Carolyn Harris – 2021 Speech on the NHS Pay Award

The speech made by Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East, in the House of Commons on 14 April 2021.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a report on any proposal to award NHS staff a pay rise for 2021/22 below 2.1%; to require the Secretary of State to move a motion in the House of Commons to approve any such report; and for connected purposes.

The last 13 months have impacted all of our lives, through illness, bereavement and financial worries, on top of learning to live with the fear of the pandemic and the limits on our freedoms. We have not all faced the same level of difficulties, but none of us have escaped without our lives in some way being changed by the experience. Some 127,000 people have tragically lost their lives—this is one of the highest death tolls in Europe —and in the past year more than 450,000 have been hospitalised due to severe covid symptoms.

For every one of those people, it has been our amazing NHS frontline staff who have cared for them, fought for them and either celebrated their recovery or held their hand as they took their last breath. Our NHS staff have kept this country going, risking their own health, isolating from their own families, working harder than ever, grieving the lives they could not save and comforting the bereaved. They are the very best of Britain and they deserve to be given the credit and the reward for everything that they have done and everything they have sacrificed to keep the rest of us safe.

Nurses and NHS staff were promised at least a 2.1% pay rise, but the Government have now retracted that and recommended 1% for all NHS staff, with the exception of junior doctors, GPs and dentists. The Government pretend that this is a rise, but they are fooling no one. With inflation forecast to reach 1.7% this year, our NHS staff, who have shown nothing but commitment this last year, are now set to receive a real-terms pay cut. Nurses’ pay has been falling in real terms since the Conservatives came to power 11 years ago, with pay awards consistently lagging behind inflation. Already that is unacceptable, but in the current situation the Government’s proposal to reduce that even further shows a complete lack of respect and gratitude.

For me, the thought of looking a nurse in the eye and telling them that they are worth less this year than they were before the pandemic is outrageously insulting. All of us across this House stood on our doorsteps and clapped for our key workers. We all took to social media to thank NHS staff and tell them what a wonderful job they were doing. We would have all been indebted to them if we had got sick and needed hospital care to help us against this undiscriminating virus, as some on these Benches indeed did. So was this just for show? Were the warm words and platitudes just a tick-box exercise? Or do the Prime Minister and his Government, hand on heart, truly believe that a rule-breaking, unapologetic aide is worth considerably more than the hundreds of thousands of NHS staff who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to battle this viral enemy and save lives?

The promise was clear: a 2.1% increase, as a minimum—it was not dependent on inflation rates or any other economic struggles. That promise has been broken, in yet another ill-judged U-turn by the Government. If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have now rescinded that offer and replaced it with an inferior one, they need to come to this House with the revised recommendation and put it to a vote. When Opposition Members clapped on a Thursday evening and pledged our support to the NHS heroes, we meant it, and we still mean it. Those NHS staff have held up their side of the bargain, working diligently and doing everything in their power to save lives. Now it is our turn to hold up our side by voting in favour of a fair, long-term pay deal that reflects their commitment.

A recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing concluded that more than a third of the 42,000 people who submitted responses were considering leaving the NHS because they felt undervalued. These are staff who are exhausted from their efforts over the last year—they have worked unpaid overtime, forfeited their mental wellbeing and, far too often, put our families ahead of their own. The least they expected in return was recognition and fairness, but when it comes to a Government who have consistently failed to deliver on both, it appears that they were expecting too much.

We are on a cliff edge here: we already know that we entered the pandemic with a record 100,000 vacancies across the NHS. If we do not pay the staff what they deserve, we will struggle to retain those we have—let alone fill any vacancies. Even the 2.1% in the long-term plan was a minimum, and a cautious one at that, but 1% is not a pay rise—it is an insult. Trade unions and professional bodies are calling for improved pay offers at varying levels. They know that a fair pay rise would also help to boost staff recruitment and retention.

A 1% pay rise for an experienced nurse equates to £3.50 a week. That is £3.50 for a year of unpaid overtime, unwavering commitment and personal sacrifice—£3.50 for a year of turmoil; of fighting a virus that at times seemed unbeatable; of watching patients die, despite doing everything possible to save them; and of having to keep on going when beyond exhausted.

On the Opposition side of the House, we believe that our NHS is worth so much more. Under this Bill, the Government will be required to present their recommendations for anything below the already approved minimum increase of 2.1%, and to seek agreement from the House on any new proposals. That is the least that our NHS deserves. Our NHS staff have not faltered since the start of the pandemic, and they deserve to be rewarded for that. Unions and stakeholders know it, the public know it and we on this side of the House know it.