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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 April 2007, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Minister heckled over NHS policy
International Development Secretary Hilary Benn
Mr Benn defended the government's NHS record
A government minister has been heckled by healthcare workers while defending the government's NHS record.

International Development Secretary Hilary Benn responded to accusations that the government was following the US model of "greed before need".

Mr Benn disagreed, saying NHS finances would increase by 10% this year.

The debate came as Unison warned tens of thousands of health workers will strike unless the government makes an improved pay offer.

After speaking at the conference about the role of unions and the government in helping people in poorer countries, Mr Benn took questions from delegates.

One asked: "Why doesn't the government continue to provide an example to the rest of the world on how to deliver health care and keep the NHS going, rather than going down the road of following the American method of putting greed before need?"

The 70s may look cool on TV but under the Tories the NHS suffered from appalling under-investment.
Karen Jennings, Unison

Mr Benn responded saying the NHS had 85,000 more nurses in the past decade, adding there would also be a 10% increase in the funding available to the NHS.

He continued to defend the government's decisions on pay:

"I know how unpopular the decision the government has taken about the phasing of the pay award, that's unpopular; inflation is also unpopular with you and the other people who live in your community.

"In the end, the government has a responsibility not to allow inflation to continue to rise, and sometimes you have to take difficult decisions which not everybody likes, but that is one of the jobs of being in government."


Earlier, Unison national officer Karen Jennings outlined the threat of industrial action.

"I think a strike is certain if we can't get the government to come back to the table and talk", she said.

The Brighton conference is set to hear calls for ministers to stop giving health contracts to private firms.

BBC labour affairs correspondent Stephen Cape says there is much anger over Chancellor Gordon Brown's decision to offer many public sector workers a below inflation pay rise in two stages.

There are up to six motions on pay at the conference, with some calling for specific strike dates.

Unison's health care executive has agreed to back an emergency motion calling for urgent talks with the chancellor.

Ms Jennings told BBC News: "We need to see them [ministers] to be more generous in spirit as well as practically in terms of people pay."

She added that those she represented were very disappointed with the government's pay offer.

"Our members are extremely angry and this is going to be very, very clear from conference when we leave it - 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."

More than 1,000 delegates are set to vote on a motion expressing outrage that a Labour government continues to privatise NHS services and staff.

The government said its goal was simply to provide the best possible service.

Ms Jennings warned ministers they faced losing the support of health workers unless policies were changed.

Our goal is simple - the best possible health service, tax-funded, free at the point of need
Department of Health

Referring to the success of the BBC's Life on Mars drama, set in the 70s, she went on: "The 70s may look cool on TV but under the Tories the NHS suffered from appalling under-investment and contracting out of cleaning, catering and services to the lowest bidder."

She said that in the 70s it would have been considered "crazy" to send patients' notes to India to have them typed.

But now, she said, private companies were targeting hospitals with deficits and offering free trials and promising big cash savings if they outsourced their medical typing to countries overseas.

A Department of Health spokeswoman denied that private companies were creaming off huge profits at the expense of patients.

She said: "Where private organisations can help the NHS deliver better services for patients and better value for taxpayers we will use them. If they can't, we won't.

"Our goal is simple - the best possible health service, tax-funded, free at the point of need."

She added that more than 250,000 people had received treatment faster than they would otherwise have done thanks to the independent sector.

Q&A: Private sector role in NHS
30 Jun 06 |  Health
NHS supply staff vote to strike
11 Sep 06 |  UK Politics

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