Proposals to reform NHS nurses’ contracts as part of pay negotiations have clashed with comments made by Labour MPs earlier this week, who described the government’s approach as “shameful”.
Yesterday, health secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote to the chair of the NHS pay review body triggering the start of talks on wage increases above 1% for nurses and other NHS staff in 2018.
However, the letter confirmed previous suggestions that any boost to pay would be on the understanding that the health service’s Agenda for Change pay system was reformed at the same time to “boost productivity” and “better reflect modern working practices”.
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Responding to the letter, unions warned that negotiations may be stalled if the government expects staff to give up the additional payments they receive for working unsocial hours in exchange for wage rises.
Their concerns echoed comments made by Labour MPs during a public sector pay cap debate this week, where they accused the government of “shameful” behaviour in its attempt to reform staff contracts.
The debate was sparked by an online petition signed by almost 150,000 people, which called for the long-standing 1% cap on pay rises to be scrapped and for all public sector workers to be given a pay rise funded by additional government money.
“The government are giving with one hand and taking away with another”
Helen Jones, chair of the Commons petitions committee, said the government’s plans meant health workers could only have a better rise if the money was “take[en] back from somewhere else”.
“In the budget the chancellor announced the government would fund a pay rise for nurses. It applies to all the Agenda for Change staff,” said Ms Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North, during the debate on Monday.
“However, the health secretary immediately announced that he wanted to change the conditions of work for staff, particularly their unsocial hours payments,” she said. “So the government are giving with one hand and taking away with another.”
Rachael Maskell, Labour Co-op MP for York Central, also warned that NHS staff contracts “had already been played with so many times” and that workers would not tolerate changes.
“Do not mess with the terms and conditions… The kind of things that the government have asked of staff – such as addressing unsocial hours payments – predominantly impact on women,” she said.
“Do not go there – staff do not want the government to go there and will not let them take away those crucial elements of pay enhancement for people who work through the night so that they can pay for more expensive childcare,” she said. “I want to say to the government, ‘you have the money and the ability to raise that money – pay it’.”
“It is shameful that the government expect people to negotiate away their terms and conditions in order to get the pay rise they deserve”
Meanwhile, Bambos Charalambous, Labour MP for Enfield Southgate, said the government had missed a “big opportunity” to announce a pay rise for public sector staff when it revealed its budget last month.
“Once again the government showed their true colours and would only consider increasing pay for nurses… if it was linked to negotiation on their terms and conditions,” he said.
“It is shameful that the government expect people to negotiate away their terms and conditions in order to get the pay rise they deserve,” he added.
While no Conservative MPs registered to speak during the debate, others responded to the comments made by Labour MPs by reiterating that the government was committed to a more “flexible” approach to public sector pay in 2018, following the removal of the 1% cap.
Andrew Jones, exchequer secretary at the Treasury, noted that, due to pressures on the NHS, the chancellor has committed to further funding for wage rises if contract negotiations were successful with unions.
“We want the talks to succeed, and we share with NHS workers the common objective of a highly skilled, compassionate, productive workforce working to improve outcomes for patients,” he said.
“For 2018-19 the secretaries of state will have much greater flexibility in how they consider pay awards”
During an earlier part of the debate, he said the government was “acutely aware of how public sector workers form the backbone of our society”. But he highlighted that public sector salaries accounted for around 25% of government spending, which represented “enormous sums of money”.
He stressed that one of the factors affecting pay rises was balancing the need to reward public sector workers, with finding the money to do so, at the same time as trying to bring spending under control.
“Despite the difficult economic circumstances from 2010, the government have continued to invest in our public servants,” he added, referring to personal allowance changes that mean workers will see a larger portion of their salary remain tax-free.
“For 2018-19 the secretaries of state will have much greater flexibility in how they consider pay awards for public servants,” he added, stressing that it was now down to the pay review bodies to recommend the level of wage increases.