Numerous reports have shared stores of nurses in the U.K. waiting in line at food banks because they don’t earn enough money to make ends meet. The country is facing record-high inflation and many nurses have said they are struggling to pay their bills. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) went on strike late last year to demand higher pay with two more strikes planned in February.
Simon Clarke, a member of the country’s parliament, is being criticized for suggesting the nurses shouldn’t be using food banks at all. “Something is wrong with your budgeting” if people used food banks and their average salary was £35,000, he stated amid the ongoing contract negotiations.
Nurses reacted by saying his comments were “insulting.” But Clarke said he believes the comments were taken out of context.
“I do not believe that people on an average salary of £35,000 a year need to be using food banks,” he told the BBC.
The RNC union called the remarks “disgusting, heartless and dangerously out of touch.”
New nurses in the U.K. earn an average salary of £27,000 a year ($33,000) while nurses with four years’ experience earn close to £33,000 a year ($41,000).
Over the weekend, Clarke attempted to clarify his comments in an interview with the press. “What I said was that, if you are earning the average nurses wage, which is £35,000 a year according not to me but to the Royal College of Nursing, if you are earning that salary then I do not believe that that is a salary at which, routinely, you should need to use a food bank, and I think that is an important thing to say.”
Nurses were also quick to point out that Clarke makes considerably more money as a member of parliament. As of 2022, the average PM earns £161,401 a year ($200,000).
When asked if he felt his comments could be seen as insulting, he said, “I don’t think they would, because the reality is, there’s a lot of people in my constituency who obviously earn a fraction of £35,000 and I was saying if you’re earning £35,000 then you oughtn’t to routinely need to use a food bank – and I think that is important comment to make because actually, well this debate has been distorted.”
Chi Onwurah, another member of parliament, said Clarke isn’t in a position to be giving nurses financial advice. “Giving nurses budgeting advice is absolute, is insulting and is absolutely ridiculous,” she commented.
Matthew Tovey, a nurse with the National Health Service, took issue with the figures Clarke quoted. He said nurses who earn £35,000 and up “are typically specialist nurses who have had further training – often university courses which incurs extra cost.”
Tovey said nurses are being squeezed by high prices and the obligation to repay their student debt. “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 spiraling 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.”
Pat Cullen, president of the RCN union said she was shocked when she first heard Clarke’s comments.
“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,” Cullen said.
The RCN union says it is planning to strike again on February 5 and 7. The group is demanding a 5% pay increase on top of the current rate of inflation, which would amount to around 19%. But the government has thus far only offered an increase of 4.75%.