London Bridge attacks (17). But it isn’t just the nurses responding to national disasters, like so many other NHS staff, its the extra work that nurses provide on a day-to-day basis that is holding the NHS together. This isn’t just my opinion, Sir Robert Francis QC, the chair of the investigation into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust scandal, earlier this year said the NHS was only being held together by the “superhuman effects” of its staff (18).

But I think Hunt’s reference to “productivity” is something different. During his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Hunt announced that he wants to pilot an app whereby staff can be called in to fill shifts at a short notice (19). Sound familiar? He wants to introduce an Uber like app were staff will only work when they are needed or staff will be called in to work on their days off. Is this how we want to work and is this safe for patients? I wouldn’t want to be looked after by a nurse dragged into work on their day off. But I fear accepting this app maybe a condition of receiving a pay rise next year.

There is also the question, who will fund any pay rise we’re offered next year. Neither Hunt or Philip Hammond have announced any extra funding for the NHS, and Hammond’s attitude shows he’s unlikely to do so (5). NHS Trusts cannot afford to fund any pay rise. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, told the Commons cross-party health select committee, after Hunt announced he’d scrapped the cap, that the Government will need to increase the NHS’s funding to met any pay rise because Trusts’ funding is far too stressed to do so (20). I suspect that we will get a pay rise and then Hunt will announce that we will only receive it if there are substantial cuts to fund it. This is an approach he’s used before.

At the beginning of the year, during a speech, Hunt said he wanted to increase staff’s pay but he “couldn’t” because that would take money away from recruiting more doctors and nurses (21). In 2014 Hunt vetoed a 1% pay rise for nurses, saying that to fund it would mean losing 15,000 nurses from the NHS (22). This was an out-and-out lie. After industrial attack, Hunt backed down and we were awarded a mere 1% rise (23), and strangely enough no nurses were sacked to fund it.

(The Government found £1.5 billion to fund their deal with the DUP, to secure the DUP’s support in parliament (24). A 1% pay rise for all NHS staff would cost £500 million (25). Therefore the £1.5 billion found very quickly to fund the DUP would fund a 3% pay rise for all NHS staff. Says a lot about this Government’s priorities)

I fear that Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that the cap has been scrapped is nothing more than spin. The Government needed some good news and so Hunt’s announcement, without any funding or guarantees behind it. I fear that the wage cap has only been replaced by spin, emotional blackmail and demands for us to work even more unrealistically harder. With Hunt still in charge, I’d be very surprised to get a pay rise next year above 1%, and certainly not one without a lot of strings attached.

Drew Payne

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