The UNISON Health Conference in Brighton yesterday gave environment secretary Hilary Benn a heated reception.
He was booed and heckled when he tried to defend the government’s NHS privatisation and pay-cutting policies.
Benn was asked by one delegate why doesn’t the government ‘keep the NHS going, rather than going down the road of the American method of putting greed before need?’
Benn was booed when he responded by saying the NHS had 85,000 more nurses in the past decade, and that there would also be a 10 per cent increase in the funding available to the NHS.
He admitted the decision to phase the nurses’ pay award is ‘unpopular’ but added that ‘sometimes you have to take difficult decisions which not everybody likes’, and attempted to blame workers for inflation.
There was also a walkout at the conference.
There was a motion before the conference, Motion 15, entitled ‘Campaigning Against Cuts and Privatisation while Funding the Labour Party.’
It was submitted by Manchester Community and Mental Health branch.
The motion said: ‘Conference is outraged that the Labour government is continuing to privatise and marketise NHS services and staff, and forcing NHS Trusts to make cuts in order to reduce so-called deficits.
‘Conference notes that during the Local Government Pension Scheme campaign, the UNISON Labour Link agreed to stop giving resources for election work for the Labour Party during the May 2006 local government election period, because it was seen to be untenable to be giving resources while members’ pensions were at risk.
‘Conference resolves to call on the Health Service Group Executive to make representations by whatever means it can to the Labour Link, to request that a similar cessation of resources for work is made while the Labour government continues to privatise services and force NHS Trusts to make cuts.’
From the floor of the conference a call was made for a card vote. But the executive refused, and a whole group of delegates and visitors walked out.
The chair then said at least a third of delegates were still present, making the conference quorate, and the motion was declared to have been lost.
Neil Sheehan, a delegate from UNISON Eastern Region, Herts Community Health Care Branch, said: ‘How can we agree to the Labour link when they are making health workers redundant?’
Yesterday pre-conference, UNISON head of health Karen Jennings said about the pay crisis: ‘I think a strike is certain if we can’t get the government to come back to the table and talk.’
She added: ‘Conference will decide what course of action we’ll be taking and this will be on the back of a range of other health organisations who are also very, very angry.’
An emergency motion backed by the UNISON health care executive will be heard today calling for urgent talks with chancellor Brown to demand he drop his pay-cutting proposals or face a ballot for strike action.
The composite emergency motion will also call for any action to be coordinated with other public sector unions, in response to the call from the PCS civil service union.