Liz Kendall’s claim that there were no NHS strikes under Labour ignores local walkouts

25 November 2022
What was claimed

When Labour was in government for 13 years there were no strikes in the NHS.

Our verdict

While there were no national strikes between 1997 and 2010, we’ve found a number of examples of staff at NHS hospitals in England and Scotland taking part in local strikes.

“Look at our record - when we were in government, 13 years, no strikes in the NHS.”

During an appearance on ITV’s Peston on Wednesday, Labour MP and shadow social care minister Liz Kendall claimed that there were “no strikes in the NHS” when Labour was last in government.

Ms Kendall’s comments come after shadow health secretary Wes Streeting made a similar claim on Twitter earlier this month, which we fact checked at the time.

While we’ve not been able to find any evidence of national strikes taking place in the NHS between 1997 and 2010, when Labour was last in power, we have found a number of examples of staff at NHS hospitals taking part in local strikes. 

We’ve identified at least three examples of formal local strike action by staff working in NHS hospitals during this period, as well as one unofficial strike involving hundreds of staff—though this may not be a comprehensive list of local strikes which took place.

While some of the staff involved were employed by an agency to work in an NHS hospital, others appear to have been directly employed by the NHS. Some of the strikes took place in England and others in Scotland, where health policy is devolved and at the time was the responsibility of the Scottish Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government. However all of the reports we found appear to be examples of strikes taking place “in the NHS” when Labour was last in power.

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What local strikes took place at NHS hospitals?

On 31 October 2005, the BBC reported that staff working at four NHS hospitals in Newcastle held a one-day strike over the new Agenda for Change contracts, which were introduced in 2004, and which the trade union Unison said were allowing existing staff to be employed on lower wages than new recruits.

This strike reportedly involved around 600 catering staff, cleaners and porters, and while we’ve not been able to find full details of the dispute, reports from the time now available on local paper The Chronicle’s website and on the Workers Revolutionary Party’s website suggest those striking were directly employed by the NHS.

Back in August 2000, the BBC also covered a walkout by around 600 hospital workers in Dudley, near Birmingham, who reportedly held a series of strikes across several months in 2000 and 2001. According to the BBC’s report in August, striking workers included porters, cleaners and catering staff, and managers at the time estimated that 100 operations had been cancelled due to the disruption.

According to The Guardian the workers, who appear to have been employed by what was then the Dudley Group of Hospitals NHS Trust, were campaigning against plans to transfer their roles to the private sector as part of the Labour’s government’s Private Finance Initiative policy.

We also found examples of local strike action taking place in Scotland, where during this period NHS funding was the responsibility of the Scottish Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

In August 2002, the BBC reported that staff working at Glasgow Royal Infirmary held a 48-hour strike over pay and working conditions. This dispute reportedly involved around 300 domestic and cleaning staff who were employed by the agency Sodexho (now Sodexo), and worked in the NHS hospital. Trade publication The Caterer reported that the dispute was resolved later that month following a deal with Sodexho.

And a report in The Times references an “unofficial strike” (that is, a strike which is not organised or officially endorsed by a union) involving around 500 clerical and administrative staff at at least five Glasgow hospitals in November 2002. This dispute reportedly resulted in severe disruption to “admissions, theatre schedules, clinic IT and the delivery of case notes”.

While again we’ve not been able to verify all the details of this action, according to a Socialist Worker report from the time these staff were directly employed by the NHS.

That Socialist Worker report also mentions another strike involving Sodexho workers at the Royal Liverpool Hospital in November 2002, though we’ve been unable to find further details to verify this report.

Full Fact has put these examples to Ms Kendall and the Labour party. We have yet to receive a response but will update this fact check if we do. We’ve also previously contacted Mr Streeting about his claim, but have received no response.

We could not find any examples of nationwide disputes involving NHS staff or staff working in NHS hospitals when Labour was last in power, and none of the examples mentioned above appear to involve clinical staff, as is the case with the prospective nurses strike.

Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

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After we published this fact check, we contacted Liz Kendall to request a correction regarding this claim.

Ms Kendall did not respond.

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