Health and Social Care Workers: Recognition and Reward Debate

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Department: Department of Health and Social Care

Health and Social Care Workers: Recognition and Reward

Catherine McKinnell Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions relating to the recognition and reward of health and social care workers.

The Petitions Committee is delighted to have been allocated this business time today. On behalf of more than 4.6 million people from across the country who have signed petitions relating to this pandemic and other issues, let me say that we hope this is now the first of many debates we will be able to have, as 29 petitions are waiting to be debated and more are heading toward the 100,000 signature threshold—the petitioners’ concerns must be heard.

I am honoured to be leading this debate today on recognising and rewarding our health and social care workers. Indeed, the first ever e-petition debate in Parliament was on contracts and conditions for NHS staff, back in September 2015. I also believe we could hold this debate 10 times over, to recognise the contribution of so many during what has been an incredibly challenging time for our country. I am thinking of those who have kept our public services going—those in the police, the fire service, local government and other government departments, who have been working tirelessly to ensure that the support that is needed gets to households and businesses—and those who have been working in our shops, ensuring that we can all get essential supplies. There are so many people to recognise and thank for their service.

It is absolutely right that every week for 10 weeks, we came together especially, as a country, on a Thursday evening at 8 o’clock to recognise and clap for our carers. It was incredibly moving every time. Taking a moment to stop and reflect on the lives lost to covid-19, but also on those many lives saved through the tremendous skill, care and sacrifice of health and social care workers right across our country, we must never forget a frontline on which more than 331 NHS and care workers across the UK died as a result of covid-19. Indeed, it is concerning that we do not know exactly how many health and care workers have sadly lost their lives, because the Government are not producing consistent figures. That is one of the things that I ask the Minister to update the House on in her response.

Yet, as so many people have contacted me to say, those same people have been saving lives and caring for us day after day, long before this horrendous virus presented itself. It is absolutely right that we should clap and thank them for their extraordinary service during this period, but we must also recognise that a clap and a thank you is not enough. It was not enough before this pandemic, and it certainly is not enough now.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the Welsh Labour Government who recognised the efforts of care workers in Wales during covid by paying them £500 more? Many people could benefit from that. Will she also join me in calling for the Government not to make them pay tax on that £500?

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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I am sure we will hear much more about the work of different parts of our NHS and the support being given in different ways to the extraordinary contribution that our health and social care workers are making.

There are clearly still huge challenges ahead for our country. We remain in the grip of one of the greatest challenges to our way of life in a lifetime. In recent weeks, more than 290,000 people have signed parliamentary petitions calling on the Government to reward those caring for us and our loved ones at this time of national need. I am sure that colleagues have received many messages and emails about this, as I have.

Last week, one of my constituents wrote to me:

“I am confined to the Freeman”—

—a hospital in Newcastle—

“after a nasty fall. It has given me an opportunity to see the NHS up close and personal. I must say the nurses and others are amazing workers. Doing more than they need without complaint. Their only beef is doing everything masked all the time. However, they keep the rules throughout long shifts. They should be properly rewarded for such skilled and professional work.”

Another said:

“What I hope for now is less posturing and instead some competent administration. Recognise the contribution of those who continue to work on the frontline. At the very least they must have proper working conditions, remuneration and PPE—and no-one working in the NHS or in a caring role should be asked to pay a surcharge.”

There is clearly widespread agreement across this House that health and care workers deserve recognition, but the question is, how do we best do that? Some have suggested medals or honours. In a statement last month, the Prime Minister said:

“The honours system recognises exceptional contributions made across every part of the UK and will play a key role in demonstrating the nation’s gratitude to all those involved in the response.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 32WS.]

He has also said that the Government will consider the creation of a new medal for healthcare workers. That call has been echoed by The Mirror newspaper, with its “Give NHS Heroes a Medal” campaign, which has picked up lots of support, from politicians and trade unions to doctors’ leaders and footballers.

Meg Hillier Portrait Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
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While I hear everything my hon. Friend says about medals, I am sure she will agree that medals do not put food on the table, and there are many people working in our NHS and social care who work through agencies and are paid the minimum wage or less. Does she agree that that is what needs to be righted?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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My hon. Friend anticipates my next comment, because that idea is receiving a mixed reception. One NHS worker wrote to me:

“I’ve heard whisperings of NHS staff getting medals after the pandemic. Please don’t let this happen! It’s utterly ridiculous; when we are working in understaffed and under resourced settings for money to be spent on medals is outrageous! No one wants that. We’d rather the money go towards improving staff car parking or access to hot food if anything!”

Another constituent wrote to me to say:

“pay rise for the NHS and care workers. They do not need medals.”

While medals and honours have a place in recognising exceptional achievements, there is clearly also a need for true recognition of their bravery and resilience during this crisis, and also for the amazing job they do every single day.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I want to begin by stating an interest: my sister Kathleen and her daughter Chloe both work in the care system. Does the hon. Lady agree that what is missing here is political will, in talking about decent pay that tries to measure the value of the work they do? As of 1 April, the Scottish Government gave an immediate 3.3% pay rise to social care workers and are in the process of establishing a top-up fund for social care workers who contract covid-19 in the course of their duties. Does the hon. Lady agree that that kind of action should be replicated across the UK?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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We will see if there is the political will when the Government respond to this debate today, and afterwards as well.

One of the petitions we are considering today, with over 162,000 signatures, calls for an increase in pay for NHS healthcare workers. They are doing tough work in very challenging circumstances, putting their lives on the line, and for ever-squeezed pay. There have been calls for staff to get paid properly for all the hours they work, especially overtime, which really is not too much to ask.

The Royal College of Nursing has taken issue with recent claims by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that nursing staff have received a “significant pay rise”. The college’s research shows average earnings for NHS staff have not kept pace with the cost of living since 2010. Ahead of the next pay round for 2021-22 it is calling for an

“honest dialogue…in valuing the nursing workforce”.

We know we have a shortage, and paying health workers properly is key to having the workforce we need. It would be a grave error by the Government if, following the crisis and the recession that we are already heading into, they look to balance the books on the backs of public sector staff in the way we saw after the banking crisis in 2010—the very same public sector workers we have been clapping for in gratitude for saving so many lives. Neither must we see a repeat of the junior doctors dispute, where staff were treated appallingly and morale was devastated as changes to pay and conditions were forced through.

While he and I would certainly disagree on the detail, I echo the comments made by the former Chancellor the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), calling on the current Chancellor to focus on growth, not austerity. We cannot cut our way out of this recession, and certainly not with cuts aimed at the very people who are getting us through this crisis.

Many medical students have also stepped up to support their future colleagues in fighting the virus. There are parliamentary petitions calling for reimbursing fees and reducing student loans. The Petitions Committee is conducting an inquiry into the wider impact of this crisis on students, as there has been unparalleled disruption to higher education.

Before this crisis, student finance reforms also impacted on the healthcare workforce. The decision to scrap NHS bursaries in England and replace them with loans led to applications falling by a quarter, and there are almost 40,000 unfilled nursing posts. While that error has been partially corrected by the restoration of maintenance grants, this will not benefit current students.

One petitioner says that nurses

“will surely work tirelessly to do their best to keep the rest of us safe while at the same time they continue to be charged interest on these loans for a cost which they should not have been required to bear in the first place.”

Another, calling for the current intake to receive grants, says:

“Most student midwives and nurses in those intakes will leave university with at least £60,000 debt, despite having committed to a career in a valuable public service at a time when the NHS is in desperate need of more of them.”

Addressing student finance for healthcare students would be a way to both recognise the efforts of the current intake and help attract more to the profession, but unfortunately the insensitive comments of the Minister for Care recently are a bad start to this, so I urge the Government to do everything they can to rebuild trust.

But the most devasting impact of all has been in social care. Our care homes and their elderly and vulnerable residents have painfully borne the brunt of this crisis. More than 16,000 people have died from covid-19 in care homes, almost a third of all fatalities. Far from the Government wrapping a protective ring around care homes, in the early days of this crisis they were left exposed, without adequate PPE or testing for staff despite their desperate pleas. The human cost of this failure is harrowing.

The crisis has well and truly exposed how neglected our care system has become. Too many staff are low paid and on insecure contracts; too many have had to make choices between risking people’s lives, including their own, or going without pay. Many carers do not receive even the national minimum wage because they are not paid for travel or sleep time.

Campaigners, including the trade union Unison, have been calling for care workers to earn the real living wage of at least £10 an hour outside of London. Working conditions and employment rights vary immensely between care providers and we need to see care workers properly recognised and rewarded for the vital work they do.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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Given the sacrifices that care workers have already had to make, many with their lives given the shortage of PPE, does my hon. Friend agree that, going forward, particularly with the risk of a possible second wave of covid later in the year, the Government need to step up and make sure that care workers get not only the support and resources they need, but proper PPE in preparation for what could be a very difficult winter?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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One petitioner summed it up by saying:

“I wish social care workers were considered as equally important as NHS staff.”

I think that that says it all.

Finally, across social care and the NHS, migrant workers are a key part of the workforce and make a huge contribution. The Prime Minister made the right decision to scrap the immigration health surcharge, but this must be fast tracked to include refunds for those who have already paid. Many are also worried about their visa renewal, which is stressful enough. The 12-month visa extension announced by the Home Office is welcome, but it leaves out thousands of dedicated workers who are also working on the frontline. The extension should apply to all.

Many migrant workers in health and social care are stuck in limbo without indefinite leave to remain. The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Physicians have called for indefinite leave to remain to be granted to all international health and care workers who have worked in the UK during the pandemic. Many migrant workers on the covid frontline are also subject to “no recourse to public funds”, which adds immense financial pressure, especially if they fall ill and have to self-isolate. Unison has called for the policy to be suspended. One petitioner said:

“I strongly believe the Government can do better than that one-year free automatic visa renewal for these NHS heroes. A grant of indefinite leave to remain or citizenship is not too much to ask to appreciate the covid-19 pandemic frontline fighters.”

We cannot expect migrant workers to put their lives at risk and help our nation fight this virus, and then expect them to pay through various means for the privilege of doing so.

In conclusion, the key issue at the heart of today’s debate is how we value our health and care staff and the tremendous work that they do. The pandemic has thrown their dedication, bravery and compassion into the national spotlight as they put their lives on the line, but this dedication is not new. They have been serving our country, day in, day out, long before this pandemic. I hope that this debate will be just the start of a proper conversation about how, as a country, we not only show our gratitude and appreciation for the work that they do but, take real action to make their job easier. For now, to all our doctors, nurses, carers, support staff, and every person working on the frontline during this pandemic, I say a heartfelt thank you to you all.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I thank everybody who has contributed to this debate. It is vital that the voice of petitioners is heard in Parliament and we have all played a part in ensuring that today. This is a very important issue, which petitioners have clearly prioritised in great numbers having experienced and witnessed the enormous contribution our health and social care workers have made to our national effort to fight covid-19.

I have to say that I am disappointed with the Minister’s response. I do not think it fully acknowledged the question put by the petitioners that we do not yet have full recognition and reward for our health and social care workers in the way that we would like to see, but, as I said in my contribution at the beginning of the debate, I hope that this is the beginning of a conversation on how we can arrive at that point. I am sure that hon. Members will support that conversation continuing and action to follow. Above all, I want to put on record once again our gratitude, from this House and from the Petitions Committee, for the service that every health and social care worker has made to this country in the weeks that have passed and will continue to make in the weeks ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions relating to the recognition and reward of health and social care workers.