IN AN UNPRECEDENTED MOVE 58 Lincolnshire health visitors, organised in the Unite union, have so far mounted six days of strike action in a dispute that stems from their transfer from NHS employment to the Tory-controlled county council. The health visitors are registered nurses or midwives who have gained additional qualifications in public health. Their work focuses on households with children from birth to five years of age, often providing support to the most vulnerable.
The one-time NHS workers shifted to local authority employment in autumn 2017 since when they have seen an average drop exceeding £2,000 in their real pay, according to Unite, as the county council has refused to honour NHS ‘Agenda for Change’ increases, with an attempt to force the health visitors on to local authority contracts. The council also stands accused of undermining professional standards by deleting numerous responsibilities from the previous role including the management of complex safeguarding issues.
The council’s drive towards a two-tier workforce by diluting so-called level 1 posts is inevitably increasing workloads and associated stress for those at level 2. Nationally, there is a worsening shortage of health visitors with numbers at their lowest level in a decade. In the words of Unite regional official Jane Beach, the council’s move is “short-sighted given the crisis in general practice and, ultimately, will result in delays in support for children and families in Lincolnshire, many of them in vulnerable circumstances, which, we believe, will have a serious impact on their health and social welfare.”
Against the backdrop of a vocal lobby by strikers, the most recent round of talks between council management and Unite representatives under the aegis of ACAS collapsed on 15th August with Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands, Paresh Patel, saying that council management had turned “old-fashioned pig-headedness into an art form”. The following Saturday striking health visitors and their supporters marched and rallied in Lincoln, a Labourheld marginal, held by former nurse and Unison activist, Karen Lee MP. Alongside shadow health and social care secretary Jon Ashworth, Lee and Lincolnshire County Unison assistant branch secretary, Gavyn Graham, addressed the Unite-organised rally. In his speech, Ashworth committed Labour to ending “... the grotesque pay anomalies and erosion of professional standards, such as currently exists in Lincolnshire... We recognise the vital work that health visitors do for families and young children during those important early years - and that’s why I am here to give you maximum support.”
While Ashworth’s rhetoric might seem precisely what you would expect from a member of Labour’s shadow cabinet, such unabashed backing for a group of striking public sector workers from a senior Labour MP had become almost unthinkable between the late 1970s and September 2015. For all the difficulties it has faced in the four years since then, and whatever its limitations, Ashworth’s speech testifies to the transformative effect of the Corbyn leadership.
Unite’s East Midlands region has launched an online petition in support of the Lincolnshire health visitors.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP