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Year 2009 No. 27, April 21, 2009 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

The National Health Conference of Unison

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The National Health Conference of Unison

Scotland Minister Speaks at Unison National Health Conference

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The National Health Conference of Unison

Briefing by the Health Workers’ Forum

The National Health Conference of Unison opened in Harrogate on Monday under the banner of Organising to Defend our NHS.

            Summing up the work of the union over the last year the service group executive report presents this in three objectives. Firstly, recruiting, organising, representing and retaining members. Secondly, negotiating and bargaining on behalf of members and thirdly campaigning and promoting Unison on behalf of members.  The sponsored reprint of Aneurin Bevan's In Place of Fear and support and funding for the NHS Support Federation which challenged the privatisation of primary cares services, if necessary through legal routes, under the title of NHS unlimited were some of the projects of the union in this campaign work.  The report also sites political activity fringe meetings at the Labour and Liberal Democrats conferences. 

            Speakers at the conference include Nicola Sturgeon, Cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing, Scotland, Sami Younis, Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, Kris Rondeau, lead organiser from Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, Alan Johnson, secretary of state for health, and Michael McGimpsey, minister for health social services and public safety, Northern Ireland.

            Motions to conference this year are grouped into debates to Keep the NHS Working, pay terms and conditions, Health and Safety, and recruitment and organising. Of particular note is an amendments to the main motion of the Service Group Executive motion Keep the NHS Working.   These amendments point out that the government in bailing out the banks with taxpayers money means that health workers demand that the government now should seize back all of the PFI health projects and the massive profits that these finance capitalists extorted from the NHS and which the government supported.

            It is of very great significance for the workers’ movement that the demand to Stop Paying the Rich and Invest in Social Programmes becomes and immediate demand in the severe crisis in the NHS and throughout the whole economy.  If all act on such a demand then there is a possibility to put the economy on a sound footing.   A starting point to develop the economy without the present market economy that threatens to destroy not only the wider social economy but also the NHS and other social programmes.

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Scotland Minister Speaks at Unison National Health Conference

One of the highlights of the first day of conference was to have the opportunity to listen to Nicola Sturgeon, of the Scottish National Party (SNP), who is Cabinet secretary for health and wellbeing in the Scottish Parliament.   She spoke for about 30 minutes, punctuated with applause for the points she made, and received a standing ovation from many, most tellingly from the Scottish contingent. At the conclusion of her speech, after answering questions in a fresh and very honest way, instead of leaving the hall she went to speak to the Scottish delegates.

            In her speech, she spoke about the values of a strong belief in public ownership, collaboration and co-operation that beats hand down the values of the market and internal competition and contestability. She outlined how the Scottish Parliament had brought these principles to life.   The first principle was public ownership and delivery of health services which was backed by a budget of £10 billion a year.  She said that it should be firmly in public hands and should work for public benefit and not private profit.  She said that it was right in theory and in practice because the very nature of health care is that it is not possible, even if it were desirable, to create a health market.

            Public ownership is important in principle but more importantly are the policies that bring that principle to life.  Nicola Sturgeon said that taxpayers’ money should be invested to build capacity in the National Health Service, not to build capacity in the private sector, and this was why the private sector in Scotland was marginal.  Secondly, the way that principle is brought to life is by making a very significant shift away from private finance initiative (PFI) in the provision of NHS infrastructure. She said that PFI had been a bad deal for the taxpayer.  She highlighted an £800 million project in Glasgow paid entirely by public capital.  She went on to say that GP practices should be part of the NHS family and were the gateway to health care. She said that the government in Scotland opposed these GPs being taking over by independent contractors and would legislatively abolish that possibility.  She said that they have instructed that there will be no more contracting out of cleaning or catering services. 

            The minister said that privatisation undermined the NHS ethos and the notion of the NHS family.  She went on to say on funding that there should be no charges for health care other than tax contributions.  She said that, like in England, she did not see changes to dental charges in the foreseeable future but she spoke about the phased elimination of prescription charges by 2011.  She wasn’t going to comment on another government, she said, but it was deeply ironic that in Scotland there is an SNP government, in Wales a Plaid Cymru/Labour coalition, in northern Ireland an all party coalition, all with a policy of scrapping prescription charges, yet it is the UK Labour Party, the party of Nye Bevan, that is the last and the only defender of prescription charges! Others, she remarked, may reflect on the irony and appropriateness of that.

            She spoke about the Scottish conception of mutuality. In summary it describes a vision of the NHS where ownership and accountably is shared between the public and the staff who work in the NHS.  Nicola Sturgeon described the key strands of mutuality.  Giving the public greater say in the future direction of the NHS is such a strand.  The government in Scotland have recently passed legislation to directly elect people to NHS boards which they are to pilot.  These will be fully evaluated before any decision to roll out across Scotland.  She said that services are still seen as fragmented on occasions so the Scottish government is working hard to achieve integration principally though managed clinical networks of community health partnerships.   She said that it was crucial that the duty to empower patients particularly was necessary so as to encourage the NHS to see itself as an agent for health improvement and not just as the theatre of ill health.  She then spoke about the staff and the partnership arrangements that they were proud of and were committed to making them work.  She spoke about the arrangements at national and local level to engage with trade unions and that it was important to treat staff appropriately.  She said that the unions would not say that everything was sweetness and light but she hoped they would say that an atmosphere of mutual respect is fostered and that a lot of effort is expended to try and find common ground and that when disagreements do arise they are handled with responsibility and maturity.   The minister finished by praising the contribution of Scottish Unison and that she highly evaluated their contribution to the health service in Scotland.

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