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Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Hillingdon hospital is in my constituency. I am sure that he knows that about 200 of the 230 members of staff accepted the conditions offered by Pall Mall Services. Those who did not have been engaged in the industrial action to which he has referred, although, happily that has not had an impact on the service provided by the hospital to patients. The hospital's trust has, with my full support and in response to my urging, attempted to bring both sides of the dispute together and to reach a settlement. Earlier in the year, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service brokered an agreement, which I believe was recommended by Unison but rejected by the staff concerned. It appears that the next step in the saga will be for the matter to go before an industrial tribunal. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the agreement that Unison tried to broker and why it was rejected? He has told the House that he is a member of Unison and it may be valuable for him to comment.

Mr. Corbyn: I would have been happier if the hon. Gentleman had said that he supported the women's predicament and recognised the injustice that they feel. People do not reject offers of jobs without having very strong reasons for doing so. I think that they were absolutely entitled to reject the offer. The women have been wrongfully dismissed by Pall Mall and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, their case is to be taken to a tribunal.

Sir Michael Shersby: I was present at the hospital's annual general meeting and listened to the views expressed by the staff who were not offered new contracts under Unison. I have had further meetings with the hospital management as a result. One of the reasons why I am present is to tell the House that. I think that the hon. Gentleman will be assured of my concern.

Mr. Corbyn: Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman's comments do not reassure me at all. He has said that he has met the hospital management and other staff who, for their own reasons, fears or whatever else, accepted new contracts and conditions, but has not said whether he supports the women who have been thrown out of their jobs by the wealthy Pall Mall company. Does he think that it is right that women cleaners should work for less than £3 an hour?

Sir Michael Shersby: I made it clear that I listened to the staff who had lost their jobs as a result of the events that the hon. Gentleman has described. It was as a result of listening to them that I immediately asked for further meetings with the hospital staff in an effort to bring to an end the regrettable dispute. There is no lack of sympathy or understanding on my part with the staff concerned.

Mr. Corbyn: I am glad that that is so. Given that, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will give his support to the women who have been standing outside the hospital for a year trying to get their jobs back and to ensure that all cleaners in all hospitals are paid a decent living wage. He

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and I would not like to work for, or try to live on, £3 an hour; we probably could not. Why should they or anybody else have to do so? Ancillary staff are treated disgracefully in the health service anyway, but those employed by contractors are considerably worse off. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the absolute justice of the women's case and the wide support that they enjoy in the local community, from my trade union, Unison, and from a number of other unions.

People have had enough of this cavalier, anti-trade union approach to management which says that it does not matter how low the wages are provided that somebody can be found to do the job. In a time of high unemployment, it is possible to get people to do jobs for disgracefully low wages. That does not make such practices right, happy or just. I want to draw attention to the plight of the workers at Hillingdon hospital.

The Minister has a trade union background, even though he turned his back on it some years ago. Perhaps he can tell us why the national health service internal market deliberately encourages contractors to cut costs, to worsen conditions and to treat contract workers in that way. We would be far better off if we ended the principle of the internal market and instead started treating all national health service staff as crucial parts of a team that ensures that we have good-quality hospitals and working conditions.

The Minister must recognise that all is not well in this dispute any more than all is well in the current dispute in Northern Ireland. He should intervene to ensure that Pall Mall takes the staff back and employs them under conditions no less favourable than those that they were given in writing when the contract was taken over in 1994.

We should go a stage further than that. When contracts come up for renewal, we should end the principle of contracting out cleaning services and take staff directly into national health service employment so that they can be assured of good-quality working conditions and training.

There are problems and dangers for us all in the employment of contract workers. There have been many contract failures in the national health service, with cleaning being inadequately or badly done, staff being badly trained or untrained and incoming staff not being given health checks. Many issues need to be addressed.

The purpose of the debate is to draw attention to what has happened at Hillingdon hospital and the way in which those women have been treated. The wider community, particularly the Government, must intervene to stop the abuse of power by Pall Mall and the Pontius Pilate attitude of the hospital trust, replicated by the Department of Health, which is saying, "It is nothing to do with us. It is all a matter for the market."

Imagine the situation of people whose jobs have been sold to another employer over their heads and who are told a few months later, "Sorry. We did not really mean the promises that we gave you. We did not really mean to give you the undertakings that we gave six months ago. That was all window dressing to get the contract. Would you kindly accept a cut in wages, worse working conditions and less holiday pay? Would you kindly accept less enhanced pay for overtime, night time and weekend

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working? In other words, would you kindly do whatever we want you to do?" What would any of us do if faced with such a situation?

I do not blame those women for what they did. I have the deepest admiration and support for them, as, I believe, do many other people in hospitals, even those who felt that they had no alternative but to accept the unbridled power of the marketplace which forces them into worse working conditions.

My plea is for the Government to intervene to ensure that everybody working in a national health service institution enjoys conditions at least as good as nationally negotiated and agreed NHS conditions. The Minister must recognise that this obscenity can be put right only when proper national conditions are applicable to all workers.

The women are fighting a battle of enormous principle that will go down in history as such, akin to the current dispute at the Liverpool docks and other episodes in the great history of trade union struggles in this country when workers have stood up and said that they are not prepared to allow employers to ride roughshod over them and destroy a lifetime's gains in working conditions. Pall Mall should have some respect for 30 years' service in the NHS rather than casting those women out on the stones outside in the freezing air to campaign for their reinstatement.

I am proud to be associated with the trade union that supports those members. I very much hope that, soon, those women will be back in work in that hospital, able to continue the dedicated service that they have given to the national health service, rather than suffering disgraceful treatment at the hands of Pall Mall. We need to get a grip on the power of cleaning companies and their awful treatment of so many of their staff. Will the Minister explain why he has apparently been unable for so long to do anything and what he will do to ensure justice for these women?

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Horam): It is most regrettable that the dispute has remained unresolved for more than a year. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) has made extreme efforts, which he has mentioned during the debate, to bring it to a resolution. However, it has not been resolved.

I sympathise with the predicament of those involved, but the parties to the dispute are a private company and a number of cleaning workers who parted with that company last year. I stress that the workers were not national health service employees at the time. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) may have given the contrary impression. Many of them had not been employees in the national health service for more than six years. Neither the national health service managers at Hillingdon nor I have any jurisdiction over the matter. Furthermore, given that industrial tribunal proceedings are now in progress, with the aggrieved workers claiming unfair dismissal by Pall Mall, we should be particularly careful to avoid any comment that might prejudice the case.

I must make one other point clear from the outset. The hospital has at all times during the dispute continued to provide its customary excellent service to patients. At no time has the quality of cleaning at the hospital been compromised and the contractor has continued to fulfil all

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its contractual obligations at the hospital. Patients, their relatives and friends and the residents of Hillingdon can be assured of the quality of health care provided by the hospital. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge will want to endorse that, particularly considering last week's debate on another matter.

Before discussing the circumstances of the dispute at Hillingdon, I should like to comment generally on the Government's policy on market testing--an issue that the hon. Member for Islington, North raised--particularly as it relates to non-core NHS services. By testing services through competition, we seek to ensure that the support services provided to national health service hospitals are the best available and provide the best value for money. Whether a support service is provided by the public or private sector depends solely on who best satisfies the criteria of quality and value.

As a result of the market testing initiative, the national health service has saved more than £1 billion since 1983. That means that £1 billion for investment in patient care has been made available. Apart from the cost savings achieved, market testing has also led to greater innovation, better specification of service needs and improved management, releasing resources from non-core support services and making them available for the core business of improving health and patient care, which is what the national health service is all about.

We estimate that the service contracts currently in place in the national health service are achieving an annual saving of between £100 million and £150 million. Again, that is money for use in direct patient care.

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