Lansley pushes for lower paid NHS staff in poorer areas

Regional pay bargaining supported by internal Department of Health document.

The Observer reports today that the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, is planning to introduce regional pay bargaining into the NHS, meaning that staff in poorer areas will be paid less than those in London and the south east. Astonishingly, the only proposed exception to the new policy would be already highly-paid managerial staff working to deliver Lansley's unpopular reforms to the health service.

Defending the special arrangements, the Department of Health argues that they are necessary in order to:

Attract and retain high-calibre leaders and staff responsible for transforming delivery.

The department fails to explain why such measures are only needed to attract staff responsible for transforming delivery, and not also to attract staff in other important roles in the NHS such as doctors, nurses, hospital porters, cleaners and paramedics.

The move by the health minister comes in response to a wider government programme to introduce regional pay bargaining into all parts of the public sector. In his budget last month, George Osborne announced:

We're also looking to see whether we can make public sector pay more responsive to local pay rates. It is something the last Government introduced into the Court Service. London weighting already exists across the public sector. Indeed, the Opposition have proposed the interesting idea of regional benefit rates.

So we should see what we can do to make our public services more responsive, and help our private sector to grow and create jobs in all parts of the country. We've asked the independent Pay Review bodies to look at the issue. Today, we publish the evidence that the Treasury are submitting to them. And some departments will have the option of moving to more local pay for those civil servants whose pay freezes end this year.

Responding to the news, Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told the paper:

National pay is part of what underpins a truly national health service. Labour will defend it, as it is fair to staff, helps control costs and brings stability to the system.

It is often harder to work on the NHS front line in more deprived parts of the country and yet this government wants to pay those staff less and reinforce the north-south divide. It will infuriate NHS staff to see senior managers arguing for one rule for themselves, and another for staff. They are seeking to insulate themselves from these changes, while driving down pay for thousands of front-line staff across the country

Regional pay bargaining is particularly controversial in the health service due to its status as the largest single employer (verging on monopsony) of health professionals in the UK. Without the opportunity to take their labour elsewhere, employees are unable to ensure through normal market forces that the wage they are paid is competitive.

Arguing in favour of regional pay, the departmental document suggests:

Setting a national basic pay rate at a "minimum level necessary" and paying additional supplements in particular geographical zones.

It says: "Current rates of pay in the NHS do vary geographically, but significantly less so than the pay of comparable staff in the private sector. The introduction of more sensitive market-facing pay would therefore enable more efficient and effective use of NHS funds."

It further argues that "where the NHS pay premium is relatively high there is the potential for private sector enterprise to be crowded out with adverse impact on the prospects for local economic growth."

Andrew Lansley. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.