BRADFORD hospital staff are to be balloted over strike action amid fears about the “backdoor privatisation” of some of its services.

The UNISON ballot opens today and comes after the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which includes the Bradford Royal Infirmary at St Luke's, said hospital staff in its estates, facilities and clinical engineering departments, will be outsourced to a separate company. The union says this is being done to cut costs by exploiting a tax loophole. It fears the transfer will strip workers of the protections they have as NHS employees and is a form of “backdoor privatisation”.

And while the new company will be owned by the Trust, UNISON believes outsourcing to subsidiary companies will have negative consequences for healthcare staff and potentially damaging ramifications for the NHS in England.

The union said: “Trusts were ordered to pause all plans to set up private companies in September 2018 after action was taken by UNISON.

“New scrutiny and approval processes were put in place in December 2018, which included assurances that companies could only be set up where there was broad support.

“UNISON is concerned the scrutiny process lacks substance, as NHS Improvement has allowed the Bradford Trust to push ahead with its plans despite the overwhelming opposition of workers.

“Promises from the Trust that existing staff terms and conditions will be protected are simply not enough.”

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “The staff who work for the NHS care about their jobs and it matters to them that they work for the health service.

“We all benefit from an NHS where everyone involved in delivering our care is part of the same team.

“Tax savings are not a good enough reason for the Trust to force people out of the NHS family and give up their cherished status as health service staff. Future leaders of the Trust will not feel bound by any guarantee over terms and conditions, so staff are right to feel wary of accepting anything other than a firm promise to keep them in direct employment.”

The plans have attracted much ire from Bradford MPs, including Bradford East MP Imran Hussain and Bradford South MP Judith Cummins.

Mrs Cummins said: “It’s shocking that it has reached the stage that staff at Bradford Teaching Hospitals are considering industrial action. I have urged the NHS Trust to sit down again to discuss these proposals with staff and unions, so that a fair settlement can be reached.

“I have already written to Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, and the former Bradford Trust CEO, to find out why such an important decision was taken in secret, without any public scrutiny.

“I am also concerned that a decision that will have such long-term consequences is being taken by two senior officers in acting positions. As such, I have demanded an emergency meeting with the acting CEO and acting chair of Bradford NHS Trust.

“These NHS staff are part of the health service that cares for all of us, and attempting to offload them onto a newly created private company would be a betrayal of their years of service and be bad for patients.”

Bradford West MP Naz Shah added: “The current Trust Board has promised that staff terms and conditions will be protected for 25 years but this commitment may mean little in practice. If the Trust is serious about guaranteeing the employment rights of hard working and committed NHS staff they should keep them within the NHS family. That is the only meaningful and ‘cast iron’ guarantee.”

“There is absolutely nothing to stop a future Bradford Hospital Trust Board reneging on the promises made today and unpicking terms and conditions tomorrow. This is a slippery slope and how the ‘race to the bottom’ starts. There is a very real danger we will end up with a two tier workforce delivering health care in our Bradford hospitals and that is unacceptable.”

“This is yet another step closer to privatisation and one already rejected by other NHS Trusts across the country. The business case is unproven and the threat to staff is clear. Leicester, Mid York, Leeds and North Bristol have all abandoned similar plans but Bradford Hospital Trust continues to drive on. Why?”

Last month, the Trust said NHS Improvement had endorsed its business case to create wholly owned subsidiary for its estates, facilities and clinical engineering services.

In a statement to the Telegraph & Argus, a spokesperson for Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said: “We have received notification from UNISON of its intention to ballot its members in our Estates and Facilities services.

"The Trust is not privatising services: we have set up a wholly owned subsidiary which will be entirely owned and operated by and for the NHS. Following a full programme of engagement with estates, facilities and clinical engineering staff and trade unions, we have now started formal staff consultation on people’s transfer to the new company.

"The Trust’s Board has a strong commitment to ensure all our staff are treated well, in line with our values, and this means an assurance that their terms and conditions will remain protected for the lifetime of the agreed contract, expected to be 25 years. We have also taken steps to ensure that they can continue to be part of the NHS pension scheme.

“We believe that the new company is the best way of continuing to provide high quality care for patients, by ensuring the sustainability and future development of these important support services.”