Wigan health bosses promise to listen and talk to workers

Wigan Infirmary
Wigan Infirmary

Hospital bosses have promised to listen to staff concerns about a controversial employment move and possibly tweak the proposals.

Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh (WWL) NHS Foundation Trust chief executive Andrew Foster says it will embark on a three-stage strategy in the face of mounting criticism of subsidiary company WWL Solutions.

Around 900 hospital staff covering a vast range of non-medical roles are set to move across to the wholly-owned firm at the start of May but trade unions, Wigan’s MP Lisa Nandy and councillors have all expressed concerns.

Following a meeting with Unison Mr Foster says WWL will review the areas causing most alarm but is confident the Trust will be able to allay most fears.

Mr Foster said: “I understand staff have got genuine grounds for concerns about this and we want to work with them to be absolutely clear what that list of concerns is.

“Stage one is a listening exercise, then the second stage will be thinking if we need to make changes to what we are proposing to give reassurances to staff and the third stage would be some sort of decision-making process.

“I wouldn’t like to say it’s more than an agreement in principle but there is a shared hope we can find a solution that’s satisfactory for all concerned.”

Critics of WWL Solutions have expressed particular concern about transferring employees including porters, caterers, switchboard operators, cleaners and transport providers under TUPE regulations, saying this leaves them vulnerable to privatisation or having conditions eroded after a 12-month period where terms must stay the same.

Those worried about the move say staff have to rely on the goodwill of hospital bosses but Mr Foster had a strong reply when asked if long-term guarantees for their future could be given.

He said: “The short answer is yes. The TUPE regulations do create the possibility terms can change after 12 months but it also says if there are changes there has to be full consultation with staff and the changes must not be detrimental to pay, terms and conditions.

“This is one of the staff’s main concerns but I think we can find a way of making sure we lock in those pay, terms and conditions.

“I also think we can do things to provide assurance on staff remaining on the NHS pension scheme.

“The third concern I think is slightly more intangible and it is about staff’s concerns they are no longer part of the NHS.

“We will demonstrate they are NHS staff by every means available.

“They will wear NHS uniforms and badges, do the same jobs they do now on NHS premises at a company 100 per cent funded by the NHS.

“We also want to listen to make sure there are no other things and we get a comprehensive understanding of what it is that is causing concern.

“As a Trust WWL has avoided outsourcing jobs and has avoided PFI despite doing a lot of building work because of the outsourcing that goes with that.

“We have a philosophy of working in partnership with staff and trade unions and have won awards for engagement and wellbeing.

“We are in the top 10 per cent of hospitals in the NHS for staff satisfaction ratings and we think of ourselves as being a very good employer.”

Mr Foster said he was deeply surprised when 93 per cent of Unison members in a consultative ballot were unhappy with WWL Solutions and would consider strike action.

He said the move to a wholly-owned subsidiary company was due to the NHS entering its eighth year of austerity which has demanded annual savings of between five and 5.5 per cent.

There are already 39 similar bodies set up across the country and Mr Foster said WWL is taking advice and expertise from Gateshead whose subsidiary company is widely praised and regarded as a leading success story.

No timetable for the new strategy has been agreed on but WWL senior leaders met on Tuesday to decide if WWL Solutions going live on May 1 was still viable.

Mr Foster also cleared up one minor episode which perhaps indicates the depth of mistrust that has sprung up in recent weeks.

It was suggested that the edition of the Wigan Observer which carried news of WWL Solutions was not available at Wigan Infirmary due to an internal issue, with Mr Foster now saying that no papers either national or local were delivered as they should have been that day.

He said: “We wouldn’t remove a paper. We just don’t behave like that.”