Major reductions to NHS workers terms and conditions have moved a step closer to being adopted after one of the largest health unions gave its backing to the plans.
The Royal College of Nursing has agreed to accept proposals from NHS Employers that would result in significant changes to the Agenda for Change pay framework.
With more than 410,000 members, the RCN is so far the biggest health union to rule on the plans.
A consultation by Unison, with more than 400,000 NHS members, is continuing until the end of the month after which its executive will choose whether or not to back the changes.
The Unite union has already come out against the plans and Nursing Times understands the GMB is also likely to reject them. Both unions are large but have comparatively few NHS members, compared to the RCN and Unison.
The GMB consultation does not finish until 4 February. But GMB national officer Rehana Azam told Nursing Times: “To date all responses received back are supporting the recommendation to reject.”
The Royal College of Midwives is also still consulting its membership. However, it appears to be heading the other way and has said it believes the proposals are the “most effective” way of protecting a national pay system.
If the unions with the larger NHS membership back the proposals it is likely they will go through at a meeting of the NHS Staff Council on 26 February, despite the opposition of Unite and the GMB.
Under the plans, nurses and other NHS staff on Agenda for Change will lose their right to automatic incremental pay rises and enhanced out of hours sick pay. Band 5 nurses will also lose their preceptorship pay rises during the first year of their employment.
In addition, employers will have the ability to remove senior staff on higher pay bands from Agenda for Change and instead pay them a standalone salary.
While news of the RCN’s support was greeted with dismay by some nurses commentating last week on nursingtimes.net, the union has defended its decision and said the majority of members who took part in its consultation exercise backed the proposals.
However, the college admitted that the response to the consultation had been limited, in spite of its efforts to encourage engagement with branch meetings and emails to members explaining the proposals.
Less than 1,000 RCN members responded individually, with 53% saying the controversial changes to terms and conditions should be accepted. In a separate part of the process 82% of RCN branches decided to accept the proposals.
RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin suggested the poor level of response from individual members indicated they were “realistic” about the situation they faced.
She said: “I think members recognise it is important to demonstrate a level of flexibility in the current financial climate and a willingness to move to accept the proposals in return for a commitment to national bargaining.”
But she warned employers that members had been clear in their comments that moves to break away from the national deal completely would “make industrial action more likely”. “This is as far as people are prepared to go,” she said.
The decision to back the plans could stave off moves by some trusts to break away from the national deal.
A group of 19 trusts in the South West are still threatening to impose local changes. However, the group has told Nursing Times it will wait to see the outcome of the national negotiations before considering its plans further.
The RCN’s decision was welcomed by NHS Employers, which negotiates on behalf of NHS trusts.
NHS Employers director Dean Royles said: “These are very positive developments. We look forward to hearing the response from the other trades unions in the coming weeks.
“We want to continue working with the staff council unions to ensure Agenda for Change is fit for purpose and sustainable for the future.”