The government’s 1% annual pay rise cap for nurses is “damaging” and, if continued, risks the NHS losing the goodwill of staff who are holding the health service together in the face of “unprecedented” strain, Labour MPs have warned during a debate.
During the House of Commons session yesterday, which was set up after a petition against the pay cap was signed by more than 100,000 people, Labour MPs said the continued use of pay restraint for Agenda for Change staff was the “wrong choice”, because it did not reflect the hard work nurses did.
“The management don’t know the value of what they get from the nursing profession”
They urged the government to put a stop to the policy – which is currently in place until 2020 – and instead properly use the independent NHS pay review body to assess wage rises every year.
If not, the government risked seeing the NHS “crisis” turning into a “catastrophe,” due to nurses either leaving the profession or feeling so undervalued that they were unable to work the extra hours they often did, warned the MPs.
In addition, the policy was “self-defeating” because, while it was intended to save money, in reality if more nurses chose to leave the profession, the gaps would have to be filled by more expensive agency staff, they said.
Many MPs raised concerns that the use of pay restraint came against a backdrop of the removal of student bursaries, uncertainty around the immigration status of European Union staff working in the NHS, nationwide nurse vacancies, and a large increase in the number of nurses retiring over the next decade.
They said this was, in particular, a time that NHS staff needed to be shown they were valued by the government through better pay.
“It is time they accept they have got it wrong and change course before it is too late”
Andy Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh and a former health secretary, said the NHS was facing “unprecedented” strain and it was often forgotten that the majority of NHS nurses regularly worked beyond their contracted hours.
“The management don’t know the value of what they get from the nursing profession. It’s more than a job to people – they give everything of themselves to this job,” he said during the debate yesterday afternoon.
“But people have limits and when they feel as though people above them don’t understand the commitment they make, the huge contribution they make, when they feel taken for granted – that is when the goodwill and the morale starts to dry up,” he added.
- MPs to debate freeze on nurse pay rises today
- Government relying on staff ‘goodwill’, warn NHS nurses
- Catch-up on the parliament debate on nurse pay live
“That is when I would say the government becomes in danger of achieving a false economy,” he said. “In holding down nursing pay in a way it has done over the past six years, in the end there becomes a price – in nurses feeling they are not able to go above and beyond as they normally willingly would do.”
Mr Burnham said it was “acceptable” following the global financial crisis in 2008 for the nursing profession to make a contribution to deficit reduction.
However, he warned that six years later the use of pay restraint was effectively cutting nurse salaries in real terms, while they were “working flat out to keep an NHS in crisis going”.
“At some point, this strategy begins to fall apart and the NHS falls apart with it. I say to the minister we are not far from that point now,” he warned.
His concerns were echoed by shadow health minister Justin Madders, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, who said it was down to the efforts of staff that the NHS kept going in the face of rising demand and “insufficient” funding.
Follow the parliament debate on nurse pay live
“So let us be clear, we cannot keep indefinitely asking them to do more for less,” he said. “I would argue that it is only the goodwill of NHS workers that has stopped this current crisis from turning into a catastrophe….They can only take this for so long before something snaps.”
Norman Lamb, former health minister and Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, warned of a future recruitment and retention crisis due to staff “voting with their feet” if pay restraint continued.
He noted that the “sense of injustice for nurses” was on top of “the shortage of nurses – 24,000 vacancies, one in three due to retire in next 10 years, and the challenge of Brexit as well”.
In addition, another former health minister, Conservative MP Dr Dan Poulter said during the debate that it was “unacceptable” for senior NHS managers to be given big pay rises while frontline staff are left with increases of zero or 1%.
Dr Philippa Whitford, Scottish National Party MP for Central Ayrshire, highlighted the growing demand for health services and increasing complexity of patients nurses would deal with in the future, including caring for patients with dementia.
“So, working in that environment where everyone around you is having a bad day at the same day that you are having a bad day, means people are not enjoying going to work and if there is a chance to get out they will do,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mr Madders concluded the government’s decision to impose pay restraint was “a political choice that doesn’t need to continue”.
”The Government has persisted with a damaging policy in pursuit of an objective that they have now abandoned, yet despite all the evidence that that policy is self-defeating and will cost more in the long run, the pay cap remains in place,” he said.
“It is time they accept they have got it wrong and change course before it is too late,” he added.
In response, health minister Philip Dunne said he rejected claims that NHS nurses are “undervalued”.
He said that while NHS staff “undoubtedly deserve a cost of living increase” it needed to be recognised that the “financial and quality challenge facing the NHS is unprecedented”.
By holding down pay, the government had protected jobs in the NHS, he said. He noted that the number of nurses in the health service was at an all-time high, but did acknowledge there were still vacancies.