Labour leader Ed Miliband has said he supports the “national pay framework” for nurses but would not commit to repealing controversial NHS pension reforms.
In his keynote speech to the Royal College of Nursing annual congress in Harrogate today Mr Miliband said: “Let me say very clearly, I believe in a national pay framework for the national health service.”
“Are we really saying that the way to tackle health inequalities is to say to nurses: ‘Well if you are going to go and work in one of the less affluent areas of the country, you’re going to earn less?’
“That is not the solution to health inequality. That would make it worse.”
However, in a question and answer session following the speech, he refused to pledge that he would row back on any changes made to pay by the current government.
Mr Miliband also said he could not deny the fact that “difficult decisions” were needed on public sector pensions.
But he claimed the government was using “high handed imposition” to introduce its proposals rather than negotiation.
“If we were in government now we would be negotiating with you about pensions,” he said.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter asked Mr Miliband for a commitment that, if elected as prime minister, he would negotiate with unions on reducing the pension age back down from 68 – the retirement age the coalition wants to introduce.
Mr Carter said it was a “ridiculous notion that nurses and healthcare assistants can work until they are 68”.
Mr Miliband agreed to negotiate on the issue but said he was not going to make a promise to bring it down “on the hoof”.
“I totally understand why there is such anger about this issue of having to work till 68. Of course we will negotiate,” he said.
In addition, Mr Miliband gave a separate mention to the cuts faced by specialist nurses and there use to fill gaps in the workforce.
He said: “The issue of specialist nurses is especially important going forward, and I know the concern there is about what’s happening to specialist nurses in the NHS at the moment.”
Mr Miliband received a standing ovation at the end of his speech and exchanged jokes with the audience during the question and answer session that followed.
The warm welcome extended to the Labour leaders was in contrast to the generally dignified but less friendly reception given to health secretary Andrew Lansley yesterday.
Mr Miliband accused the government of acting like “the masters, not the servants” of the NHS, while also describing nurses as “the defenders of the health service”.
“You are not just on the frontline in our NHS. You are the first line in the defence of our NHS,” he said.
“I want to pay tribute to the nurses of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the fantastic work you do and also to the healthcare assistants who are such an essential part of the nursing team. You are the backbone of the NHS.”
Mr Miliband also used his first speech to RCN Congress to launch a new online campaign called NHS Check, under which staff and patients are being called on to tell the Labour party about problems with locals services caused by the reforms.
“Today, we’re launching a new campaign, NHS Check, which will allow staff and patients who are concerned about what’s happening to get in touch with us and tell us what they’re seeing in hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries.”
Talking to Nursing Times after the speech, RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said he was “absolutely delighted with the commitment to honour our national pay” and also highlighted Mr Miliband’s negotiate on the retirement age.
“Generally we’re very encouraged by what he had to say,” he said, adding that delegates had “tuned into” Mr Miliband.
“He didn’t patronise nurses, which often happens with politicians, so I think he got the touch right. The hall don’t just dish out bouquets,” Mr Carter said.