Ben Gummer MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, stood in for Jeremy Hunt in the UK House of Commons yesterday to answer an ‘urgent question’ from Heidi Alexander MP (Labour), regarding junior doctors’ contract negotiations.
Jeremy Hunt had appeared on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, blaming the BMA for behaving in a “totally irresponsible way” and “spreading misinformation”. He blamed the BMA for refusing to sit down to negotiate a solution.
Sources close to the BMA, as reported in the Independent, have blamed Jeremy Hunt for “walking away” from negotiations.
Instead of toning down the outwardly hostile display from Jeremy Hunt, Ben Gummer went even further, accusing the BMA of being dishonest and blatantly lying.
In a series of responses to follow-up questions, Gummer left anyone listening in no doubt over government commitment to implement the contract changes for junior doctors and placed the blame for strikes and lengthy contract negotiations firmly at the door of the BMA.
Gummer opened his statement by explaining how the BMA was responsible for the contract negotiations taking so long. Then he accused the BMA of refusing to negotiate at all over Saturday pay.
“In October 2014, the BMA withdrew from talks on reforming the junior doctors’ contract and despite the government asking them to return, did not start talking again until November last year  in talks facilitated by ACAS.”
“Throughout December, we made very good progress on a wide range of issues, and reached agreement on the vast majority of the BMA’s concerns.”
“Regrettably, we did not come to an agreement on two substantive issues, including weekend pay rates. So, following strike action last month, the Secretary of State appointed Sir David Dalton, one of our most respected NHS Chief Executives, to take negotiations forward on behalf of the NHS.”
“Further progress has been made under Sir David’s leadership, particularly in areas relating to safety and training.”
“However, despite agreeing with ACAS to negotiate on the issue of weekend pay rates, David Dalton has advised us that the BMA has refused to discuss a negotiated solution on Saturday pay.”
“In his letter to the Secretary of State last week, Sir David stated, “given that we have made such good progress over the last three weeks and are very nearly there on all but the pay points, it is very disappointing that the BMA continues to refuse to negotiate on the issue of ‘unsocial hours’ payment. I note that, in the ACAS agreement of 13th November, both parties agreed to negotiate on the number of hours designated as ‘plain time’ and I hope that the BMA will still agree to do that”.”
“The government is clear that our door remains open for further discussion and we continue to urge the BMA to return to the table.”
There now appears to be no way to avoid a second junior doctors’ strike, set to begin at 8am on Wednesday. The BMA are blaming the government and the government are blaming the BMA, yet no actual negotiations are taking place on the remaining issue of Saturday pay rates.
What is clear, from the statement of Ben Gummer, is that the government have prepared for the strike and envisage it going ahead, unless some movement occurs from the BMA. Such movement seems unlikely, given the unwillingness to even negotiate.
He went on to urge support from all sides of the house “to call upon the BMA to put patients first, call off their damaging strike, and work with us to ensure we can offer patients consistent standards of care every day of the week”.
Gummer levelled some criticism at Jeremy Corbyn and his ‘irresponsible’ opposition party, suggesting they should make their position clear and choose a side, facilitating necessary changes which improve patient safety.
Gummer refused to accept the rhetorical responses from Labour MPs, suggesting that he did not care about junior doctors. He stressed the problem lay solely with the BMA, not the doctors, who he felt had been misled by the BMA.
Gummer laid out some specifics of the proposed new contract, benefitting junior doctors:
- Pay increase & pay protection procedures included.
- Reduction of the maximum number of consecutive nights, down from 7 to 4.
- Reduction in the maximum number of long day shifts, down from 7 to 5.
- Reduction in the maximum number of long late shifts, down from 12 to 5.
- Reduction in the maximum number of hours worked in a week, down from 91 to 72.
- New ‘guardian’ role which will protect hours of junior doctors within individual Trusts.
- Fine system penalising Trusts, with money raised to be used for doctor training.
Gummer stressed to MPs that junior doctors were only the beginning, consultants and GPs were also in the sights of his reformist Health Department.
He stressed the fact that the upcoming strike, even though the BMA have said the dispute is NOT about pay, is indeed solely about PAY.
“Of course we all regret the course that this has taken. I just have to tell her that it would not have taken this course, had the BMA taken a responsible position, right from the beginning.”
“If you lie to your members, if you say that they are going to have a pay cut and their hours raised, of course doctors are going to be angry about it, all of us would be.”
“But the fact is, that was never true and the result is that it has inflamed the situation where we could have had the kind of productive talks we’ve had over the last 3 or 4 weeks.”
“We could have had those back in August, September and October, had we not had all the mess beforehand because of untruthful statements issued by the BMA.”
Ben Gummer MP, 08/02/2016