The health secretary has written to the chair of the NHS pay review body triggering the start of talks on wage increases for nurses and other NHS staff, alongside potential contract changes.
The letter, sent by Jeremy Hunt today, reiterates that “affordability” must be considered by the body when it makes its recommendations on boosts to pay.
“Any agreed deal would need to be one that gives valued staff a fair pay rise alongside reforms”
In the correspondence to review body chair Philippa Hird, he underlined the previous commitment by the Treasury to allow for a “more flexible approach” to pay in 2018-19, in order to help tackle skills shortages and improve productivity.
The letter states that, while the chancellor has confirmed extra funding will be provided for a pay rise, it is on the understanding that there will be reforms to the NHS Agenda for Change pay system – which covers nurses, midwives and most other staff apart from doctors and dentists.
It reaffirms comments on the government’s ambitions for contract reform made by Philip Hammond himself in his budget speech on 22 November and then outlined in more detail by Mr Hunt in a recent interview.
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These reforms should be designed to “boost productivity” and must inform the review body’s recommendations, stated the letter from Mr Hunt.
NHS Employers and trade unions had been asked to continue exploratory talks about the reforms, added the health secretary in the letter.
“Any suggestion that midwives, nurses and HCAs might need to give up the money they get for working weekends…and we’ll be back to square one”
Unions will be expected to negotiate a multi-year agreement on behalf of their members, he stated, adding that the reforms would need to “better reflect modern working practices”.
“Any agreed deal would need to be one that gives valued staff a fair pay rise alongside improving recruitment and retention and developing reforms which better reflect modern working practices, service needs and fairness for employees,” state the letter.
Unison’s head of health, Sara Gorton, who chairs the group of 14 health trade unions during pay negotiations, said it was pleasing to see talks could now begin.
Earlier in the year, unions had submitted a pay claim direct to the government because the pay review body had not started its work.
She said talks could now begin to discuss the “much-needed” review of the NHS pay structure and a “decent” rise in wages for staff, following seven years of pay restraint.
“But those talks won’t last long if the government is expecting NHS employees to pay for their own wage rise,” warned Ms Gorton.
“Any suggestion that midwives, porters, nurses and healthcare assistants might need to give up the money they get for working weekends or late at night in return for a pay increase and we’ll be back to square one before we’ve even got to the table,” she said.
The Royal College of Nursing said the link being made by the government between pay and productivity was a “concern”.
”Nursing staff cannot be stretched any further. The NHS would grind to a halt without all the extra hours they already work,” said RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies.
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”Nurses should not be expected in effect to fund their own pay rise. A fair pay rise is vital not just for nursing staff, but for patients and the NHS as a whole,” she said.
Ms Davies added that the RCN was concerned about the lack of clarity over pay in Northern Ireland, where nurses had not seen wages increase this year.
“In the absence of an assembly or direct rule minister, we call for urgent clarification about how a decision will be reached on the Northern Ireland pay round,” she said.
Jon Skewes, director for policy, employment relations and communications at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “The need to fund fair pay for NHS staff is now well overdue. Anything less than a fair pay rise at a time of increasing staffing shortages in the NHS is reckless.”
“The RCM together with other NHS trade unions are calling for a pay rise in line with RPI inflation (3.9%) and an additional uplift of £800 to restore the loss of pay over the past seven years of pay restraint,” said Mr Skewes.
He added: “We welcome the commitment made by the chancellor in the budget to fund a pay rise for midwives, maternity support workers and other NHS staff following an agreement reached in negotiations between employers and the RCM and other NHS trade unions.
“We think that there are ways the pay structure can be improved and made fairer, but we are clear that it is entirely unacceptable to ask midwives and other NHS staff to fund their own pay increase through cuts to their terms and conditions,” he said.
Both sides are understood to have previously been discussing potential changes to the contract, including increment pay points and pay bands, with talks ongoing since the industrial action in 2014 amid previous concerns about proposals for seven-day working.
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However, the discussions had stalled due the previous absence of an offer of any new money for pay increases above 1% – a barrier that had seemingly now been lifted.
Labour health spokesman Justin Madders said: “The government say they want to see workforce reforms made to increase productivity, but they’ve said nothing about what changes they want made, what level of pay rise staff can expect to see, or whether a pay rise will be applied across the board.
“NHS workforce shortages are getting worse by the month and it is patients who are paying the price,” he said. “The government should immediately commit to giving all NHS staff the pay they deserve so they can do the best possible job for their patients.”