MP Simon Clarke's nursing strike remarks branded 'heartless' by RCN union

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said that his criticism of people using food banks is "disgusting, heartless and dangerously out of touch". Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees / PA Images.

A former cabinet minister’s comments asking why nurses on £35,000 a year are using food banks have been branded “disgusting, heartless and out of touch” by the nursing union.

Simon Clarke, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP, told BBC Radio Tees that nurses on "an average salary of £35,000 a year" should not be relying on food banks.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said that his criticism of people using food banks is "disgusting, heartless and dangerously out of touch".

Citing the Nursing Times as his source, he told the station that £35,000 is the average nurse's salary, and up to £47,000 for a senior nurse.

On 18 January, Mr Clarke told BBC Radio Tees: “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, because £35,000 a year is not a salary on which you ought to be relying on a food bank.”

He added that the debate over nurses’ pay is now “way out of hand”.

“My message is everyone needs to take responsibility in their lives, Mr Clarke said.

“I don’t believe people on an average salary of £35,000 a year need to be using food banks.”

Nurses were on strike on 18 January and are striking on 19 January, following a two-day strike before Christmas.

On Tuesday (17 January), the RCN announced that it will also be striking on 6 February and 7 February.

RCN general secretary, Pat Cullen, said: “To criticise anybody using a food bank is disgusting, heartless and dangerously out of touch.

“I have toured the length and breadth of this country and met nursing staff from every corner of the nation – and their fear and fright about not being able to meet their bills is palpable.

“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.

“This is not their fault – every nurse out there spends their professional and personal lives looking at how they can make savings, how they can treat more patients with less staff, how they can make their ever-decreasing budget stretch further.

“When nurses are having to pay hundreds of pounds a month just to get to work, can’t afford to put food on the table and are forced to cut back on shifts because they can’t afford ever-increasing childcare costs, something is seriously wrong.”

After his comments were widely shared, Mr Clarke said: “I am very clear that we all owe nurses a great debt of admiration for the vital work they deliver on our behalf.

“However, it is vital that we recognise that a 19% pay increase is simply not realistic.

“It would not be fair to the taxpaying public and it would worsen and prolong the inflation challenge.”

Unison’s head of health Sara Gorton said: “These comments show no understanding of people’s circumstances and little grasp of the sums they’re paid.

“As well as insulting health staff, he’s also missing the point. A pay rise is needed to stop the workforce exodus, get the NHS back on track and ensure patients can get the treatment they need.”

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