A landmark ruling that a trust acted unlawfully in attempting to break away from national terms and conditions should act as a deterrent to further attacks on Agenda for Change, according to nursing unions.
The employment tribunal’s ruling last week has forced Central Manchester Foundation Trust to abandon a policy of denying incremental pay rises to staff that have claimed more than 18 days sick leave in a year.
Increment rises are guaranteed under the Agenda for Change pay deal and unions said the ruling sent a warning to any foundation trusts wanting to move away from national terms.
The case against the trust was brought jointly by three unions: the Royal College of Nursing, Unite and Unison. It was also supported by the Royal College of Midwives.
The decision is likely to give unions more confidence in defending national conditions.
Nursing Times revealed last year that foundation trusts around England were considering varying national conditions in a bid to make savings. In December Chancellor George Osborne claimed there was a “clear case” for changing the national pay deal.
Unison regional head of health Paul Foley said: “Agenda for Change is safer now”.
“We know trusts are facing a difficult financial climate – but don’t meddle with national terms and conditions. This judgement is very clear that trusts run a risk if they do – we will take legal action against them and we are confident we will win,” he told Nursing Times.
RCM director of employment relations Jon Skewes described the ruling as a “ground-breaking judgement”.
“This is an example of a trust which has sought to unilaterally vary the national contract. The tribunal has said very clearly that it is not able to do that,” he said.
He underlined that Agenda for Change was built on negotiation and partnership, and any changes should be negotiated, rather than implemented through a “guerrilla war approach” from trusts.
Three nurses were among the test cases cited in the Manchester ruling.
Susan Proctor saw her increments held down after a bout of retrocaecal appendicitis, which needed emergency surgery, while Karl Taylor had to take time off due to a foot injury that left him unable to stand or walk for long periods. Both are band 6 nurses.
Band 5 nurse Doreen Allet was penalised after four occasions of absence due to vomiting and abdominal pain, which led to biopsies and a coloscopy.
The tribunal concluded that, while incremental rises could be deferred if an employee’s performance was not satisfactory, this did not include sickness absence and the trust’s actions amounted to “a series of unlawful deductions” from the claimants’ pay.
A statement circulated to trust staff by managers on 23 February said the decision had “provided clarity” on incremental pay rises and the sickness policy, which had been in place since November 2010, would be withdrawn “with immediate effect”.
The trust said it would seek an urgent meeting with staff representatives to discuss how withheld pay rises would be “reinstated”.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said the trust’s actions had been “outrageous” and, “if unchallenged, could have had major repercussions for NHS staff across the UK”.
A trust spokeswoman said: “Whilst the policy was in force there was a significant reduction in absence levels and a substantial increase in staff compliance with appraisals and mandatory training.”
The ruling comes less than two weeks after the trust was forced to pay out £1m for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination against Elliot Browne, a former divisional director for clinical scientific services.