Strikes (Minimum Service Levels: NHS Ambulance Services and the NHS Patient Transport Service) Regulations 2023

Lord Woodley Excerpts
Wednesday 6th December 2023

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Allan of Hallam Portrait Lord Allan of Hallam (LD)
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My Lords, it is good that this instrument applies only to ambulance trusts in England. That is the last time I will use the word “good” in association with this statutory instrument, but it certainly reflects a lot of feedback, particularly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and others, that we had during the debate on the primary legislation, when we felt we had to remind the Government that the health service is devolved and that it was inappropriate to seek to interfere too far. It was interesting to hear the Minister say that the Government have made an offer of assistance to the Governments in Wales and Scotland in respect of giving them these wonderful minimum service levels. I would love to be a fly on the wall for those conversations, which I am sure are very short.

I turn to the substance of the requirements. The people running local health services are like watchmakers looking after very complex mechanisms with many different moving parts. From time to time, we work with those professionals on health and care legislation that provides tools for them to tune and improve their services. What is before us today is not such an instrument but rather reflects that the Government have decided unilaterally to give local health authority managers a hammer, because that is what the Government think they need. Yet the feedback we have had from all those who work in the National Health Service, as cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, is that they clearly believe that this is the wrong tool for the job. Given that feedback, it seems quite likely that many trusts will choose not to use the powers to issue work notices. If that is the case, perhaps little harm will ultimately have been done other than wasting parliamentary time on creating the law and the regulations.

But there is a worrying scenario, which we explored during the legislative process, that was not sufficiently addressed—where trusts that do not want to issue work notices nevertheless feel compelled to use them for legal reasons. I would like the Minister to come back to this today and provide some more compelling assurances. If an ambulance trust, after the passing of these regulations, wishes not to use this mechanism but instead to negotiate voluntary agreements, as the Minister said that he would like them to do, will it truly be free to make that choice? If politicians want to urge trusts to use the hammer of work notices that they have given them, that is one thing. They can deal with the political pressure. But if, by declining to use these notices, they will expose themselves to new legal risks, that is much more problematic. Trusts may then feel that they have to use the hammer, even where they believe it will cause more damage, because they cannot risk being sued for not doing so. Can the Minister give a clear guarantee that his department has looked into this thoroughly and determined that trusts will continue to be able to use their best judgment on what will cause least harm to the communities they serve?

Where a trust has exercised its judgment not to issue work notices and things go wrong, as inevitably may happen from time to time, for a variety of reasons, we need to know that the trust will not face action either from the department or from any other third party. Absent that assurance, the safe option may be to issue the work notices, for the trust to take the hammer to the watch, whether or not it thinks it is a good idea. This is the crucial point. If we are to believe the Minister’s reassuring words, that this will still create the scope for trusts to negotiate voluntary agreements and they will not have to issue these work notices, we need to know that the department has looked at this and can give us that kind of copper-bottomed guarantee, rather than simply saying it will not be a problem.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a former leader of Unite the Union, which represents ambulance workers and other NHS staff up and down our country. My noble friend Lady Merron has powerfully laid out the arguments against the draconian regulations we are considering today. I will emphasise three points in the short time that I have now.

First, these regulations are entirely unnecessary. Trade unions already agree life and limb cover during strike action—noble Lords know that. These arrangements work well, giving confidence and flexibility if workers are needed to leave the picket line to respond to emergencies. We have always done that. Central to the NHS disputes over the past year are the unsafe staffing levels due to poor pay and retention. Why are the Government so keen on minimum staffing levels on strike days but do not care what happens when staff are not striking?

Secondly, these regulations will simply poison industrial relations between employers and workers, as all the impact assessments have shown us. When you deprive somebody of their ability to strike after a ballot, how can you be surprised when this causes widespread anger and resentment? Without being able to take effective strike action, workers will of course seek new ways to put pressure on employers, including work to rule and overtime bans. With all good faith gone, disputes will drag on and become even more bitter. Forcing workers to cross their own picket lines, with unions made to take so-called reasonable steps to enforce this, is undoubtedly a recipe for disaster. Mark my words: when the first worker is sacked for refusing to cross their picket line, there will be a major escalation of industrial action. Is that what the Government really want?

Finally, these measures are just the latest in a long line of union-busting legislation from this Government. It is a disgrace that they continue to attack workers’ rights when they promised an employment Bill to make Britain the best place to work in Europe. Instead, they are trying again to repeal the ban on using agency staff to break strikes, despite the High Court ruling that said it was unfair, unlawful and irrational.

In this place, we are privileged to be able to hold the Government to account and to help protect people from greed and exploitation. I urge noble Lords to stand up for the hard-pressed workers of this country, already suffering from a cost of living catastrophe not of their making, and to vote down these vindictive, destructive and, above all, counterproductive measures.

Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Merron. As recently as 20 July this year, this House debated a report from our Public Services Committee, very aptly entitled Emergency Healthcare: A National Emergency. The report found the emergency healthcare workforce to be under unprecedented strain, facing significant challenges and shortages, low job satisfaction and retention rates. Ambulance staff were described as overwhelmed, fatigued and depleted. Many stated that they were suffering from work-related stress, covering for 3,000 job vacancies in the ambulance service alone.

The report concluded:

“Without concerted action to address the emergency in the system”,


many of the emergency healthcare workforce

“will leave the health service”.

The report is reinforced by the Government’s own delivery plan for recovering emergency services, also published this year. The government plan states that this is the

“most testing time in NHS history”,

which is, in its words, taking its

“toll on staff, who … work in an increasingly tough environment”.

Our ambulance services are struggling to cope. If we are to restore service to the levels that we all want, never in the history of our NHS has partnership, which has thrived in our health service for more than 75 years, been more important. The Government, employers and unions should be working together to pick the emergency healthcare workforce off the ground and to improve ways of working and service delivery for the benefit of patients.

Stroke Care

Lord Woodley Excerpts
Monday 24th July 2023

(10 months ago)

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Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely correct. As mentioned, speed to the right place is vital; videos in ambulances are one way of communicating ahead and speaking to the paramedics so that they are ready to receive them, which is really important. The latest data I have seen is that 92% of people are now sent straight to the stroke ward on arrival, which sounds promising but is somewhat at odds with the Sentinel figure he mentioned. I will find out more about that and get back to the noble Lord.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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I speak with experience, having seen my wife suffer a very serious stroke more than a decade ago. As the right reverend Prelate said, speed is of the essence. Not one but two ambulances arrived within 15 minutes and she was in hospital within 25 minutes; they saved her life at Chester County Hospital. Does the Minister agree that things have got worse and worse over the last decade and that, unfortunately, people are dying?

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I agree that last winter was particularly difficult; as we all know, ambulance wait times were too long, which undoubtedly caused issues. We have a recovery plan for the emergency services and have invested more in ambulances, but it is all about flow, which we have spoken about many times in this House, and making sure that people can get to where they need to be as soon as possible.

NHS: Waiting Lists and Increased Spending

Lord Woodley Excerpts
Tuesday 22nd November 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his question. I was delighted to see in the Chancellor’s Statement a commitment to a workforce strategy for five, 10 and 15 years, something that all of us in this House have been asking for. It will look at all the needs in respect of recruitment and, crucially, retention. That is very much part of the agenda.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, the current shortage of 60,000 nurses is devastating, and its impact on waiting lists even more so. It is obvious—to me, anyway—that the main cause of this staffing crisis is low pay, with many nurses opting to leave for jobs in supermarkets and other sectors for better wages. Does the Minister accept that the best way to tackle these problems is to allow more qualified nurses into the UK from the EU and beyond, grow the economy and fill the gaps in the skills that the NHS needs? Most importantly, we need to pay our heroes, who we all clapped for, a decent living wage to live on.

Lord Markham Portrait Lord Markham (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord. For the record, there are 29,000 extra nurses since 2019-20, so we are well on course for the 50,000 increase. At the same time, we do need to recruit from overseas, and that is very much part of the plan. Again, this will go into the workforce strategy, but I completely agree that we should be looking to recruit from around the world, which we are. I am delighted that we are adding more and more people to the essential workers list, so to speak, to enable us to do that, because we all know that the workforce plan will show that we need to recruit people and retain them.