Dobson's new deal for nurses ignores pay rises

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NURSES will this week be promised new contracts to protect them from violence and improve their working conditions, in an attempt to persuade them to stay in the NHS.

Alan Milburn, the health minister, will announce that hospitals are to be set targets for reducing attacks on staff, introducing more flexible working hours and improving occupational health provision, all of which are designed to halt the haemorrhage of nurses to the private sector.

New fast-track training programmes, with special bursaries for nurses who have left the NHS and want to return, will be set up to make it easier for staff to get back on to the wards as quickly as possible.

The initiatives are an attempt to divert attention from the most controversial issue of nurses' pay, which threatens to overshadow the Labour Party conference next week.

The Government's recommendation on health service wages to the public sector pay review bodies, which was due last Friday, has been delayed because of a row between Gordon Brown and Frank Dobson. The Chancellor is attempting to veto the Health Secretary's proposal that nurses should receive rises above the rate of inflation.

Ministers are also concerned that they will not be able to fulfil their pledge to get an extra 15,000 nurses on to the NHS wards because of the acute problems in recruiting and retaining staff. However, Mr Milburn plans to outline the Department of Health's broader proposals on improving the working lives of NHS employees in a speech on Tuesday.

Measures to tackle violence against doctors and nurses will be introduced. There are approximately 1,000 attacks on NHS staff, which require more than three days off work to recover, every year. The Government will encourage hospitals to install panic alarms and closed circuit television cameras in Accident and Emergency units in order to protect frontline staff.

Hospitals will also be told to be more flexible when they draw up the terms of employment with their staff. Ministers want to give nurses more opportunities to organise their work on a part-time or job-share basis.

On Wednesday, Mr Milburn will announce a massive recruitment drive aimed at the 140,000 nurses who have left the NHS recently. They will be offered bursaries to enrol in fast-track training schemes which will enable them to start working in hospitals again quickly.

Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, said: "I want to make the NHS a better place to work. NHS staff deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. These targets will create a better working environment and help the NHS recruit and retain the staff it needs. Quality of care for patients and staff go hand in hand."

Government sources confirmed that the aim was to broaden the discussion beyond the issue of pay.

"Ministers recognise that pay is important but there are other issues that are also important. Job security, flexible working hours and staff conditions are just as vital in improving morale and helping to tackle shortages," a Government source said.

However, nursing unions last night condemned the move as an attempt to "buy off" their members. Christine Hancock, head of the Royal College of Nurses, said: "Pay is important to nurses. Of course they want other issues sorted out like dealing with violence in the workplace, improving child care, more flexible ways of working. But we won't keep nurses and attract others back without dealing with pay."

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