Dobson offers `family friendly' shifts to soothe angry nurses

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The Independent Online
HOSPITALS ARE to be told to make themselves more "family friendly" for nurses in a push by Frank Dobson to head off anger over the staging of their pay award.

Speaking to The Independent, the Health Secretary said he would be issuing "more trenchant advice" to NHS managers about the need for better treatment of nurses with more flexible working hours to fit their lifestyles.

Mr Dobson has also written to all hospitals to ensure that they can avoid a winter crisis, which could wreck his promise to reduce waiting lists.

He has told NHS staff to ensure that local arrangements can cope with emergency pressures so that waiting list targets are achieved. His letter follows a study of NHS emergency services, showing that pressure on emergency units last winter increased in spite of the mild weather, and a harsh winter this time could see waiting lists start rising again.

Christopher Bunch, chairman of the emergency services action committee, which carried out the review, said: "Staff have coped magnificently under increasing pressure but at some cost. Stress levels are high throughout and there are staff shortages and recruitment difficulties in several areas."

Mr Dobson's determination to help nurses work more flexible hours follows a personal experience. "I can remember some years ago that three quarters of the nurses at University College Hospital were agency nurses. When I inquired, the explanation was that the agency nurses can work what hours they like, but the ones on the NHS payroll had to work standard hours. It suited the agency nurses but it struck me that if you can order your rosters for agency nurses, you can organise them for your NHS staff."

Offering nurses more flexible working hours could allow more to come back into the profession after having children. "It's clear, on present levels of pay and terms and conditions, there is difficulty in recruiting and retaining nurses."

Mr Dobson also has drawn up, with the Royal College of Nursing, new guidelines for hospitals to enforce security in hospitals to stop nurses and doctors being assaulted by disturbed or drunken patients.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will back up the guidelines by ordering the police to crack down on assaults on hospital staff. Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, has written to magistrates, telling the courts to take violent offences against NHS staff more seriously.

"We want to make working in the NHS more attractive. In the past, it was all about gagging nurses from speaking out. We will be spelling out family-friendly policies and producing a joint document on reducing assaults and abuse of staff," he said.

The Health Secretary also gave a clear signal that he will avoid staging next year's pay award to nurses.

Pay is one of the key issues that is blamed for poor recruitment and retention in the NHS. The nurses' pay review body recommended an increase of 3.8 per cent this year costing pounds 351 million extra. But as it did with all public sector groups, the Cabinet reduced the increase to 2 per cent from 1 April with the rest being paid from 1 December.

The Government is planning to deliver its submission to the pay review bodies later this month and the Prime Minister has already met them to reassure the review bodies they still have independence in spite of the change to their terms of reference to include "affordability" for the first time.

The nurses pay review has been told to report to Mr Dobson and Downing Street, and the Treasury is hoping that its recommendations will be kept closer to the 2.5 per cent inflation target.

The Health Secretary is also consulting the NHS groups on a long-term plan to introduce a single independent pay review body for the whole of the health service, to reduce disparities between the auxiliary nurses and porters not covered by pay review bodies and, for example, GPs, who this year were awarded 5.2 per cent more in two stages.

But new Labour's other key health pledge, to cut waiting lists by 100,000, seems like a mirage; the more people are treated, the more come on to the list. Some Labour sources said it was the fault of the copywriters when they were producing the posters for the election: they did not think a commitment to "treat 100,000 more patients" was sharp enough.

Mr Dobson knows he is saddled with it, and if he does not deliver on the first stage by next May, he will be out of a job. He remains confident that the aim of getting down waiting lists to the level inherited from the Tories over the next eight months will be met, barring accidents this winter.

He is so confident that the figures will continue to go down that he is preparing to remove his collection of paintings from his office wall - including a portrait of Oliver Cromwell inherited from Stephen Dorrell, his Tory predecessor - and replace them with graphs of the waiting lists for NHS treatment.