'Employers have to bring the South West back into line'
Trusts in the South West are seriously undermining important talks, says Unison’s Christina McAnea
While Britain has basked in Olympic glory this summer, the NHS trade unions have been busy consulting health workers on proposals to alter the national Agenda for Change agreement, covering terms and conditions.
It goes without saying that to remain fit for purpose any national agreement has to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. But we cannot lose sight of why Agenda for Change was introduced to the NHS in the first place. By bringing in a fair and equal pay structure, it gives NHS workers and employers much-needed stability, putting a stop to recruitment and retention problems in low-paid areas. Being inextricably linked to knowledge and skills development, the agreement has helped to create a high-quality NHS workforce - vital to delivering top-quality patient care.
‘Any move to undermine a national agreement could potentially be very damaging for the NHS, its patients and staff’
At every stage through our talks, the unions have been reminding employers that these objectives are still incredibly important today, and that any move to undermine a national agreement could potentially be very damaging for the NHS, its patients and staff. We have been negotiating in good faith with the national employers and there is still a clear commitment to continuing to talk.
We have also been reminding employers that, just as trusts are facing financial challenges and uncertainty, so are staff. It is the second year of a pay freeze, pensions contributions have risen and will rise further. Inflation has remained strong, hitting living standards. There have been job losses and downbandings due to government “efficiency savings”, as well as uncertainty thanks to the Health and Social Care Act.
Our talks, taking place against this difficult backdrop, are at a delicate stage. In the latest round, the employers have made proposals on pay progression and removing unsocial hours payments during sickness absence. The unions have proposed a national framework to deal with reorganisations and restructuring.
However, the real threat is not coming from those sitting around the negotiating table, but from those refusing to get around it. Twenty trusts in the South West are seriously undermining these important talks by forming a breakaway cartel, taking themselves out of the national agreement. I have written, on behalf of all the NHS trade unions, to each of these trusts asking them to withdraw or suspend their involvement in the consortium and to confirm that if we reach agreement nationally, they will abide by the deal. I am still awaiting their response.
Without some commitment from these employers it will be difficult for the talks to continue. There will be little incentive for union negotiators and, more importantly, our activists and members in the NHS, to continue with them if a final deal will be ignored by a significant number of local employers. To keep the unions around the table, the employers have to bring the South West back into line.
As I have said, the unions recognise the NHS is facing unprecedented financial challenges. But clawing back money from cutting terms and conditions will not be enough to steady the ship. To get the NHS on a firm footing, we must look at better ways of delivering services, proper workforce planning and improved procurement, especially for pharmaceuticals. I’ve yet to see any real evidence that there have been serious attempts to look at these methods of saving money. I suspect, particularly in the case of the South West cartel, the employers thought that targeting staff in the region was the easier option. If so, the employers are in need of a history lesson. There is a strong radical streak in the South West that, I can assure them, is alive and well among trade union members.
Christina McAnea is head of health at Unison