Catherine: Government must rethink NHS pay restraint

Catherine McKinnell MP has called on the Government to rethink the ongoing pay restraint faced by NHS staff, during a debate held yesterday in Parliament on the issue.

Leading the debate which took place after this e-petition achieved over 100,000 signatures, the Newcastle North MP – and member of the House of Commons Petitions Committee – explained how ‘Agenda for Change’ NHS staff have been affected by what equates to a real terms pay cut of up to 14% since 2011, including by sharing the testimony of frontline healthcare staff from Newcastle North.

Agenda for Change was introduced in 2004 as the system of pay, terms and conditions which applies to more than one million directly-employed clinical and non-clinical NHS staff, with the exception of doctors, dentists and some very senior managers.

Those employed under Agenda for Change – which include nurses, midwives, paramedics, and a number of other healthcare professionals – have experienced a two-year pay freeze from 2011/12, a 1% increase in 2013/14 and 2014/15 – followed by the Government’s announcement at the Summer 2015 Budget that it would fund average public sector pay awards of just 1% for the four years from 2016/17.

Speaking during yesterday’s debate, Catherine said:

‘It’s hard to emphasise enough my support for people working across the NHS in increasingly challenging circumstances, without whom our health service would, quite frankly, cease to exist…

 ‘…How have we found ourselves in a position in which hard-working, dedicated, exhausted nurses, midwives and other healthcare professionals are genuinely struggling to make ends meet?’

The Newcastle North MP emphasised the false economy of centrally-imposed pay restraint in the NHS, stating that:

‘We have the nonsensical situation whereby nurses are leaving the NHS because of increasing workloads, stress and feeling undervalued following years of pay restraint, so the NHS has to turn to expensive agency nurses to fill the gaps left behind.’

And Catherine raised concerns about ongoing recruitment and retention issues, including the current shortage of around 24,000 nurses in England and Wales, the shortage of nearly 3,500 midwives across the UK, and the fact that some 8.8% of nurses left the NHS last year – the highest figure since 2011.  This, combined with Ministers’ ‘ludicrous decision’ to axe bursaries for new nursing, midwifery and allied health students, continued uncertainty about the future of tens of thousands of EU nationals working in the NHS, and the fact that one third of nurses are due to retire in the next 10 years – means the NHS is now facing ‘a perfect storm’.

The Newcastle North MP went on to cite the worrying findings of surveys of NHS staff undertaken by both the trade union UNISON and the RCN – with a recent UNISON survey uncovering that nearly two thirds of respondents felt worse off than they did 12 months ago; 49% had asked for financial support from family or a friend; 13% had used a debt advice service; 11% had pawned possessions; 11% had used a payday loan company; 15% had moved to a less expensive home or remortgaged their house; and just under one fifth took on paid work in addition to their main NHS job, 64% of whom did so because their NHS salary was not enough to meet their basic living costs. More than 80% said they had considered leaving the NHS in the past year.

The RCN survey found that 30% of respondents had struggled to pay gas and electricity bills; 14% had missed meals because of financial difficulties; 53% had been compelled to work extra hours to increase earnings; and 32% were working extra night and weekend shifts to help pay bills and meet everyday living expenses.

Catherine also shared the concerns raised with her by several Newcastle North frontline healthcare workers ahead of the debate, with comments including:

‘I now struggle to afford the basics and am having to do extra shifts just to be able to provide food and pay my bills…I am missing out on valuable time with my family as I have to work nearly every weekend in order to be able to get a wage that can cover our costs.’

‘I am paid about £14.50 an hour to clean up faeces, vomit, blood and other bodily fluids. To hold the hands of patients who are dying. To comfort the relatives of patients who are dying. To maintain complicated machinery/equipment that is keeping a person alive whilst watching the newly-qualified staff nurse who doesn’t feel confident and make sure they don’t do anything dangerous.’

‘After studying hard for 3 years mixing university, placements and guided learning, I gained my degree only to find myself in more dire financial circumstances than I was as a student…I am a qualified professional and yet I would class myself as being on the breadline. I know there are others in greater need than I am; however I feel like I work hard and sacrifice my family time for nothing.’

‘After six years of pay restraint, I now see nurses struggling day to day to make ends meet. Those who have stayed are now planning to leave the NHS early and newly qualified nurses are unable to stay without reasonable remuneration. I feel like I grieve every day for my profession now. We have an NHS workforce currently willing to work as hard as the service asks them, but this goodwill is now eroding faster than I have ever seen in all my years’ service. I am retiring within a couple of years. This request comes not for me, but for those who come after me and who will be caring for me and my family in the future.’

The Newcastle North MP concluded by asking the Minister:

‘How can we expect people to continue to provide high-quality care to us and our loved ones in what are already increasingly challenging circumstances when they are also facing this level of stress and anxiety at home?

 ‘I strongly urge the Government to look at this situation again and to take on board the concerns being raised not only by organisations such as UNISON, the RCN and the Royal College of Midwives, but by NHS frontline staff who are saying loud and clear that this pay restraint simply cannot continue.’

Catherine’s full speech yesterday can be read here.