Analysis

‘Nursing is in crisis and we desperately need this pay rise’

Nurses struggling to pay heating bills, turning to costly pay day loans and pawning their possessions were discussed by MPs in an impassioned debate on NHS pay.

Nurses struggling to pay heating bills, turning to costly pay day loans and pawning their possessions were discussed by MPs in an impassioned debate on NHS pay


Nurses gather at the House of Commons to lobby MPs before the debate. Picture: Barney Newman

The discussion at the House of Commons took place on 30 January, following pressure from nurses and the RCN to scrap the NHS 1% pay cap.

Before the debate, nurses met their MPs face-to-face in an RCN-arranged lobby event, to talk about how they struggled to make ends meet.

The MP debate was prompted when a petition calling for the pay cap to be scrapped topped 100,000 signatures.

‘Shameful’ situation

The online petition, started by community nurse Danielle Tiplady, argues that Agenda for Change (AfC) staff have experienced pay restraint since 2010 and have lost about 14% of their pay in real terms.

A total of 26 MPs attended the two-hour discussion, which heard how nurses are facing serious financial hardship, are being driven away from the profession, and that patient care is suffering.

14%

pay cut in real terms for nurses since 2010 according to RCN.

The particularly high cost of living in London and recruitment difficulties faced by employers nationally was also discussed.

Newcastle North Labour MP Catherine McKinnell opened the debate with the financial concerns that nursing constituents have brought to her. She said the struggle faced by nurses is a shameful situation.

Pushed into poverty 

The RCN’s 2015 employment survey found that 30% had struggled to pay energy bills and 14% had skipped meals. 

‘Many have been pushed into poverty,’ Ms McKinnell said. ‘Staff report using foodbanks and hardship funds. Nursing staff deserve a pay award that reflects their knowledge, skills and dedication.’

‘Difficult decisions’

The debate heard that nurses are choosing to leave the NHS and work for agencies to receive better pay, which leaves the health service with high bills for temporary staff. 

104,932  

signatories on petition for debate on nurses pay.

Nurses who attended the lobby described to MPs the day-to-day challenges they are facing, and how they and colleagues feel they are being driven from the profession. 

RCN Eastern area rep and neonatal nurse Amy Overend said she had used her annual leave to take extra shifts elsewhere to earn more money and has not had a holiday for four years. ‘It's been a nightmare,’ she said. ‘Month to month I am struggling to live on my basic salary. Nursing is in crisis and we desperately need this pay rise.’

Health minister Philip Dunne told the debate that nurses receive good annual leave and maternity packages as part of the reward for their jobs. He said that the government had to make ‘difficult decisions’ when it came to pay.

Concerned by response

The government’s official response to the debate said that for nurses employed in the NHS between March 2010 and March 2015, average total earnings increased by 2.2% a year.

Speaking to Nursing Standard after the debate, RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin says she is encouraged by the number of MPs who attended, despite criticism from many nurses on social media at the sight of empty seats in the debating room. 

But she says she is concerned by Mr Dunne’s response, as he made no commitment to act on improving nurse pay.

26 

MPs attended the pay debate.

‘There were lots of warm words about the NHS, but he then said there are circumstances beyond our control, which is a veiled reference to Brexit and the parlous state of the economy,’ she says. ‘Nice, mealy-mouthed words about how we would like to do something but we cannot because of the state of the economic situation.’

Keep going 

The RB is expected to give its recommendations for the AfC pay rise to UK governments at the end of February. The announcement of a pay rise in England is usually made around the time of the budget, which is taking place on 8 March.

Ms Irwin says of Mr Dunne’s response to the debate: ‘The central message was we cannot afford it.’

But the debate was an important opportunity for nursing voices to be heard, and she urges the profession to keep contacting their MPs with their concerns. 

‘We want the government to make the best response possible and to be forced to listen to the RB. So keep going.’

What pay restraint means for me: nurses speak out

Dane Thompson, London critical care nurse: ‘Nurses have been severely underpaid for far too long. My friends are leaving the profession and question me all the time about why I stay. I have no spare time at all, as it is all spent on shift or trying to prepare for the next shift and then studying for my master’s degree. Renting anywhere is impossible, so I live in the staff quarters on site. If I couldn’t do that I’d have nowhere else to go.’

Nasreen Rafiq, Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent staff nurse: ‘It is getting harder and harder to recruit nurses at my trust, and all the while the amount of work we need to do is increasing and there are more targets to meet. It’s having a huge impact on nurses’ health. I really hope the MPs listen to us. Strike action is an option in future but there is a lot we can do before we get to that stage, including working to rule.’

Tricia Pank, former neurological nurse and King’s College London nursing lecturer: ‘For nurses based in London the housing situation is dire, travel is expensive and time-consuming, the cost of childcare is prohibitive and many are having to use food banks to survive.’

Lisa Taylor, RCN South West region rep: ‘Nurses need to be paid what they are truly worth and be valued by the government. They should be living, not simply surviving. Show us you care about them and the wonderful job they do. If this debate doesn’t change Jeremy Hunt’s mind and the cap is not scrapped, then another year from now there will be fewer nurses – it's that simple. But I don’t think this will end here, we are all so passionate.’

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