Royal College of Nursing leaders have told union activists that they believe they are “making headway” in efforts to boost nurse pay and that “now is not the time” to ballot over strike action.
The RCN’s chair, Michael Brown, revealed the views of senior college leaders in a letter to a group of campaigners who had publically criticised them over their stance on pay following the budget.
“RCN council is clear that this is not the time to ballot members for industrial action”
As reported by Nursing Times in November, the activists wrote an open letter to RCN leaders, calling the language used in the college’s official response statement to the autumn budget as “underwhelming”.
The three RCN members, some of whom were at the forefront of last year’s “scrap the cap” pay protests, said the union was too positive in its comments in the wake of the autumn budget on 22 November.
They argued that the RCN must be more “militant” and called for the college’s leadership to consider industrial action as its “only response to this budget”.
In his budget speech, chancellor Philip Hammond had said he would give “additional funding” to provide nurses with a salary rise, if it was recommended by the independent NHS pay review body.
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Mr Hammond also said any rise would also be dependent on successful negotiations on updates to the Agenda for Change contract – ambitions that were subsequently outlined in more detail by the health secretary and which sparked some public concerns among unions.
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In response to the activists, Mr Brown noted that the group’s letter had been discussed by RCN leaders last month and that, while they recognised the campaigners’ “frustration” over pay, they “did not share their view”.
“We never expected the budget to include details of a pay rise for nursing, but the fact that nursing staff were the only profession to be named by the chancellor was significant,” he said.
“RCN council is clear that this is not the time to ballot members for industrial action,” he said. “The pay review body should be allowed to do its work and we must wait until it reports in the spring.”
RCN Congress 2017
Mr Brown, whose term as chair finished on 31 December, also indicated that a new round of discussions between unions, employers and the government on contract changes was already underway.
“We are arguing for a meaningful pay increase, defending your terms and conditions and resisting simplistic arguments that nursing staff can be more productive,” he said in the letter seen by Nursing Times.
He added: “We know this is a long, hard struggle, but we do believe the government commitments firstly to scrap the pay cap, and then fund a pay increase, demonstrate that we are making headway.”
However, those behind the open letter told Nursing Times they remained unconvinced by the RCN council’s current approach on nurse pay and expressed concern that it was choosing to trust the government.
Daniel Langley, from the RCN Inner South East London Branch, said he thanked the council for “taking the time to reply” to the letter’s signatories but added that his ”praise only extends that far”.
“Their reply just shows the fundamental weakness of the approach that our union has decided to take. Waiting, waiting and more waiting as they give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt, genuinely believing their old rehashed propaganda,” he said.
“In what way did the chancellor’s vague statements show a commitment? There is no evidence of a commitment, only a speech of avoidance,” he said. “It must be reiterated that these hollow words are not pledges. RCN council may be clear but it’s wrong about this not being the time for industrial action.”
He added: “The council is either wilfully ignorant or dangerously misinformed of the current reality. There are no commitments.”
In the run-up to Mr Hammond’s budget speech, the college had warned that it would move towards balloting members on industrial action if the 1% cap on NHS pay rises was not lifted in the budget.
The RCN had also criticised the government during September for giving only “vague” signals that there would be an increase in wage rises from later this year.
At around the same time, 14 unions, including the RCN, demanded to see wage increase by 3.9% to match inflation, plus an additional £800 consolidated lump sum, to make up for the years of lost pay.
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Meanwhile, unions, employers and the Department of Health are understood to have previously been discussing potential changes to Agenda for Change, including increment pay points and pay bands, with talks ongoing since the industrial action in 2014 over concerns about proposals for seven-day working.
However, the discussions had stalled due the previous absence of an offer of any new money for pay increases above 1% – a barrier that has seemingly now been lifted in the wake of the government’s recent commitments on remuneration.
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Letter from RCN leaders to pay campaigners in full
RCN Council discussed your open letter during their meeting on 6th December. We recognise your frustration, but do not share your view about the commitment by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to fund a pay rise for nursing staff.
We agreed that this showed that the government has listened to the RCN’s Scrap the Cap campaign. We never expected the budget to include details of a pay rise for nursing, but the fact that nursing staff were the only profession to be named by the chancellor was significant.
RCN council is clear that this is not the time to ballot members for industrial action. The pay review body should be allowed to do its work and we must wait until it reports in the spring. It has been given its remit by the Department of Health…
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We are also involved in the discussions between NHS trade unions, employers and civil servants referred to by the secretary of state in his letter. We are arguing for a meaningful pay increase, defending your terms and conditions and resisting simplistic arguments that nursing staff can be more productive.
We urge you to continue fighting to Close the Gap – helping to keep up the pressure on the Westminster government. Now is not the time to ballot, but we need to be prepared, so we also urge you to work with members to keep their details up to date. That will help us in any future ballot, and will mean we can reach everyone when we need to consult them on pay. The RCN’s pay champions have done a fantastic job over the last few months, and we need you to keep doing that.
We know this is a long, hard struggle, but we do believe the government commitments firstly to scrap the pay cap, and then fund a pay increase, demonstrate that we are making headway. Please help us to keep making our Close the Gap campaign a success.
Chair of council