Watch as Jeremy Hunt is taken down a peg or two (VIDEO)

Steve Topple

Embattled Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was scolded by Speaker John Bercow in the House of Commons yesterday for “fiddling ostentatiously with an electronic device”.

The Secretary of State was present for a parliamentary debate on the axing of student nurse bursaries. The debate had been forced by an online petition acquiring over 160,000 signatures, calling on the Government to drop its plans to remove NHS bursaries and instead to consult on how it can best fund and support the future healthcare workforce.

The bursary which is worth around £6,500 a year to students is being scrapped and replaced with the standard student loan system. This will see student nurses, midwives and other healthcare staff in debt to the tune of £9,000 a year.

The government argues this will save the taxpayer around £826m a year (the majority of a bursary is non-repayable by the student) and help it create an additional 10,000 training places in five years. Campaigners against this move say it is saddling students with debt they cannot afford (the starting salary for a nurse is around £21,000) and will impair recruitment and retention by putting people off joining the profession. Furthermore, this comes at a time when these NHS staff have already been hit with a freeze on pay increases of just 1% per annum.

Not that Mr. Hunt seemed concerned by any of this. Interestingly, the Health Secretary did not participate in the debate. Rather he left it to one of his Ministers (Ben Gummer) to argue the government’s position.

Described as being “rank discourteous” by the Speaker, Mr. Hunt appeared to find the whole affair somewhat amusing:

Mr Bercow then had to issue a sharp rebuke to Dr. Therese Coffey (Deputy Leader of the House) for the same reason:

Order. I say to the Deputy Leader of the House: put the device away. If you do not want to put it away, get out of the Chamber. It is rude for the—[Interruption.] Order! I am not inviting a response from the hon. Lady. [Interruption.] Order! I am simply telling her that it is discourteous to behave like that—a point that most people would readily understand.

It would appear that the preoccupation with mobile phones on the government benches reflected their level of interest on the subject in hand. However, Shadow Secretary of State for Health Heidi Alexander made a robust defence of the bursary system

Not content with junior doctors, the Government are now targeting the next generation of nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals: podiatrists, physiotherapists, radiographers and many more. Instead of investing in healthcare students, and instead of valuing them and protecting their bursaries, which help with living costs and cover all their tuition fees, the Government are asking them to pay for the privilege of training to work in the NHS: scrap the bursary, ask tomorrow’s NHS workforce to rack up enormous debts, and claim that this is the answer to current staff shortages.

Sadly this was to no avail. The Government benches were virtually empty for the debate but, as is usual in the House, ministers (including David Cameron) flurried in for the vote. The motion to drop the plan was voted down by 277 votes to 158.

Organiser of the “Bursary or Bust” campaign Danielle Tiplady spoke exclusively to The Canary:

The opposition debate yesterday did not surprise me. The Conservative government are in the majority and they are intent on destroying our health service to sell it off piece by piece. The removal of the bursary is another step in them doing so. I was not shocked to see David Cameron and other members of the Conservative party run in at the end of the debate, despite not listening to any of it, to come and vote to destroy people’s dreams. This is what this government is about.

This may well be the end of the parliamentary road for any challenge to the axing of the bursary. But campaigners have vowed to keep on fighting, and have organised a day of protest on 4 June at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.

As Danielle said:

Being healthcare professionals it is our duty to fight for our patients and our professions. Losing the bursary puts at risk the biggest workforce in the NHS. It is not a cost but an investment in each and every one of us.

With the current impasse over the junior doctors contract and this attack on student nurses, the future of the NHS is looking more precarious by the day. As one of the cornerstones of society in the UK we must all do what we can to help protect it.

Get involved!

Join the protest in London on June 4th.

Support the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

Image via Howard Lake/Flickr

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