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Unions up pressure on government to drop cap on NHS pay rises

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The leaders of the health sector unions have written a joint letter to the prime minister claiming the 1% cap on NHS pay rises “stands in the way” of attracting enough staff to provide safe patient care.

They argue that Theresa May must remove the cap and show a “change of direction” in the Queen’s Speech, which will take place on 21 June.

Last week, the health secretary hinted at an end to pay restraint, while a number of Conservative figures and NHS leaders also criticised the government’s ongoing policy of capping pay rises at 1%.

Adding their voice, the unions have called on the government to commit to remove the cap and address the real-terms loss of earnings that have resulted from it when the Queen presents the government’s programme of legislation for the next parliament on Wednesday.

In the letter, they warned that health and care services were becoming unsafe due to staff shortages and called on Ms May to “prioritise patient safety in this changed political landscape”.

“Your government should remove the pay cap and address the real-terms loss of earnings so the NHS can retain and attract staff, resolve the workforce shortage and ensure safe patient care,” stated the letter.

Pay for staff on the Agenda for Change contract has been capped at 1% or less since 2010, leaving nursing staff at least £3,000 worse off as salaries have fallen by 14% in real-terms, said the unions.

The letter comes after Jeremy Hunt revealed to NHS managers on Friday that he was planning to relay concerns about NHS pay to the chancellor, following a meeting with the head the RCN.

“Your government should remove the pay cap and address the real-terms loss of earnings”

Union letter to Theresa May

At the NHS Confederation annual conference in Liverpool, Mr Hunt said he had “a great deal of sympathy” for the arguments nurses had made about an end to pay restraint and noted the “enormous amount of goodwill” among staff who worked extra hours for no extra money.

He said he was due to meet with RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies, after having received a “constructive letter” from her. He noted that decisions on pay were made by the chancellor and that he would relay the union leader’s concerns to Philip Hammond.

Pressure on the government over pay has been growing in recent weeks, with key figures from the NHS and political right adding their voices to more traditional opponents of the policy, such as Labour and the unions.

Also speaking at last week’s conference, confederation chief executive Niall Dixon called for the government to change its position on the cap in order to retain NHS staff.

Earlier in the week, the Care Quality Commission’s chief inspector of hospitals, Sir Mike Richards, said in an interview that NHS staff “need to be properly rewarded”.

His views were echoed in a speech on Wednesday by influential former head of the Commons’ health select committee and past health secretary Stephen Dorrell, now chair of the NHS Confederation.

Meanwhile, former work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, claimed the cap had led to her failure to secure a parliamentary majority.

In addition, in the run-up to the election, the NHS Providers organisation warned that pay restraint had left lower paid staff leaving to stack shelves in supermarkets instead of working for the NHS.

The RCN, meanwhile, is planning to launch a campaign later this month calling on the government to “scrap the cap”.

In May, the RCN promised a “summer of protest” over pay after releasing the results of a poll on industrial action, ahead of potentially holding a formal strike ballot.

Commenting on the letter, Jon Skewes, director for policy, employment relations and communications at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “Since 2010 the average midwife has seen their pay drop in value by over £6,000. This is unacceptable, unsustainable and cannot continue.

“Inflation is on the rise squeezing incomes even further and making it even harder for many working people to make ends meet,” he said. “The RCM, along with the other health unions will continue to pressure the Government on this issue and will be calling on our members to write to their MP asking for their support for fair pay.”

Full copy of the letter:

Dear Prime Minister,

By your own admission, austerity, and a lack of investment in the public sector was a significant factor in the general election result. Many have said that the pay freeze in the public sector was in part to blame for your failure to secure a parliamentary majority, alongside senior health leaders who agree that people who work in our NHS should be fairly rewarded for the work they do.

Organisations that represent patients and our NHS workforce are calling for the Queen’s Speech to mark a clear change in direction.

People who are working in the NHS are delivering care to the best of their ability but we are very worried that care is becoming unsafe. Our services are struggling to make do without the staff they need.

The Public Sector Pay Cap has forced professionals out of jobs they love. Those who stay are overstretched and under pressure to do ever more with less. The longstanding cap stands in the way of recruiting and retaining the best in health care. It is having a profound and detrimental effect on standards of care for people at a time when the NHS is short of staff across every discipline. This is alongside an uncertain future for EU nationals working in health and care.

Next month, our vital national service turns 69. In its seventieth year, you have the opportunity to show the country how much you value the lives of people who work in the NHS, and the people they serve.

We call on you to prioritise patient safety by guaranteeing safe staffing across all of our services and changing your policy on NHS pay. Your government should remove the pay cap and address the real-terms loss of earnings so the NHS can retain and attract staff, resolve the workforce shortage and ensure safe patient care.

Yours sincerely,

  • Janet Davies, Chief Executive & General Secretary, Royal College of Nursing
  • June Chandler, Lead Officer, British Association of Occupational Therapists
  • Mick Armstrong, Chair, British Dental Association
  • Annette Mansell Green, Head of Employment Relations, British Dietetic Association
  • Dr Mark Porter, Chair, British Medical Association
  • Lesley Anne Baxter, Chair, British & Irish Orthoptic Society
  • Karen Middleton CBE, Chief Executive, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
  • Geoff Lester, National Negotiator, Federation of Clinical Scientists
  • Kevin Brandstatter, Public Services Section and National Lead Organiser, GMB
  • Jon Restell, Chief Executive, Managers in Partnership
  • Steve Gillan, General Secretary, Prison Officers Association
  • Jon Skewes, Director for Policy, Employment Relations and Communications, Royal College of Midwives
  • Richard Evans OBE, Chief Executive, Society of Radiographers
  • Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary, Unite
  • Sara Gorton, Head of Health, Unison
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