In his recent Budget, chancellor Philip Hammond announced that he would consider finding the money for a pay rise for nurses, if an 'independent' NHS pay review body recommended this. Even this weak and non-committal pledge, however, was shrouded in conditionality and caveats. Despite such mealy-mouthed promises, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) leadership welcomed Hammond's statement.
We publish here an open letter by several grassroots nurse activists, written in response to these events. This letter highlights the problems surrounding the Tories' shallow promises and emphasises the need to fight back with industrial action in order to scrap the cap.
Already, the open letter has proved popular amongst other rank-and-file RCN members. It has been shared widely on social media, and has received coverage on the Nursing Times website.
Open Letter to the General Secretary and Council of the RCN
As members of the RCN, we are dismayed and underwhelmed at the response of the RCN leadership to the autumn statement on 22 November. The RCN has somehow conjured up positivity from a Budget that contains nothing but fear and failure, not only for nurses and the NHS, but for the whole of society. The RCN leaders are prematurely celebrating a victory that we are yet to have.
To our astonishment, the RCN statement said that “RCN members campaigning to close the gap on nursing pay have seen their efforts recognised with chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget pledge to fund a pay rise for NHS nursing staff”. However, we do not see that there was this recognition in Mr Hammond’s statement, nor were our concerns over the impact on patient care addressed.
Mr Hammond began by once again offering the hollow gratitude we often hear from the government and particularly the front bench, before making a vague pledge that commits to precisely nothing. Mr Hammond appears woefully uninformed as he incorrectly said on the BBC that nurses received a 3.3% pay rise last year, and at another time had claimed with no sense of irony that public sector workers are ‘overpaid’. Clearly, Mr Hammond is out of touch with front line nurses which form the vast majority of RCN members.
It seems clear to these dedicated nurses that Mr Hammond is working in tandem with Mr Hunt as they both try to avoid responsibility: Mr Hunt a man who has lied about recruitment figures, lied about the state of our NHS, and snubbed nurses on several occasions, while he negotiates the “modernisation for Agenda for Change staff to improve recruitment and retention”. We would ask what modernisation means to the government? The example of the junior doctors’ struggle over contracts is more than enough to answer that: it means dangerous, unsociable hours losses, pay cuts and attacks on working conditions. It means overworked health professionals, and flexibility at our expense.
Beyond that, this Budget is going to continue the downward spiral of our NHS, when it is in dire need of funding. An analysis published in advance of the budget by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) revealed that the NHS is facing its tightest funding squeeze since the 1950s. Given the government have revised down growth projections and committed to further austerity it would be reasonable to expect further attacks on our service to come.
The RCN’s response ends with: “It will not be known until spring what a potential pay rise will look like”. Nurses, in need now, facing a winter of crisis generated by government policy, cannot wait until April, when the costs of their rent, childcare, transport, bills and food are rising now, and have far outstripped pay rises over the last seven years. Moreover, we all are of the view that whatever is offered will be inadequate and will not address the historic underfunding of our NHS in general and the dedicated workers in particular.
This is a Budget that declined to put a figure on any increase in nursing pay. This is a Budget of a government with no future. Our job as nurses is to help and support others: not just for ourselves, we have a duty to protect society by calling out the government on dangerous and damaging policies. Our union should be taking a leading role in this struggle.
We the undersigned call on the RCN leadership to hold an extraordinary executive meeting to discuss industrial action as the only response to this budget. We were informed during our indicative ballot and during congress that we wouldn’t take this lying down: this is the RCN and other union’s chance to strike whilst the iron is hot.
Moreover, we call for transparency in the pay structure modernisation talks for Agenda for Change staff. We saw what happened with the junior doctors: we as a union must learn from history. Nurses, midwives and all other members of our health professional family should be democratically involved every step of the way, to halt any devastating cuts to key components of said contracts, to not let the Department of Health walk all over us. Lastly, we also need reassurance that the Pay Review Body is truly independent of the treasury, without this, we cannot have any faith in the current process of pay determination for nurses and allied health professionals.
Nurses, healthcare assistants, associate practitioners, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, midwives et al. have faced seven long, hard years of struggle and we are about to enter our eighth. The NHS is haemorrhaging nurses at an alarming rate, with 40,000 missing already, and following this budget that figure is only going to increase. The RCN cannot wait if it truly wants to be the voice of nursing, it has to be militant and it has to act now.
Empty promises are not a victory. Ballot the membership for strike action, link up with other public sector workers – doctors, teachers, lecturers – and take the fight to the government.
Daniel Langley, RCN Inner South East London Branch.
Brian Bostock, Vice Chair RCN South East of England
Danielle Tiplady, RCN Inner North East London Branch recruitment Officer.