Mr Hunt was responding to an emergency question by shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander after government legal documents were interpreted as suggesting ministers may not have the powers to impose the contract.
Junior doctors who are taking independent legal action against the government imposition said yesterday that papers received by their lawyers from the DH appeared to backtrack from Mr Hunt’s previous statements that he would impose the contract.
The Just Health group of five junior doctors claim the health secretary does not have the legal powers to impose a contract on most juniors who are employed by independent NHS Foundation Trusts.
Junior doctor contract
The group has pointed to what it believes is a significant shift in language in the legal correspondence which refers to the new contract being ‘introduced’ rather than imposed.
But Mr Hunt told MPs: ‘Yes, we are imposing a new contract, and we are doing it with the greatest of regret, because over three years—with three independent processes, 75 meetings and 73 concessions that we made in a huge effort to try to come to a negotiated settlement—the BMA refused to talk.’
The secretary of state said the legal documents talked about an ‘introduction’ rather than imposition because juniors would move onto the new contract as they changed role or trust, rather than existing contracts being changed.
Mr Hunt confirmed that foundation trusts had the technical powers to determine their own staff pay and conditions, but he added: ‘The reality within the NHS is that we have a strong tradition of collective bargaining, so in practice trusts opt to use national contracts.
Junior doctor strikes
‘As the secretary of state is entitled to do,' he added, ‘I have approved the terms of the national contract.’
Ms Alexander said the government’s policy was in ‘complete disarray’. ‘Despite the health secretary giving us all the impression back in February that he was going to railroad through a new contract, it now appears that he is simply making a suggestion—or, as his lawyers would say, approving the terms of a model contract,' she said.
Mr Hunt said he was absolutely confident that he had the powers to impose the contract.
Just Health raised more than £135,000 from a crowdfunding campaign in order to fund the judicial review. The group has also kept a vigil outside DH in Whitehall where they have said they will remain until Mr Hunt agrees to meet and talk with them.
The group’s case against the government alleged DH has no legal power to impose the junior doctors contract on the majority of doctors, and that where he could in theory impose it on the small proportion working for NHS Trusts, he could only do so after consultation.
The government’s lawyers have dismissed the claim as ‘misconceived' and 'bound to fail'.
Junior doctors will begin the first of two planned full walkouts at 8am on Tuesday 26 April with emergency doctors joining the picket lines for the first time in the ongoing dispute.