NHS Pay: The money’s there

October 31, 2008

It was announced yesterday that Shell profits have increased by 71% to £6.7 billion. Across the Atlantic, Exxon Mobil announced a world record for company profits $14.8 billion, up 54%. Earlier this week it was BP announcing a 148% increase in profits.

With health workers facing increasing fuel bills which, by themselves, more than wipe out our pay award this year; it’s not surprising there is anger at these profits.

Joint General Secretary, Tony Woodley told the press: “Struggling, worried families will have every right to feel angry that as the temperature plummets, BP’s profits rocket. It is no longer acceptable for government to stand on the sidelines. It is time to put an end to this obscene profiteering”.

Unite have called for a tax on these excess profits. It wouldn’t take much of a tax on this level of profit to fund our pay claim in full.

Let’s keep the pressure on. We need a massive ‘YES’ vote in the pay ballot.


Pay: We can’t rely on chocolate teapots

October 30, 2008

I was sent this story by a colleague from the T&G side of Unite, balloting alongside Amicus members for industrial action. His email described the re-opener clause as “about as much use as a chocolate teapot”.

Unsurprisingly, the NHS Employers have urged the NHS pay review body to stick with the three-year pay settlement. NHS Employers director of pay, pensions and employment relations Gill Bellord said: “Employers have told us that they support the three-year deal for Agenda for Change staff and do not think there is sufficient evidence to justify a review of the provisions agreed with unions”. Recruitment and retention – the primary consideration for the Pay Review Body – are described as “stable”. The HSJ story is here, and the detail is on the NHS Employers website.

All NHS unions – having woken up to the problems inherent in a three year below-inflation deal – want to see the re-opener clause exercised.

As written, the re-opener clause is dependent on the goodwill firstly of the Pay Review Body, and secondly the Secretary of State for Health. There is nothing in the written agreement that can make either of them suddenly start being nice to us.

Most trade unionists know that we get what we fight for. Unite was absolutely right to reject the derisory three year deal, and is right to be balloting our members on industrial action now.

A ‘Yes’ vote from Unite will send a powerful message to the Government that they have a fight on their hands when it comes to NHS pay. A ‘Yes’ vote makes it more likely that the Government will suddenly discover its re-opener clause – and opens up opportunities for united action across our unions if the Government plays hardball.

We can’t afford to sit back and cross our fingers and hope things will come right. Every Unite member in our Health Sector needs to vote ‘Yes’. Every rep and activist needs to work hard to deliver a ‘Yes’ vote.


Unite Ballot: Vote ‘Yes’

October 29, 2008

The Unite Health Sector ballot opened yesterday.

The priority for every rep and activist must be to deliver a ‘Yes’ vote on both questions – on strike action, and industrial action short of strike action.

This is the first ballot I’ve ever been involved in that has its own Youtube video: check it out here. The production values might be a smidgeon short of the BBC, and I don’t necessarily agree with every detail of what people say – but it’s brilliant to see a cross-section of lay members talking about why they’ll be voting ‘Yes’.

Other resources are available on the Unite website.

This is an important dispute – for Unite members, and for every public sector worker. Every Unite member in Health should be voting ‘Yes’.


Unite Ballot: Vote ‘Yes’

October 28, 2008

Unite’s industrial action ballot opens today.

There are two questions on the ballot paper: for day(s) of strike action, and for industrial action short of strike action. Unite is, quite rightly, recommending a ‘Yes’ vote to both questions. If we can, we’ll be looking to take industrial action alongside other public sector unions.

We’ve had a ‘deal’ imposed by the Government  – 2.75%, followed by a further two years of pay cuts. That’s after a pay cut last year. That’s an insult to health workers. We’re worth more than that.

We want a re-opening of negotiations, and a pay increase at least in line with inflation. Not so very unreasonable.

The outcome of this ballot matters. A ‘Yes’ vote builds our fight for fair pay, and creates the opportunities for united industrial action with other NHS unions next year. A ‘No’ vote is an open invitation to the Government to treat us with contempt.

This is a ballot we need to win.


Time to End the Market Madness

October 28, 2008

There’s a grubby little outfit that presides over a lot of the privatisation projects in this country. It’s called ‘Partnerships UK’ – a public-private partnership, set up by the Labour Government, 49% publicly owned and 51% private. Its mission statement is to privatise everything that moves.

You can check out Partnerships UK here. You can tell they’re really good because they’ve got a picture of origami models on their website. The website boasts of PUK’s involvement in the development of the £40 billion PFI market. PUK is crawling all over the NHS these days: in PFI projects, NHS LIFT (the community NHS version of PFI), and in the Autonomous Provider Organisations that are about stripping community health services out of the NHS.

I checked out PUK’s shareholders the other day. They include some real financial success stories: the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland, Barclays, Abbey National etc. You may recall they’ve been having a spot of bother recently.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has failed so catastrophically it’s almost funny. This is not a little community bank in the Highlands of Scotland, by the way. The Royal Bank of Scotland is a vast financial institution – it owns Nat West, and the insurance company DirectLine. A couple of weeks back, the value of RBS fell by 40% in a single day. At one point, the collapse was so great that RBS was haemorrhaging value by £2 million per second.

I’ve asked the question for a long time, ‘What the hell do banks know about running the NHS?’. It might be legitimate now to ask instead, ‘What the hell do the banks know about running banks?’.

PFI projects are in deep trouble. They’ve always been a disaster from our point of view – a neat con trick for transferring billions of pounds of our money straight into the black hole of the private sector. PFI schemes have been a license to print money. Allyson Pollock‘s excellent summary of some of the lunacies in the NHS notes that shareholders in one Scottish hospital PFI project will reap dividends of £168 million on an equity stake of £500,000 – not a bad rate of return. The Public Accounts Committee has criticised investors in the Norfolk and Norwich PFI hospital of ‘lining their own pockets’.

The challenge for the banks – and for Serco, GSL, Innisfree, Balfour Beatty and all the other profiteers – is that the profits are set to be a whole load less. Banks are lending less, and charging more when they do. In the past, PFI companies have made a pile of extra money through ‘refinancing’ – companies trading debts with one another, making money out of thin air, and getting away with this lunacy until the whole house of cards came tumbling down earlier this month. The Government is now threatening to control this kind of thing.

These companies aren’t sentimentalists. They don’t build hospitals and schools and health centres as a programme of good works – they do it to make money. If the money isn’t there to be made, they’ll walk away.

So where does that leave us? The Government’s now spending £500 billion on bailing out the banks – that’s over five times the budget of the NHS, incidentally. So we could be left without new hospitals and health centres, because the banks have got all the dosh. We could, on the other hand, see the newly nationalised banks and the PFI companies subsidised in continuing to rip off the NHS, as part of the Government’s plans to privatise the health service.  Totally mad, but sadly quite likely.

There’s an alternative, though. The madness of a market approach to the public sector has never been clearer. It’s time to draw a line under this nonsense. The NHS should be about public funding for publicly owned and publicly accountable health care. The hall mark of a decent society is that we look after sick people because we’re human beings and we care about one another. Why should profit have anything at all to do with health care?


Unite Strike Ballot: Building for a ‘Yes’ vote

October 20, 2008

What’s the capital of Iceland? Oh, about £4.60 at the moment.

I saw this one on a ‘health activists’ email list. There has to be the odd laugh in an economic crisis.

We’ve got some challenges, though. If we let them get away with it, this is a crisis we’ll be paying for. The Government finds £500 billion to bail out the banks with no apparent effort. So why are health workers getting our pay cut? Why are soaring numbers of people getting their homes repossessed? Why are so many ordinary workers losing their jobs in manufacturing and construction – and in finance, for that matter. Most of us won’t shed too many tears for super-rich bankers, but most finance workers are on bog standard salaries, just the same as the rest of us.

The answer from all of us has to be, “No way – we’re not having it”. We didn’t make this crisis. Why the hell should we have to pay for it?

In Unite, our Health Sector members have the opportunity to fight back against pay cuts. Our ballot for strike action opens on 28th October, closing on 12th November.

We have one question on ‘day(s) of strike action’ and another on ‘industrial action short of strike action’ – with a clear recommendation to vote ‘Yes’ to both.

Unite members have had enough. There’s a growing mood out there that we have to fight; that there’s just no alternative.

The pressures are obviously worst for the health workers on Band 1 and Band 2 – the really disgracefully low salaries. But I know plenty of therapists and nurses who struggle to pay back student loans, or bring up their kids, or pay the mortgage. People are really hurting. There’s that real sense that every year, things get tougher for us. And lower pay now feeds into lower pensions for the rest of our lives.

Unite’s got some excellent campaign material here. Got a hospital or health centre notice board near you? Download some of this stuff, and get it displayed.

It’s time for a fight on pay. Every Unite member in Health needs to vote ‘Yes’ for action.


Top-Up Fees: Completely the wrong debate

October 16, 2008

There’s been a load of discussion in the press over the last few months about so-called ‘top-up fees’. The question is raging, should people with cancer – buying their own drug treatment to stay alive or to prolong their lives – also have access to NHS treatment for free. The stories are understandably moving ones.

A typical story is here. Carole Simmons, a 59 year old woman, was diagnosed with bowel cancer. The NHS refused to pay for a drug called Avastin that offered her valuable months of extra life. Because Carole and her family found the money for Avastin, all NHS treatment was withdrawn – so they had to find an additional £20,000 for other drug treatment, scans, consultant visits and so on. Carole wasn’t rich, incidentally. She was a former teaching assistant. Her husband worked for the fire service. They found the money because they had to.

Carole Simmons lived for an additional nine months – and in that time she was able to go on holiday with her family, see her grandchild start school, and attend her sister’s 40th wedding anniversary. Most of us will have no doubt that the extra nine months of life was well worth having, for Carole and her family.

There’s a Government sponsored enquiry going on just now into NHS top-up fees, set to report at the end of the month. It’s a virtual certainty that it will rule in favour of top-up fees. Bodies like the BMA and the Royal College of Nursing now favour top-up fees. Many press articles are pushing hard for top-up fees to be introduced. The NHS Confederation, representing both NHS and private suppliers of NHS treatment, supports top-up fees. There’s little doubt which way the recommendation will go.

The real issue, though, is being glossed over. Why the hell is it that patients with cancer can’t get life saving treatment and life prolonging treatment on the NHS? Why is it that people are forced to scrape together the money to pay for their own drug treatment, or face death if they can’t? Why isn’t the NHS paying for the drug treatment that cancer patients need?

There have been a whole series of restrictions from ‘NICE’ that look simply obscene to most of us – with some decisions thankfully now starting to be challenged and overturned. Women with breast cancer have been denied Herceptin. Older people losing their sight have been told they can’t be treated with Lucentis – an effective treatment but apparently it costs too much. People with dementia have to wait for their symptoms to become severe before the NHS will pay for Aricept. Why? This makes no sense.

We’re told time and again that the NHS has limited resources, people want too much health care, we have an aging population, we can’t afford to pay…  Well, maybe – or maybe it’s just a question of priorities.

Last week the Government ‘found’ £500 billion to bail out the banks – presumably so that the banks can be stabilised enough to go on investing in the PFI and privatisation schemes that are tearing the NHS apart. If there’s unlimited money for banks, why is the money not there for people with cancer?

Of course it’s wrong that people who pay for cancer drugs are then forced to pay for the rest of their care. It’s even more wrong, though, that as a society we’re prepared to stand back and let those people die by denying them the best available cancer treatment in the first place. The argument over top-up fees simply misses the point.

I believe the real agenda here is a softening-up process. Little by little, the top-up fees debate leads us towards a conclusion that the NHS can’t be expected to pay for all the health care we need. Little by little, we’re led to believe that the NHS can provide only a basic safety net – and if we want better treatment we will have to pay. That leads us very quickly indeed to a society where access to healthcare is determined primarily by ability to pay.

Sixty years ago, Aneurin Bevan said this: ‘The collective principle asserts that… no society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means’ (In Place of Fear, p 100).

Brown and Johnson would do well to remember the values that underpin the NHS.