Feature Social Partnership Forum

The unions are back in town

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c565 (Published 02 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c565
  1. Nicholas Timmins, public policy editor
  1. 1Financial Times, London
  1. Nick.timmins{at}ft.com

    Health secretary Andy Burnham has been publicly uttering a phrase that we never heard from any of his five predecessors since Labour took office in 1997: “Our trade union colleagues.” And this is more than just rhetoric. NHS employers, the private and the voluntary sectors, and the health service trade unions all say the unions currently receive a hearing in Richmond House, the health department’s Whitehall headquarters, that they have not enjoyed for many years.

    Social Partnership Forum

    Not many people in the NHS may have heard of the Social Partnership Forum. It brings together the unions, NHS employers, and the department of health. Its nominal role is to discuss the workforce implications of policy. Since Mr Burnham took office, however, it has become a place where NHS policy is not merely debated but negotiated.

    It wasn’t always thus. First set up in 1998 to encourage “partnership working” with NHS staff, it had by the mid-2000s, fallen in to desuetude.

    End of the forum

    “It wasn’t very strong to start with,” Michael Jackson, national officer for health with Unison remarks. In the early days, he says, “it existed. But it wasn’t taken very seriously.”

    After the 2005 election, however, it fell apart—in large measure because, more or less out of the blue, Nigel Crisp, the then NHS chief executive, issued a notorious circular telling primary care trusts they had to get rid of their provider arms, outsourcing them to the private and voluntary sectors if need be.

    “That severely damaged trust,” Mr Jackson says. The move caused such outcry among the quarter million staff employed by primary care trusts, among the unions, and among Labour MPs who had no idea that this was about to happen, that Patricia Hewitt, the then health secretary, had a torrid Labour party conference that autumn. She had to row back—rapidly and …

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