NHS commissioners will be “taken to the cleaners” by private sector providers, the head of the Royal College of Nursing has claimed.

In his speech at the union’s annual conference today, chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said the RCN “doesn’t have a problem with alternative providers”.

But he said the government appeared to be “labouring under an illusion” that private providers “can simply pick up the pieces” where NHS services were failing.

He noted that private providers, for example Southern Cross, had their own problems to deal with following the economic downturn.

Mr Carter then went on to suggest a lack of faith in the procurement skills of clinical commissioning groups and other NHS commissioners when dealing with the private sector.

“Frankly, I would be very concerned for the NHS commissioning managers tasked with negotiating contracts with the likes of Virgin Care,” he told delegates at RCN Congress in Harrogate.

“I have tremendous respect for Richard Branson. But let’s not forget he wants to improve his profit margins and do the best for his company – making money is his aim.

“I’d fear for the NHS commissioning managers having to negotiate contracts with his team. They’d be taken to the cleaners,” he said.

Mr Carter also used his speech to call on RCN members to take a stand against cuts to pay, staffing and pensions by voting against local MPs who failed to listen to their concerns.

“There’s only one certainty in politics – elections. We know that there are an average of 1,800 nurses and healthcare assistants in each constituency of the UK. That’s enough to change a result and kick someone out of office.

“Over the course of the next year, I want to see you writing to your MPs in Westminster, and your politicians in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. I want you to … campaign against the cuts… protect the reputation of nursing and stand firm on the issues that matter,” he told the conference.

Mr Carter also reconfirmed the college’s opposition to attempts to dismantle the Agenda for Change pay scale and move to more local pay for nurses, though he did explicitly reject the regional pay changes favoured by the Department of Health. In a submission to a review by the NHS Pay Review Body last month, the DH said it proposed the expansion of “London weighting” style pay zones to more affluent parts of the country.

Mr Carter said: “The Treasury want to look at moving to locally agreed pay.

“Let there be no doubt – the RCN will categorically refuse to accept any move towards local pay.”

He noted, however, that the response by college members to its ballot on pensions earlier this year had been “disappointing”. Only 16 per cent voted, leaving the RCN without a mandate to reject or accept the government’s proposals.

He also rejected claims that the RCN had opposed the Health Bill “too late in the day”, saying he thought the college had been “spot on” in the way it acted.