Milburn says that extra NHS cash will not all go on pay

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Alan Milburn provoked anger among nurses yesterday by warning that the extra cash for the NHS would not be swallowed up in extra pay.

The Secretary of State for Health said that better pay was just one of many "competing claims"' for the extra £40bn announced in the Budget last week.

His speech won only lukewarm applause from 1,700 nurses at the Royal College of Nursing's annual congress in Harrogate. Instead a standing ovation was given to Maura Buchanan, the chairwoman of the congress, who demanded to know why nurses were paid 11 per cent less than teachers and the police.

She told the audience: "I have a daughter who is a police constable and what I cannot fathom is why nurses continue to be paid significantly less than other public-sector workers." Ms Buchanan said her daughter, Sharon, now earned £21,500 after four years in the police. A nurse could expect to be on just over £17,000.

Mr Milburn failed to answer the question but he said that negotiations to agree a better pay and career structure for nurses should be concluded by the end of the year.

He said the reform process would not result in a "something for nothing" deal and would have to be balanced by improved productivity and more flexible working.

Mr Milburn told nurses they would play a "leading role" in creating a new-style NHS and promised to give them greater powers. At least 7,000 more nurses would gain responsibility for prescribing medicines and all nurses would be trained in prescribing, he said. Subsidised childcare would be extended to student nurses within two years, hospitals would be judged on how seriously they took the welfare of their staff and 50,000 lower grade nurses would have the chance to go on leadership courses.

In addition, 35,000 new nurses would be recruited to the NHS over the next five years.

"Last week we announced the biggest-ever funding package for the health service. Today I have announced reforms to extend and expand the power of nurses, to change traditional working practices."

But Mr Milburn faced a stream of critical questions after his speech, including one from Mike Hayward, a charge nurse from Portsmouth, who said: "Thank you for telling us how wonderful we are. It is very touching, but we as nurses already know how good we are and the British public knows how good we are.

"Unfortunately, flattery won't get you everywhere. We want to know how urgently are you going to show your value in nurses and address the pay question?"

Dr Beverly Malone, the RCN general secretary, also gave a very muted response. She said Mr Milburn's comments on pay were not as clear as she would have liked although they seemed to be going in the right direction.

"I want to make sure that all nurses benefit. I am looking for something that moves the majority of nurses clearly forward, those D and E-graded nurses who are out there every day providing care on the wards."

She added: "I am still looking for concrete action that will clearly give an indication of the Government's commitment to nurses in terms of pay."