Abuse of NHS workers moves north: North Tees & Hartlepool pay extortion

At the beginning of July, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to North Tees & Hartlepool NHS Trust asking for details of any planned staffing cuts. The Trust did not answer within the statutory 20-working-day limit. In spite of repeated reminders on my behalf, it did not answer within 40-day limit either. And when I eventually received a response, on 7 September, it didn’t answer my question:

We are constantly reviewing our structures and ways of working through
our vacancy control mechanisms to ensure that we have the correct
numbers of staff. It is envisaged that any staff reductions are achieved
through natural wastage and turnover of staff.

I hope this information is helpful.”

Well, the information wasn’t helpful. I responded immediately as follows:

Thanks for your email. I am hereby appealing for a review of your
response to my FOI request because:

– it took more than twice as long as the statutory 20 working days.
– the response to my question regarding staffing reductions was a
non-response. I didn’t ask what your standard practice is or how
any reductions will be achieved. I asked what plans are being
considered now for reductions and, if there are such plans, what
numbers and types of function will be affected.

I would like an immediate response, as I have already waited far
longer than legally mandated.”

I still haven’t received the requested information, except for a laughable note apologising for the delay and asking me to confirm whether I still wanted the information! It was obvious something was going on.

And no wonder the Trust wanted to delay and avoid responding. If it had answered honestly, it would have had to respond that it is considering sacking all of its nurses, receiptionists and admin staff. As revealed by the Daily Mirror and Health Service Journal, the Trust is demanding that all staff in these categories move onto a new contract that does not include unsocial hours enhancements in sick pay.

I’ve campaigned hard to raise awareness of what is happening in the South West NHS region, even though I live very far away from the south-west, and don’t have any personal connection to the region. A large part of the reason for this is that I believe the formation of a cartel to force staff to accept cuts to pay and conditions is wrong, whether I live there or not. Another part is that I know that if such measures are successful in one region, the government and employers will roll it out to every other region. Attacking regionally is just another form of ‘divide and conquer’.

I do know people who work at North Tees & Hartlepool – and work hard. Just in the past week, staff shortages, high levels of dependent patients and the total emotional investment the job requires have meant I’ve seen NHS staff exhausted to the point of tears. In spite of government efforts to degrade and devalue the esteem with which the public regards health-workers, this is still a vocation and not just a job – it demands far too much for that.

It so happens that the people I know who work there basically agree with the move to cut the enhancements from sick pay, because they get tired of being left in the lurch by a few people who regularly take sickness absence, and think that this will happen less if those few people are receiving a lower rate of pay. It may be that some of those do so because of stress caused by the deliberate overstretch that the government is inducing in the health service as part of its strategy to dismantle the NHS. But it’s also true that some people abuse the system and lack the dedication of the majority.

But the right approach to that problem is to deal with those individuals via disciplinary procedures – not to penalise everyone, including those whose health genuinely breaks down because of the unbearable loading being put on them. And especially not to attempt to extort acceptance of a measure by threatening to sack everyone and rehire them.

The just response to such a threat is resistance. And the just response to such an action, if it is carried out, is for the sacked staff to decline to be rehired and to claim for wrongful dismissal – a high-risk strategy, for sure, but no NHS Trust can replace thousands of trained and experienced workers overnight.

But that won’t happen. Health staff are almost entirely too dedicated to the welfare of their patients to leave them at the mercy of detached and blinkered money-men. And far too many are the main breadwinner for their family to be able to run the risk.

So we – you and I, Joe and Jane Public, need to get behind the people who care for their health, often at the expense of their own health and relationships. Not just in the North-East or the South-West, but everywhere we hear about insane, heartless aims and underhand tactics.

But if you live in and around the North Tees area, please write to your MP. Whether they’re Labour, LibDem or even the very rare Conservative, find them on http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ and write to them, demanding that they oppose this threat and support their local NHS.

One thing is certain: NTH NHS Trust will not save the £40m it needs to by targeting a few people who take unnecessary sick-leave. That’s why it’s trying to apply the measure to everyone – and it’s why if this measure fails, it will only be the first salvo in the assault on NHS workers in the region. In fact, as the government is expecting similar cuts every year for the next 5 years, it’s only the first salvo no matter what happens on sick-pay.

The NHS is a precious thing, and while the people who work in it probably wouldn’t call themselves heroes, that’s what most of them are. It’s up to every right-thinking person to jump into the fray and fight to save it – for their own sake as well as the sake of health-workers. March in London on 20 October with the TUC, join in local protests, write to local and national newspapers and your MP; blog, tweet, comment on Facebook; bore your friends and family but make sure they get informed. Whatever it takes, let’s defend our NHS.


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