Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
25 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.
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.
25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.
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.”
“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.
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.
25 Jun 2020, 12:08 a.m.
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.
The Minister for Care (Helen Whately)
25 Jun 2020, midnight
I welcome this debate, because our NHS and care system is only as strong as the people within it. Throughout the pandemic, NHS and care workers have taken centre stage; we have all seen the dedication and care with which they approach their work, and the esteem in which they are held by the public, as these petitions demonstrate. This debate has also demonstrated the esteem in which they are held by hon. Members. I am determined that we should look after our health and social care staff, just as they look after us.
First, I will talk about pay, as that is the focus of the petitions. I want to reinforce that we have already delivered multi-year pay and contract reform deals for over 1 million NHS staff, in partnership with trade unions. In the past three years, nurses have seen their starting salaries increase by more than 12% and the vast majority of nurses have seen their pay increase by at least 6.5%, while the starting salaries for healthcare assistants have also increased by 16%. We have also increased pay for junior doctors to recognise the huge contribution that they make to our NHS. By the end of their four-year deal, junior doctor pay scales will have increased by at least 8%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) referred to the Government’s commitment to increase the number of doctors and nurses in the NHS, and he rightly said that recruitment and retention is not just about pay, but about experience. I am determined that we must improve the experience for the NHS workforce.
The shadow Minister spoke about vacancies in the NHS. I hope that he will welcome the good news that we heard today in the latest NHS workforce statistics that the number of nurses in England has gone up by more than 12,000 in the past year and we have over 6,000 more doctors. Compared with 2010, we now have 23,100 more doctors and 22,200 more nurses in the NHS. We want to recruit more, however, so we are providing financial support for nurses to train, and from this September, new and continuing nursing students will be able to get a maintenance grant of at least £5,000 per academic year.
Our social care staff have also played an incredible role during the pandemic. I am always blown away by the compassion that is shown by our care workers, who look after people who are at their most vulnerable. That was articulated so well this afternoon by my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), for Watford (Dean Russell), for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) and many other colleagues.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Government do not set pay for social care workers in England. However, we are committed to raising the profile of our social care workforce and giving them the support they need. At a recent meeting of the Health and Social Care Committee, we heard from care workers about how some of them felt underappreciated by the public as a whole, and that is something we need to fix. After all, this is a job where staff have a chance to make a difference to people’s lives every single day that they go to work. As a start, we have adopted the CARE brand, for which I thank Care England. We have taken that on in order to build recognition of care workers.
Since the pandemic hit us, we have put in place support for care workers who have been at the frontline during this time. We are providing mental health support and bereavement support commissioned from Samaritans and Hospice UK. We have launched the care workforce app to bring together resources and guidance, and we are providing funding of £3.2 billion and then a further £600 million for local authorities to pass on to care providers so that they can provide full pay to staff who are isolating. We have made it clear to local authorities and providers that we expect that to happen.
One of the petitions that is in front of us today is entitled:
“We would like the government to consider social care as equally important to NHS”.
That is something that I passionately believe in. Social care is, absolutely, equally important. I know my colleagues in Government agree. As we heard in this debate, that sentiment is shared by many hon. Members, and we rightly now talk about health and social care workers in the same breath.
In the months ahead, as we pledged in our manifesto, we will be looking at how we can build a long-term solution for social care, so that in the long term care workers get the rewards they deserve, and—as argued for by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), in particular—so that everyone can have the dignity and security that they deserve.
Finally, I want to raise the contribution of our overseas staff. The NHS has benefited from the contribution of so many people from all over the world. I would like to take a moment to thank all our overseas NHS staff. I know that this has been a difficult time for many of you, especially as we have learned that BAME communities have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. We are so grateful to you for your hard work, and I want the system to do all it can to protect you.
On 21 May, the Prime Minister announced that NHS and social care workers would now be exempt from the immigration health surcharge. NHS and care workers who paid the surcharge from 21 May will be refunded, and we are getting on with the arrangements as fast as we possibly can. We are also continuing to provide free visa extensions and auto renewal of visas for workers who are eligible, and we will be introducing a new fast-track healthcare visa to make it quicker and easier for health and care staff to come and work in our health and social care system.
Our NHS and social care workers do a truly wonderful job delivering world-class care to so many. I would like to thank everybody who signed the petitions for making their voice heard. I would like to end by encouraging everyone who is thinking about joining our health and care system to do so. Caring for others is one of the greatest and most important vocations. We will do everything in our power to protect and support health and social care workers during this pandemic and beyond.