Pay restraint for nurses and other NHS staff that has lasted for seven years is an “insult” to the profession, a newly elected nurse MP has told Nursing Times as she vowed to fight until the 1% public sector wages cap had been lifted.
In an interview following her election as Labour MP for Wolverhampton South West last month, theatre nurse Eleanor Smith laid out her priorities in her new role.
”I am going to hold their feet to the fire. We’re going to keep on and on. We will raise as many amendments as we can until they cave in [over pay]”
Pay was one of the issues at the top of her agenda, she said, and part of the reason why she wanted to move into politics following a 35-year career in the NHS - the majority of which was spent at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, where she still works.
Ms Smith, who is 59 years old, is also a trade unionist. She became the first black woman to hold the post of Unison president, from June 2011 to June 2012.
It was around that time that she started to consider a career in politics, due to the austerity measures introduced by the government, and the cuts to public services she was witnessing.
“I wanted to be the one that lobbied, to take concerns to Parliament. As a nurse I felt I could do that and I wanted to do that – and also as a trade unionist,” she said.
During the election campaign – which resulted in her holding onto the Labour seat with 20,899 votes, and a majority of 2,185 ahead of the Conservative candidate - she felt members of the public were more sympathetic to her due to her job in nursing.
“When campaigning on doorsteps, my nursing was welcomed because people could see I’d worked in the NHS for 35 years.
“And the fact I understood the needs of the NHS, and what it means to be on the frontline, more than other politicians,” she told Nursing Times, adding that she would like to continue working as a nurse as an MP, but would assess the possibility of that during the remainder of the sabbatical period she had taken.
The general public still have a great deal of respect for the profession and can see that nurses are not always able to do their jobs in the way they want to – due to funding cuts and pressures on the service, added Ms Smith.
“We still have that respect among the general public that we are a caring profession, which we are. They see that the lack of funding means we are unable to do the real jobs we want to do,” she said.
It was clear the public also now fully understood the impact of the government’s relentless holding down of NHS pay since 2010, said Ms Smith.
Theatre nurse seeking to become Midlands MP
She described the government’s annual 1% pay rise limit as a cut – “because costs go up far beyond 1%” – and noted the direct impact it had on her colleagues.
“To cover the bills staff have ended up either having to do bank shifts – which means they have extended their working hours from 37 hours, probably by another 10–15 hours extra – which puts a strain on their own health and wellbeing and also on their family life,” she said.
“They are having to work extra hours just so they can keep their heads above water,” she added.
This would often result in nurses and other staff going off sick or leaving their jobs – which only added to national recruitment problems, she said.
Ms Smith said the government itself knew that the public were aware of the cap on NHS wages.
“We have heard they were knocking on doors and they knew themselves that people were saying ‘It’s unfair you’ve introduced this pay cap’,” she said.
In light of that and last month’s vote in the House of Commons put forward by Labour to end pay restraint – which was lost due to a government majority of 14 – Ms Smith said: “Shame on the current government, on the Tory MPs.”
Ms Smith said she was determined to fight for the cap to be removed and would continue to put pressure on the government until the battle was won.
“I am going to hold their feet to the fire. We’re going to keep on and on. We will raise as many amendments as we can until they cave in. That’s what we are going to do and have to do,” she said.
Aside from wages, there were also a number of other matters that needed looking at, said Ms Smith - most pressingly the removal of bursaries for healthcare students.
“That’s having a big impact on our recruitment and getting more nurses into the profession,” she said. She also noted that mature students were far less likely to come into the profession due to other financial commitments they may have.
”[The removal of bursaries is] having a big impact on our recruitment and getting more nurses into the profession”
She predicted that young people may be more likely to drop out once they consider they are paying around £9,000 a year for training that involves working on clinical placements for half of their three years at university.
“When they get on the wards and realise what they have to do – and pay for it – I can assure you the drop-out rate will be very high,” she said.
Another threat was the potential reduction in staff coming from European Union (EU) countries to work in the NHS due to ongoing uncertainty over their rights.
Despite the government’s announcement last month that EU nationals would be eligible for “UK settled status” if they had lived in the country for five years, it was still not clear who exactly would be able to benefit.
“With the five years – nobody knows when it is supposed to start and end. We should be saying to all our NHS staff - you have a right to stay. Full stop. Right across the board. But we’re not,” she said.
Nurse staffing legislation in England, which was included in Labour’s manifesto during the election campaign, also needed championing, she said.
The cuts to NHS trusts’ funding for continuing professional development training for nurses and other staff must also be fought, said Ms Smith.
“Our professional development has to be prioritised if we want to maintain patient safety and care,” she said.
Work to tackle the lack of black and minority ethnic (BME) nurses in senior roles – and also across other healthcare staff groups – was “something that has been put on the backfoot as parts of the cuts” as well.
”I think now that we’re [nurses] in Parliament, our voices are being listened to a lot more – because it’s cross party”
“That’s something we will need to raise as well because services are missing out on valuable staff,” said Ms Smith.
“I always wanted to push my other colleagues who were interested in that area, but they always felt there was a glass ceiling,” she said. She noted that BME colleagues said they lacked the career support – or knowledge of new roles – compared with certain other staff that had become the “favourite daughters” of managers.
On all of these issues affecting nursing and the NHS, Ms Smith said she felt the fact there were now five nurse MPs meant the profession had a stronger voice in politics.
“I think now that we’re in Parliament, our voices are being listened to a lot more – because it’s cross party. Not just Labour,” she said.
However, she stressed that nurses do not work in isolation, and that she felt it was the “voice of the NHS” that would now be taken forward.
”Nurses have been political but haven’t realised it. Now let me tell them – they are”
Nurses across the country had a role to play in politics – not just those who are also MPs, she said.
She firmly believed that nurses were already engaging in politics – even if they didn’t realise it – because they advocated for their patients.
“You raise your head above the parapet and speak about any issue or concerns about patients or services – you then become political. Because you are not sitting back – you are advocating.
“And that’s what politicians do – advocate for people,” she said.
This realisation was partly behind her decision to move into politics. However, she underlined that despite all the challenges, change was possible from the grassroots up.
“Nurses have been political but haven’t realised it” she said. “Now let me tell them – they are”.