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The NHS “Shouldn’t Be Used As Human Shield For Delivering Social Care” Says Unions Boss

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady has sharply criticised the government's new plan for social care (Alamy)

6 min read

The head of Britain’s trade unions, Frances O'Grady, has criticised Boris Johnson’s National Insurance rise, accusing him of using the NHS “as a human shield” to properly fund the care system.

O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the Prime Minister’s long-awaited plan to fix the crisis in adult social care is being “PRed into something else” to cover for making the “young working poor” pay a disproportionate share of the cost.

In an interview with PoliticsHome this week she also criticised the government for not bringing forward an employment bill and not cracking down on bad Covid practices in the workplace.

O'Grady was speaking as the TUC unveiled polling showing the coronavirus crisis has been “a tale of two pandemics”, showing how low-income workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic with “little or no option to work from home, no or low sick pay and reduced living standards, while better-off workers have enjoyed greater flexibility with work, financial stability and increased spending power”.

The extra £20 a week in Universal Credit will be removed at the end of this month, and the furlough scheme is due to wind up at the same time. 

“I've got to say I still find it really, really difficult that we did see the Prime Minister and Chancellor clapping and giving us warm words about key workers, but to come back and hammer them as their reward seems not too smart,” O'Grady said. 

O'Grady believes Johnson and Sunak are in “a bit of a muddle” on social care. While plans to increase National Insurance to pay for reforms was announced this week, detail of the reforms themselves is still yet to be seen. 

“This plan was supposed to have been drawn up two years ago, it was supposed to be ready to go, but it sounds to me as if it's already being PRed into something else with the NHS being used as a human shield to justify this particular approach because everybody knows that we will love our NHS,” she added. 

She said the British people won’t accept that as they “tend to smell a rat”, and wants the government to use a wealth tax to pay for social care.

“I don't think the NHS should be used as a human shield for delivering properly funded and fair care system where the workforce is treated with dignity,” O’Grady said.

The TUC leader also wants to see much more being done to help workers, with increased compensation for cancelled shifts and flexibility so people are not penalised for being unable to work.

“None of this feels like rocket science,” she said. Much of this sort of policy would be contained in a new employment bill, which having been announced in the previous Queen’s Speech, was missing from this year's slate of legislation.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended the decision after widespread criticism, saying the middle of a pandemic was not the time for, but O’Grady disagrees.

“I would have thought the right time is now personally. How much more evidence do you need?” she said.

"After all those years of campaigning, and it was a big investment of big money for one of our unions, to take Uber all the way to the highest court in the land, when that judgement came out that we would still have to take, for every Ocado driver, every other individual case, [to court].

“Surely the government should be sending in the wages inspectors and coming up with a quick way to fix what the highest court in the land has said needs to be fixed?

“We're expected to do it for each and every group of workers or individual worker? I mean, come on. And when when are we going to see that change?

“As you can tell, I'm finding it slightly frustrating, I don't know why they're spinning it out.”

O'Grady also noted there has still not been a single prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive of a business for Covid safety, saying they and local councils have had their funding cut to ribbons.

“There are fewer health and safety inspectors then MPs, dealing with the whole working population,” she added. 

The TUC boss said this is even more important than usual workplace safety issues, because it can affect entire communities, pointing to the impact the spread of coronavirus in textile factories in Leicester had on the entire city.

“I know, the government will say it's got plans for a joined-up enforcement strategy. But where is it?” she asked.

“Why aren't they talking to us about it, because in the meantime our reps and activists are trying to do that work.”

Speaking in person at Congress House, O'Grady was enthusiastic about a return to face-to-face meetings. 

While she believed there has been “amazing leaps and bounds on the digital trade unionsim front”, she still saw the need for real-life interaction. 

"I think there is a limit to how far you can collectively bargain online, and there's a limit to how far you can create that sense of collectivism,” she added. 

It is the TUC Congress, the body's annual conference next week, and three of its biggest unions have all elected new general secretaries since the last one.

Both Gary Smith at the GMB and Sharon Graham at Unite have both talked about focusing on increasing their membership, something O’Grady has welcomed.

“One of one of my first jobs when I came to work at the TUC was setting up the TUC organising Academy and Sharon was one of our first year recruits,” she explained.

“It's fantastic, because I do believe that working people's ability to improve conditions and pay depends on the strength of our organisation.

“We have got a big and serious job still on the front, especially in the private sector, so yes it's great to see union leaders who understand that that kind of fundamental priority for the trade union movement.”

Graham and Smith have also hinted this could mean loosening ties with the Labour party, and potentially cutting funding – but the TUC’s leader was clear on how important good relations with Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is speaking at their congress, will be.

“I think all of us have always been clear that working people need to have a political voice,” O’Grady said.

“We wouldn't have the national minimum wage, or family friendly rights or all of those rights we fought for across Europe through the social chapter, we wouldn't have had any of that if it wasn't for trade unions having a political voice.

“So I don't apologise for that. Because that's actually pretty critical for millions of people in this country whose wages and living standards depends on it.”

She added: “But I think what I detect is a recognition that there's a respect that we have different jobs to do.”

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