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RCN pay deal review finds lead negotiator role had 'conflict of interest'

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The lead negotiator responsible for presenting the NHS pay deal to decision-makers at the Royal College of Nursing has been criticised as having a “conflict of interest” by independent reviewers.

They concluded the college’s council, executive team, trade union council and the membership were not fully informed about the details and impacts of the deal in a way that enabled them to make an informed balanced judgement.

Electoral Reform Services (ERS) was commissioned by the RCN to investigate its processes and communications around the 2018 NHS pay deal, after members claimed they were misled over what they would receive.

Interim findings from the review, published earlier this month, said nurses voted in favour of the NHS pay deal after being given “inaccurate” information by the Royal College of Nursing, which was under pressure by the government to “sell” the offer to its members.

The final report (see PDF attached below) has now been published and will inform discussions at an extraordinary general meeting being held in Birmingham today, where members will take a vote of no confidence in the RCN council over the pay row.

The ERS determined that RCN’s lead negotiator, Josie Irwin, had a “conflict of interest” in her role of presenting the details of the deal to the college.

It found she was biased in favour of accepting the deal due to fears the offer would be off the table if members did not agree, the report stated.  

Ms Irwin’s presentations to the college’s executive team and trade union council focused on the overall impact of the deal over the three years, rather than how members would be affected in the short-term, noted the report.

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Josie irwin

Technical information about how the deal would be implemented was not available until the second week of July, after the vote had taken place, but this was not clearly communicated to decision-makers.

“Alternate options to accepting the deal were not made, but substituted with the assertion that this was the best deal in the current economic client under a government of austerity,” the report said.

“ERS believes that exploring the detail of alternate options to not accepting the proposed deal, in its current form, would have enabled decision makers to weigh up the merits of the draft framework against these alternatives.

“Since the lead negotiator was responsible for presenting the framework to decision makers and maintained during interview that it was the best deal available at the current time, ERS believes a conflict of interest exists in their role of presenting and aiding communication of the deal.

“There did not appear to be sufficient checks and balances in place for this role, or fact checking of the detail to ensure accurate and objective information.”

However, ERS said the ”weakness in the rigour of testing and checking details” rested with the RCN’s director of member relations, Chris Cox, whom Ms Irwin was accountable to.

Mr Cox has today resigned, Nursing Times has learnt. 

The report also found that members of the executive team were “closed down” by the then chief executive and general secretary, Janet Davies, when they attempted to question the finer details of pay increases when Ms Irwin presented the deal to them. 

The executive team also felt limited in their ability to scrutinise the deal, because it was presented through a slide show due to Ms Davies prohibiting the use of paperwork, ERS noted. Ms Davies also only allowed an hour for the meeting. 

The ERS report concluded: “Subsequently, the time limitation and lack of paperwork in the meeting room inhibited the way in which the group was informed.”

Ms Davies has since resigned.

The final ERS report determined that members were presented with “misleading and incomplete communications” during the consultation period from from 23 April to 5 June.

“ERS believes a conflict of interest exists in their role of presenting and aiding communication of the deal”

ERS report

Members were given incorrect information about the 3% uplift in the first year, it added.

The ERS said the NHS pay deal would have probably been implemented, even if RCN members had rejected the offer because all the other 12 trade unions bar GMB voted in favour of it.

The report concluded: “[The] RCN should carefully consider how to proceed with future negotiation involving pay rise and pay structure reform, understanding risks and weighing up the implications.”

The ERS recommended that the college should adopt a “risk based approach” to negotiations going forward.

It said the RCN should also review its procedures to “ensure clear lines of accountability, responsibility and consultation are in place for developing communications tools and products of this kind”.

It warned against placing the onus on a single individual during such negotiations to “mitigate against potential conflict of interest or polarised outlooks” and urged RCN to involve the membership earlier.

Responding to the report, the RCN said it was committed to implementing the recommendations from ERS.

“The membership were not fully informed about the details and impacts of the deal”

RCN statement

In a statement, the RCN council said: “Phase two of the report concludes that the RCN’s executive team, council, trade union committee, and the membership were not fully informed about the details and impacts of the deal in a way that enabled them to make an informed balanced judgement.

“This conclusion does not absolve the college of fault, and indicates that the processes around the pay deal and its communication were not sufficiently robust, it said.

It added: “The RCN council agrees with the findings of the review, and has committed to addressing ERS’s recommendations in full. Work has already commenced to ensure that the college is stronger for our members.”

Ms Irwin has been approached individually by Nursing Times for comment.

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