nhs pride parade

Despite ministers' calls for the NHS to cut back on 'waste and wokery', some groups use taxpayers' money to put on events around transgender issues, sexuality and racism, often held during the working day. Pictured: NHS staff at London Pride in 2019.
The NHS has spent more than £1million on hundreds of 'woke' staff networks at a time when it desperately needs more cash for patient care.

Nearly 500 of these groups have been set up by health trusts across the UK - taking up around 36,000 hours of staff time a year. Despite ministers' calls for the NHS to cut back on 'waste and wokery', some groups use taxpayers' money to put on events around transgender issues, sexuality and racism, often held during the working day.

These have included 'tea and rainbow cake' picnics, a special session about pronouns and a Filipino martial arts performance. Amid fears of an impending winter NHS crisis, the audit by the TaxPayers' Alliance found there are now at least 493 networks across the UK health service.

These took up at least 108,807 hours of dedicated staff time over the last three years and cost the taxpayer £1,081,878 in this period.

The true figures are likely to be higher as only 111 out of more than 230 trusts responded to Freedom of Information requests. They only cover time spent running the groups, not attending them.

It is feared the NHS is heading for another crisis this winter as it faces seasonal pressures and a post-Covid backlog in treatment.

Despite the National Insurance hike to raise funds and help clear the backlog, waiting lists have hit record highs. This week, the precarious state of emergency care was laid bare when one woman was forced to wait 40 hours for an ambulance. Last night, critics suggested taxpayers would be angered by the scale of NHS spending on 'right-on' causes.

Elliot Keck, investigations campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: 'Many of the networks are a questionable use of NHS time and taxpayers' money. While Brits wait patiently for their appointments and operations, NHS middle managers are busy organising right-on lectures and social events. Health chiefs need to scale back some of these unnecessary 'woke' networks.'

The £1million cost of the groups may appear nominal relative to the annual NHS budget for England of £152billion but MPs say the money could be better used elsewhere.

Multiple trusts admitted they plan to increase the number of networks they support, the funding they receive and the amount of time staff can dedicate to them.

Conservative MP David Jones said: 'When patients are being denied operations and waiting too long for care, expending taxpayers' money on networks like this seems wasteful at best and sinful at worst.'

Fellow Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope said: 'The funding and staff time going into these groups is symptomatic of the waste within the NHS. The Health Secretary should use it as an example of how existing funds could be spent more efficiently next time bosses ask for more.'

Staff networks are most likely to focus on LGBT issues, with 101 of the NHS groups related to this cause nationwide. This is followed by race, with 99 networks.

Notably, not all trusts provide their networks with funding, which raises questions about why others feel it is necessary to do so.

Hywel Dda University Health Board, which gave its LGBTQ+ network £1,000 last year, said: 'There is an expectation that line managers will allow staff time to attend meetings and events associated with their network. This would normally equate to approximately one hour a month for network members.'

Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said it is discussing a protected time agreement so staff networks can 'flourish'.

And according to North Middlesex University Hospital Trust's equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, 'the principal purpose of such staff networks is to inform and support the trust's aims, values and objectives especially in the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion in the management of staff and delivery of services'. Specific aims include 'organising celebration and awareness-raising days and events'.

The revelations came as the President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine warned of a 'major crisis' in the ambulance service.

And Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned the NHS is likely to experience the 'most difficult winter on record'.

In June, then health secretary Sajid Javid ordered the NHS to cut 'diversity and inclusion' managers as part of a crackdown on 'waste and wokery', saying their salaries of up to £115,000 could be better spent on the front line.

Saffron Cordery, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said: 'At a time when the NHS is under such sustained pressure and trusts are facing 100,000 vacancies, it is paramount that they invest in the wellbeing of their staff. The time and money put in these networks are a proportionate investment in an NHS workforce of 1.2million staff in England.

'All the evidence points to an engaged and inclusive workforce delivering better patient care.'

An NHS spokesman said: 'While it is down to individual trusts to decide how they best support their own staff, these voluntary networks provide a channel to address concerns from a wide range of staff, which helps improve services for patients.'