NHS finances are 'the top priority' says trust chief

Andrew Foster, WWL NHS Foundation Trust chief executive outside Wigan Infirmary
Andrew Foster, WWL NHS Foundation Trust chief executive outside Wigan Infirmary

The chief executive of the borough’s hospitals has laid out why he backs setting up a controversial subsidiary firm and outlined the financial difficulties the NHS faces.

Andrew Foster, the head of Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL), NHS Foundation Trust, offered a robust defence of the wholly-owned company WWL Solutions.

The plan to move almost 900 estates and facilities staff has sparked bitter rows with unions and politicians and two 48-hour strikes.

However, Mr Foster says he remains convinced setting up WWL Solutions is the best way for the Trust to avoid hugely-damaging budget cuts by working in a different way.

He said failure to meet budget targets could lead to outside bodies slashing jobs and spending.

The board will meet next Wednesday to discuss four options: opening services to private tender, Unison’s suggestions, WWL Solutions or doing nothing.

He said: “The way health funding works is you have a year-end target for savings and if you miss it you are penalised and don’t get a core part of your funding.

“This year if we don’t achieve the £1.5m savings we will probably lose about £8m in total.

“We would go into so-called special measures where recovery directors would be brought in and simply make decisions to cut staffing levels and stop investment.

“It’s a brutal regime that would be disastrous, the worst outcome for this organisation. That’s what I want to avoid and why we absolutely need to do this.

“It’s becoming harder to meet our savings target. Estates and facilities is heavily oriented towards employing people and has struggled to contribute its share.

“We were asked by staff for assurances on five points and have given them. We’ve gone over and above any other NHS subsidiary company.

“WWL Solutions will be a 25-year contract with a guaranteed lock-in. Staff transferring will retain pay, terms and conditions and we’ve confirmed they are eligible for NHS pensions.

“They will do the same jobs wearing the same uniforms with the NHS logo. If the company fails they will be brought back in-house.

“The difference is we can tender for other work to make money for the Trust on a level playing field with VAT.

“This is about pragmatism, not politics. We’ve got to keep this organisation financially stable to protect jobs and services for patients.”

Mr Foster said one of the most important tasks after a decision is made on WWL Solutions will be to heal the divisions in the workforce the issue has caused.

He also said he will rebuild trust with local MPs such as Lisa Nandy who have opposed the subsidiary company.

He said: “We are going to have to rebuild the trusting relationship with our staff. That will be our top priority.

“We have encouraged people to be friendly and welcoming as strikers come back to work but there is an atmosphere as you would expect.

“I have also spoken to our local MPs during the dispute and although we differ in views our relationship is still good.”

Mr Foster also sought to clarify his comments during the two strikes which led to considerable anger.

He praised the performance of the hospital and volunteers who had stepped up but insisted this was not intended as a dig at those on the picket line.

He said: “The most important thing for us was ensuring patient safety and then achieving minimum disruption.

“I was very keen to express my appreciation and gratitude to those people who worked out of the goodness of their hearts to keep services safe.

“This was interpreted as criticising the strikers but my motivation was not to fall out with them. It was pragmatic, not political. Our motivation is to keep the place running.”

Mr Foster said discussions had taken place with Unison about protestors spending fewer hours on the picket line, keeping the pavement clear and not giving patients leaflets during the five-day strike.

WWL’s associate director for estates and facilities David Evans explained how the catering service is providing a model for how the whole WWL Solutions model will work if the firm goes ahead.

He said: “We established our own production unit for cook-chill food and had spare capacity so we could start marketing the meal service to other organisations, initially in the NHS and then to councils and private organisations.

“Last year catering turned over £3m in total.

“We have fantastic expertise in management, transport and domestics. The £1.5m savings can then come through income instead of by making cuts.”

Unions have promised the protests against subsidiary companies begun in Wigan will spread.

Unison says ancillary staff in several parts of England, including Yorkshire, are preparing for action against being transferred into similar bodies to WWL Solutions.

Unite, which represents electricians, plumbers and fitters, is also committed to the borough’s strikes.

Now the unions say other workers concerned about new starters not being guaranteed NHS pay, pensions and conditions are preparing to join them on the picket line.

A Unison official said: “Tens of thousands of NHS jobs on decent terms and conditions are at risk from this spate of companies being set up across England.

“People are proud to work for the NHS, they don’t want to be transferred to a private company.”

The union accused the Government and health bosses of creating a two-tier NHS workforce, something Wigan MP Lisa Nandy is also concerned about, and said there was no evidence subcos would improve efficiency or productivity.

Wigan strikers received a standing ovation from delegates at Unison’s national conference yesterday and the trade union’s national executive committee also chipped in £5,000 to the hardship fund helping those who go to the picket line.

However, WWL chief executive Andrew Foster said Unison’s own proposal for the Trust was to lose around 100 posts, some part time, through natural wastage.