A former cabinet minister has doubled down on his criticism of nurses using food banks after his comments were branded “disgusting, heartless and out of touch”.
Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary, said the average nurse’s salary is £35,000 a year and that “is not a salary on which you ought to be relying on a food bank”.
“I’m afraid if you are using a food bank and you are earning the average nurse’s salary of £35,000 a year then something is wrong with your budgeting,” he told the BBC on Wednesday.
Mr Clarke, who earns more than £84,000 a year as an MP, has been rebuked by his successor Michael Gove, NHS staff and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – who are leading further strikes today in the dispute over nurses’ pay and conditions.
Mr Gove told Sky News: “I would never criticise nurses for something like that.”
Pat Cullen, the RCN general secretary, said: “To criticise anybody using a food bank is disgusting, heartless and dangerously out of touch.
“Sky-high inflation means some nursing staff are living on a financial knife-edge and even their own employer – NHS trusts across the country – are being forced to open food banks to feed their staff.”
However, Mr Clarke said he stood by his remarks.
Tory MP Lee Anderson tweeted in support of his colleague: “The point here is that ANYONE (not just nurses) earning *MORE* than 30k, & are using foodbanks must have a budgeting problem.
“I have constituents i.e armed forces, bin men, bar staff, care workers, bus drivers, pensioners etc who can all live on less. Am I missing something?”
Mr Clarke said this was his point “exactly”, and that people earning £35,000 “shouldn’t need to use a food bank” except in “very particular circumstances”.
In another post, Mr Anderson said a member of his staff called Katy “is single & earns less than £30k, rents a room for £775pcm in central London, has student debt, £120 a month on travelling to work saves money every month, goes on foreign holidays & does not need to use a foodbank”.
However, the MP for Ashfield’s tweet was met with backlash by fellow social media users who accused him of using his employee to make a political point – while the hashtag “Poor Katy” started trending on Twitter.
Nurses ‘pushed over poverty line’
While the average salary of a nurse is about £35,000, the majority of nurses are on a Band 5 pay rate, which has a starting salary of £27,055, rising to £32,934 over four years.
Matthew Tovey, a nurse and spokesperson for the campaign group NHS Say No, told Sky News those who earn £35,000 and upwards “are typically specialist nurses who have had further training – often university courses which incurs extra cost”.
He said nurses often come from university with “the excess of £50,000 worth of debt from training” while their pay packets are being squeezed by rising rents, mortgage rates, fuel and food prices.
“Some people the food banks typically see are student nurses, nurses working part-time, nurses being the sole earner,” he said.
“We are now on a knife edge to the spiralling cost of living. [Nurses] are queuing in bitterly cold weather for food and then working 12-hour shifts on the front line looking after patients with dangerous nurse to staff patient ratios.
“Nurses like myself are choosing between heating and eating whilst battling the worst conditions ever known to the NHS.
“I have seen first hand how nurses are being pushed over the poverty line and into food banks this winter. This MP needs to speak to constituents and go to his local trust and food bank to see.”
The row comes as thousands of nurses go on strike at more than 55 NHS trusts in England this week.
The bitter dispute over pay looks set to continue after Steve Barclay, the health secretary, said a 10% pay rise is “unaffordable”.
Ms Cullen – who is calling for a 19% pay rise but has said she would meet the government half-way – branded his comments “disappointing” as she joined the picket line this morning.
“Every nurse I have spoken to is deeply disappointed,” she said.
“They say this is just another move to turn their backs on the fantastic nursing staff that have kept us all going through a very, very incredible period, which was the pandemic and long before it.”
PM ‘should grab olive branch’
Ms Cullen called on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to overrule Mr Barclay and “grab the olive branch” before further NHS strikes next month.
NHS leaders are making contingency plans ahead of the biggest walkout in the health service’s history.
Ambulance staff and nurses are set to both go on strike on 6 February – taking industrial action on the same day for the first time ever.
Saffron Cordery, the interim chief executive of NHS Providers, has said the proposed walkouts are a “huge concern”.
She urged ministers to “get round the table with the unions urgently to deal with the key issue of pay for this financial year, otherwise there is no light at the end of the tunnel”.