The government must go further than just removing the public sector pay cap and increase nurse salaries to make up for several years’ lost earnings, unions have said in response to reports that ministers are looking at lifting the long-standing restrictions on wage rises.
According to reports in several national newspapers today, plans are afoot to put a stop to the cap, which limits public sector workers’ annual pay rises to 1%. It is understood that the change could come in from 2018, but would be phased in over two years due to the £4bn cost.
“Any offer… needs to not only scrap the pay cap for future years but go some way towards making up for lost earnings”
The health service’s nursing workforce could be one of the first groups to benefit from the change, in a bid to improve recruitment and retention of staff, according to The Sun.
It is understood that Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss will outline the plans when she writes to the NHS and other pay review bodies later this month with guidance on what considerations should be taken into account as they calculate next year’s salary levels.
The independent NHS Pay Review Body recommends health service remuneration levels, based on evidence recieved from the government, employers and unions. In recent years, it has followed government calls for the 1% cap to remain in place, but also attached warnings about continuing the policy in future.
But unions have warned that the government must go further than simply ending the cap, in order to make up for seven years of a combination of pay freezes and restrictions on wages.
“If reports are true, this would be significant progress and a sign that the government is listening to our campaign, said Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.
“But any offer from the prime minister or Treasury needs to not only scrap the pay cap for future years but go some way towards making up for lost earnings,” she said.
“Nursing pay has fallen by 14% in real-terms since 2010, now worth £3,000 each year,” she added, noting that thousands of nurses would meet at Westminster on Wednesday for a demonstration over pay.
“Public sector workers have had to endure seven years of pay misery… The government’s proposals… are a drop in the ocean”
The RCN has been running its “scrap the cap” campaign since last year and this year promised a “summer of protests”, potentially culminating in a vote on industrial action, if the government failed to change its policy.
Fellow union Unite echoed the college’s concerns, describing the reported proposals as a “drop in the ocean”.
“Public sector workers have had to endure seven years of pay misery. Workers, who have dedicated their lives to working for the public, have had to continually cut their household spending,” said Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail.
“The government’s proposals, which will not even come into effect until 2019 for many workers, are a drop in the ocean and will do nothing, to address the years of pay cuts our public servants have had to endure. Ministers make no mention of compensating workers for their lost wages,” she added.
Ms Cartmail also accused the government of continuing to undermining the pay review process, which should be independent.
“The independent pay review bodies must be tasked with tackling the challenges of restoring pay to levels which will help to begin tackling the recruitment and retention crisis that is afflicting our public services,” she said.
NHS pay was increased at below-inflation rates in 2010, was frozen from 2011 to 2013 and since 2014 has been limited to 1% for staff under the Agenda for Change system.
Unions, including Unison and the Royal College of Midwives, took strike action in 2014 over pay, when the government sought to ignore the accepted pay review body process. However, the RCN’s leaders opted not to take part and did not formally consult college members.
In 2015 the government announced public sector pay would be capped at 1% on an annual basis for a further four years.
But in June this year, unexpectedly, health secretary Jeremy Hunt hinted at some movement on the government’s pay restraint policy. He told NHS bosses he planned relay concerns about staff pay to the chancellor, following a future meeting with the head the RCN, which has now taken place.
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There has been a growing chorus of concerns from a number of organisations – including those representing employers and the body that reviews annual NHS pay rises – that the cap is not sustainable.
This has included a recent call by the Sir Mike Richards, chief inspector of hospitals at the Care Quality Commission, for NHS staff “to be properly rewarded”.