Theresa May has been accused of ducking questions on nursing pay, after an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show where she was quizzed about nurses going to foodbanks.
The prime minister was pressed on whether it was acceptable that “lots of ordinary nurses” were now using foodbanks in the light of ongoing pay freezes.
“I want to develop an economy… where we’re creating secure jobs and well-paid jobs”
During the interview, broadcast on Sunday, she admitted that the government had been forced to make “tough decisions about the public sector”.
But she provoked anger in the nursing sector by failing to directly answer the question about nursing pay, instead emphasising the importance of ensuring a “strong economy” to “pay for the public services people need”.
“You can only ensure we’re putting the money we need into the public sector if you have a strong economy to pay for it,” she said.
Mr Marr pressed her on the impact of below inflation pay increases and the fact that, according to the Royal College of Nursing, nurses had experienced a 14% real-terms pay cut since 2010.
“We now get stories, again from the RCN, of lots of ordinary nurses by the end of the week having to use foodbanks because they can’t afford to pay for food. That’s not the kind of country you want to run is it?” he asked.
However, Ms May responded by saying many NHS staff had seen their pay increase over and above a basic 1% rise.
“If we look at what is happening in relation to pay within the national health service, in fact, when you look at basic pay together with progression pay actually for around half of NHS staff they have an annual increase of around on average of around 3% rather than just the 1% basic pay,” she said.
“She failed to even mention nurses or their work in her reply”
There were “many complex reasons why people go to foodbanks”, she added. “And I want to develop an economy where, yes, we have a strong economy so that we can pay for the public services that people need, but also we have an economy where we’re creating secure jobs and well-paid jobs and higher-paid jobs for people,” she said.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Janet Davies expressed her disappointment that Ms May had not directly answered the questions on nursing pay.
“Theresa May was explicitly asked to admit that it is wrong for nurses to be forced to use foodbanks in 2017,” she said.
“Not only did she fail to acknowledge it is wrong, she failed to even mention nurses or their work in her reply,” said Ms Davies.
“Nurses should not have to fund the NHS deficit from their own pay packets,” she said. “Too many are struggling to make ends meet, turning to foodbanks and hardship grants in desperation.”
Ms Davies maintained that the “meagre pay on offer” to nurses was driving many away from the profession and fuelling a “recruitment and retention crisis that is damaging patient care”.
“Every year that the government holds NHS pay below inflation, hundreds of thousands of nurses get another real-terms cut to their salary.
“After the election, for the sake of patient safety, the government must scrap the pay cap and fill the tens of thousands of vacant jobs,” she added.
“It just shows how out of touch and how little she and her party really are”
Mr Marr also asked the prime minister why she had not yet guaranteed the future status of European Union citizens currently living and working in the UK, including many nurses.
Ms May countered by saying that it was also important she looked out for UK citizens living abroad and indicated that to achieve the former aim would require a reciprocal agreement for the latter.
“I want to be able guarantee EU citizens living here their rights and their status, but I think it’s important that we ensure that UK citizens living in Europe have their rights and status guaranteed as well,” she said.
As well as sorting out Brexit, she said there were “long-term issues we need to address” such as the impact of an ageing population.
On the topic of social care and the knock-on effect of under-funding on the NHS, she said there were three stages starting with the extra £2bn the government was providing to plug funding gaps.
In the medium term “we need to ensure good practice is spread across the whole of the country”, said Ms May who flagged up the issues of delayed discharges from hospitals.
“Long-term we need to have a sustainable solution for social care. And yes, we have been working on that sustainable solution,” she told Mr Marr.
“When asked about the scandal of nurses going to food banks, all she could respond with were empty slogans”
However, she added he would have to wait until the Conservative Party manifesto was published for more detail on the party’s proposals.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats responded to the interview by claiming the prime minister was “out of touch”.
Speaking at a May Day rally in Trafalgar Square yesterday, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “This is a Tory government that has presided over a country in which our nurses have to rely on foodbanks, yes that’s right. Nurses, the heroes of our NHS. Abandoned by this government.
“And all this Tory prime minister can say about it is there are “complex” reasons,” he said. “It just shows how out of touch and how little she and her party really are about the problems facing hardworking people in our country.
“The reasons why people use foodbanks are not complex – they use them because they are hungry and cannot afford to feed themselves,” he added.
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael said: “This shows just how out of touch Theresa May is. When asked about the scandal of nurses going to food banks, all she could respond with were empty slogans.
“Nurses, teachers and police are all seeing a relentless Brexit squeeze to their incomes under this Conservative government, as wages fall and prices go up,” he said.
“This problem is set to get worse, with nurses facing a 12% pay cut by the end of the decade as a result of rising inflation,” said Mr Carmichael.
He added: “This election is a chance to change Britain’s future and protect our NHS and people’s living standards from a disastrous hard Brexit.”
Details of how the 1% pay rise will affect those on the Agenda for Change contract in England have now been published by NHS Employers.