Keir Starmer has challenged Boris Johnson to put the policy of offering NHS staff a 1% pay rise to a Commons vote during a session of prime minister’s questions in which the Labour leader focused entirely on the decision.
In a sign of the cross-party pressure on the issue, the very first question faced by Johnson, from the Liberal Democrats’ Daisy Cooper, was also about the recommendation of a 1% rise, which has prompted anger among unions.
Johnson told Cooper that we “owe a huge amount to our nurses, an incalculable debt”, but argued that the 1% rise should be seen in the context of a pay freeze elsewhere in the public sector.
In a sign of possible future movement on the issue from the government, responding to one of Starmer’s questions, the prime minister hinted that nurses in particular could get more if the NHS pay review body recommended this.
“Of course we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally about the nursing profession, who we particularly value,” Johnson said.
After Starmer raised the issue of a long-term budgetary plan for the NHS, which was voted through parliament and included provision for a 2.1% pay rise for staff in 2021-22, Johnson accused Starmer of having opposed the measure.
“He voted against the document in question, to crown the absurdity of his point,” Johnson said, to cheers from Conservative MPs.
However, this was disputed by Labour, which said that the party had not forced a vote on the issue. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, used a point of order to note that records of the debate showed that he was “explicit that we would not be dividing the house”, and asked that Johnson make a correction.
In their PMQs exchanges, Starmer referred to concern at the pay offer from some Tory MPs, saying Johnson should formally gauge views in the Commons. “If he’s so determined to cut NHS pay, will he at least show some courage and put it to a vote in parliament?” he asked the PM.
The Labour leader sought to contrast the decision over NHS pay with the 40% pay rise for Dominic Cummings when he was Johnson’s chief aide, pushing his pay to at least £140,000.
“Who does the prime minister think deserves a pay rise more – an NHS nurse or Dominic Cummings?” Starmer asked, a point Johnson ignored, to instead focus more generally on NHS pay.
Starmer returned to the issue, asking: “He’s been talking about affordability. He could afford to give Dominic Cummings a 40% pay rise. He can afford that. Now he’s asking NHS nurses to take a real-terms pay cut. How on earth does he justify that?” Johnson again ignored this.
Defending the 1% offer, the prime minister said the government had increased nurses’ pay over time and recruited more of them.
Starmer responded by castigating Johnson for what he said was a lack of sincerity in his praise for NHS staff, saying: “My mum was a nurse. My sister was a nurse. My wife works in the NHS. I know what it means to work for the NHS. When I clapped for carers I meant it.
“He clapped for carers and then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.”