What did Simon Clarke say about nurses? ‘Heartless’ comments blasted as NHS trusts open food banks for staff

Royal College of Nursing chief Pat Cullen said the MP is “out of touch”

A former Cabinet minister who questioned why nurses are using food banks has been branded “heartless” by a union boss.

Simon Clarke, who served as levelling up secretary under Liz Truss, told BBC Radio Tees that “something is wrong with your budgeting” if they are having to “rely on handouts” while earning “£35,000”. His comments come after an exclusive investigation by NationalWorld revealed that 11 NHS trusts in England have opened food banks for staff last year.

Sara Gorton, head of health for the union Unison, told NationalWorld it’s a “shocking state when health workers providing vital care no longer have enough money for their families’ own welfare”. She said there’s “no clearer example” of why NHS workers need an immediate wage boost “to keep them afloat”.

Dr Vivek Trivedi, co-chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) junior doctors committee, added: “The fact that NHS staff, who spend their working lives caring for others, cannot afford to feed themselves and their families is a terrible indictment of this government’s cavalier attitude to the impact its policies have on so many in society. At a time when the cost of living is soaring, chronic staff shortages in the NHS are just getting worse, and the remaining workforce is emotionally and physically scarred from the pandemic, it is simply galling that this government does not see fit to pay NHS staff fairly for their work.”

In NationalWorld’s report from last year, Dr Trivedi noted that while it’s important that NHS trusts put in place measures to support their staff, “the fact remains that staff should not be reliant on food banks and voucher schemes to cover our basic living expenses.” Ten trusts have also specifically implemented initiatives to help staff with the current cost of living crisis, which include subsidised meals in hospital canteens, help with mileage costs, one-off payments of £100 to staff, access to a proportion of salary in advance of payday and vouchers to be used in school uniform shops.

What did Simon Clarke say?

Simon Clarke MP. Picture: House of Commons

Clarke questioned why nurses earning £35,000 a year should need to use food banks.

Speaking on BBC Radio Tees on Wednesday (18 January), Clarke said if nurses earning that “average” salary were relying on handouts, “something is wrong with your budgeting”. He added that the debate over nurses’ pay had got “way out of hand”.

Clarke : “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. This debate has got way out of hand.”

After telling the station the £35,000 figure was the median nurse’s salary which he sourced from the Nursing Times, he added: “My message is everyone needs to take responsibility in their lives. I don’t believe people on an average salary of £35,000 a year need to be using food banks.”

After his comments were widely shared, Clarke responded: “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.”

Striking nurses hold signs at a picket line outside University College Hospital in London on January 19, 2023. - Nurses across England are staging two days of strikes over pay, threatening fresh disruption for patients in the creaking state-run health service, as new figures showed inflation still surging. The 48-hour walkout comes after nurses held their union's first stoppage in over a century last month, joining a wave of industrial action by UK public sector workers hit by a cost-of-living crisis driven by spiralling prices. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Clarke’s comments labelled “heartless”

The former Cabinet minister has been called “disgusting” and “out of touch” by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) following his comments on the radio. 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.”

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.”

Who is Simon Clarke and what are his political views?

First elected as the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, he served in Cabinets under Boris Johnson and Truss. He held the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 2021 to 2022.

Clarke was secretary of state for levelling up during Truss’s brief premiership, having been a strong supporter of the former PM during he leadership campaign. He is a strong supporter of Brexit and backs the Leave Means Leave campaign.

The Northern Echo reported that following the no confidence vote in Johnson on 6 June last year, he said: “He has won every major election he has fought because he is a politician with the capacity both to inspire and to deliver.” Clarke praised the then-PM’s record on Brexit, Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Clarke is the second tallest MP in Parliament at 6ft 7in, he is behind only fellow Conservative politician Daniel Kawczynski who stands at 6ft 9in.