A health minister has rejected claims by MPs that NHS nurses are “undervalued”, following a debate over the government’s ongoing use of pay restraint for health service staff.
In a House of Commons session yesterday, which was prompted by a petition signed by more than 100,000 people, MPs warned the government of low morale among NHS staff and the “damaging” effect of holding down nurse salaries.
Labour MP for Leigh Andy Burnham noted the majority of NHS nurses worked beyond their contracted hours, but that goodwill was reaching its limit in the face of increasing demand and the annual 1% pay rise cap imposed by the government until 2020.
“The management don’t know the value of what they get from the nursing profession,” the former health secretary warned during the debate.
But in response to Mr Burnham and other MPs, health minister Philip Dunne said: “I deny the allegation that Agenda for Change staff 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”.
“The financial and quality challenge facing the NHS is unprecedented”
He later added that, while pay restraint was “challenging”, staff had reported to him that “they want to know that the right number of staff will be working alongside them in the hospital or community setting”.
He suggested that, if the government had in recent years given nurses and other Agenda for Change staff more than the 1% annual pay rise, it could have resulted in fewer jobs.
“The government have to take tough decisions, and in this area we have done so to protect jobs through pay restraint,” he said.
The number of nurses now working in the NHS was the highest level ever seen before, he added. Since May 2010, there were around 13,300 more nurses working in hospitals, 1,500 health visitors and 2,100 more midwives, he said.
“The government have to take tough decisions, and we have done so to protect jobs through pay restraint”
Mr Dunne acknowledged there were still vacancies but said there was ongoing “significant investment in increasing the number of people working in the NHS”. He noted that the government was awaiting the recommendations made by the NHS pay review body for this year.
But, when asked by shadow health minister Justin Madders, whether the government was “likely to respect those recommendations”, Mr Dunne said he could not answer at this stage.
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Mr Dunne said he “strongly believed” that the working culture within the NHS – in which “learning, development and innovation are encouraged” – helped to recruit and retain staff, alongside pay.
“It is about creating an environment where staff want to work, take pride in what they do, and are well motivated and feel safe; an environment where employers promote the importance of the values of the NHS and work incredibly hard to keep staff safe, and where bullying and harassment are not tolerated,” he said.