Jeff Smith

Standing up for Manchester Withington

Heidi Alexander Junior Doctors

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab):

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It would have been good to have previewed this exchange during the urgent question on Monday, but we all know that the Secretary of State could not be bothered to turn up. You might also think, Mr Speaker, that the Health Secretary would do me the courtesy of responding to the two letters I have sent to him in the last week, but you would be wrong. So much for a seven-day health service! A five-day-a-week Health Secretary would be nice.

This whole dispute could have been handled so differently. The Health Secretary’s failure to listen to junior doctors, his deeply dubious misrepresentation of research about care at weekends and his desire to make these contract negotiations into a symbolic fight for delivery of seven-day services has led to a situation that has been unprecedented in my lifetime. Everyone, including the BMA, agrees with the need to reform the current contract, but hardly anyone thinks the need to do that is so urgent that it justifies imposition, and all the chaos that will bring.

The Health Secretary said NHS leaders had asked him to “end the uncertainty”, but can he confirm that that means they support “imposing” a new contract? One hospital chief executive, who the Secretary of State claims is supporting him, tweeted this morning:

“I have supported the view that the offer made is reasonable…I have not supported contract imposition”.

For the purpose of clarity, can the Secretary of State say categorically that all the NHS leaders whom he mentioned fully support his actions? Can he not see that imposing a new contract that does not enjoy the confidence of junior doctors will destroy morale, which is already at rock bottom? Does he not realise that this decision could lead to a protracted period of industrial action that would be distressing for everyone—patients, doctors, and everyone else who works in or depends on the NHS? [Interruption.]

 

Mr Speaker:

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. Let me say this to Members on both sides of the House who are shouting: do it again, and you will not be called. It is as simple as that. If Members cannot exercise the self-restraint to be quiet while the Front Benchers are speaking, they have no business taking part in the exchanges.

 

Heidi Alexander:

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker.

What impact does the Secretary of State honestly think an imposed contract will have on recruitment and retention? Earlier this week, a poll found that nearly 90% of junior doctors would be prepared to leave the NHS if a contract were imposed. How does the Secretary of State propose to deliver seven-day services with one tenth of the current junior doctor workforce? How can it possibly be right for us to be training junior doctors and the consultants of tomorrow, only to export them en masse to the southern hemisphere? The Secretary of State needs to stop behaving like a recruiting agent for Australian hospitals, and start acting like the Secretary of State for our NHS.

What advice did the Secretary of State take before making this decision? He may not want to respond to my letters, but what does he say to the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, all of which have urged him not to impose a contract? What legal advice has he taken about how an imposed contract would work in practice? What employment rights do junior doctors have in this context, and what will happen if they simply refuse to sign?

The Secretary of State has been keen to present a new junior doctors contract as the key which will unlock the delivery of seven-day services, but that is a massive over-simplification, and he knows it. Although research shows that there is a higher mortality rate among patients who are admitted to hospital at weekends, there is absolutely no evidence to show that it is specifically caused by a lack of junior doctors. Will the right hon. Gentleman state, for the record, that he accepts that. 

One of the real barriers to more consistent seven-day services is the consultants contract. Until now, at least, the BMA and the Government were making progress in those negotiations. Could not a decision to impose a new junior doctors contract put the consultant negotiations at risk, and make the delivery of seven-day services even harder?

Will the Secretary of State also make clear how the definition of unsocial hours will need to change in other contracts in order for seven-day services to be delivered, and which groups of staff that will apply to?

What we heard from the Secretary of State today could amount to the biggest gamble with patient safety that the House has ever seen. He has failed to win the trust of the very people who keep our hospitals running, and he has failed to convince the public of his grounds for change. Imposing a contract is a sign of failure, and it is about time the Secretary of State realised that.

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