Relations between the Government and health professionals sank to a new low after Andrew Lansley accused them of opposing his NHS reforms because they were upset about cuts to their pay and pensions.
Union leaders reacted furiously to the Health Secretary's claim that they wanted "to have a go" at the Government and his suggestion that they were not addressing his NHS shake-up on its merits. Mr Lansley is under fresh pressure after the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Royal College of Midwives (RCM) joined the British Medical Association in calling on the Coalition to drop its NHS and Social Care Bill.
Mr Lansley told the BBC the legislation was essential in order to give nurses and doctors clinical leadership. He said: "[The RCN] used to be a professional association that was working with us on professional issues and will carry on doing that, but now the trade union aspect of the Royal College of Nursing has come to the fore, they want to have a go at the Government... about things like pay and pensions." He added: "It's a purely political operation."
Mr Lansley claimed the RCN and RCM supported the principles of the Bill. "What they are actually unhappy about is pay, pensions and jobs. I complete understand that. But if there were no Bill the same issues would have to be addressed. We inherited a deficit, we are having to manage the NHS within limited increases, but actually next year the NHS budget is going to go up by 2.8 per cent."
Mr Lansley denied suggestions that his decision to allow hospitals to raise 49 per cent of their income from private patients was an issue, as hospitals had no limit at the moment. "You have to see the political nature of this. The RCN does not like private activity," he said. But Dr Peter Carter, general-secretary of the RCN, rejected Mr Lansley's claims, saying: "We are disappointed that the Secretary of State would suggest that nurses and healthcare assistants would put self interest before that of patients."
"Nurses want to provide the highest possible standards of patient care and it is at the heart of everything they do. However, members up and down the country are telling us this Bill is seriously destabilising the NHS. Equally, we know tens of thousands of posts are being lost throughout the NHS, which is putting patient care in jeopardy and that there is now a fundamental imbalance between competition and collaboration within the NHS."
Dr Carter said carrying on with the reforms at a time when the NHS must find £20bn in efficiency savings was "quite simply, the wrong thing to do".
Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary, said last night: "It is time to put the NHS first. The Government must listen to patients and NHS staff and put this Bill out of its misery."
Dromey failed to declare £28,000 union earnings
A Labour MP apologised to the Commons yesterday for failing to declare £28,000 of earnings from his trade union work.
Jack Dromey, the Shadow Housing Minister, was criticised by the Standards and Privileges Committee for a serious breach of Westminster rules. Mr Dromey, who is married to the deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman, carried on working part-time for Unite for nearly six months after he was elected MP for Birmingham Erdington. He received £28,000 for the work which he failed to include in the register of members' interests. He also failed to declare an interest when speaking in two parliamentary debates.