Nurses may in future only get premium pay rates for working after 10pm and could lose them altogether for shifts on Saturdays, under proposals being looked at by ministers.
The government is to look into reducing the times and days that unsocial hours pay can be applied, following a report by advisors on how to expand seven-day services, Nursing Times understands.
“The NHS Pay Review Body observed that premium pay rates may not be out of line with comparator industries”
The NHS Pay Review Body said last week there was a case for adjustments such as moving back the eligible unsocial hours pay time from 8pm to 10pm. It also noted that employers in other industries did not provide more money for working on Saturdays.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt subsequently highlighted both of the review body’s suggestions in a written statement to parliament.
A Department of Health spokeswoman later confirmed to Nursing Times that these were areas of particular interest ahead of future negotiations with unions on pay.
The suggestion was included in a much-anticipated report from the independent pay review body, which was published last Thursday.
The previous coalition asked it last September to look into “affordable out of hours working arrangements”, as part of wider plans to reform Agenda for Change.
- Government seeks out of hours working for ‘no additional pay’
- DH proposes dilution of unsocial hours payments for nursing staff
The move sparked concerns at the time about an imminent attack on unsocial hours pay, which have now grown in intensity after the Conservatives made introducing a “truly seven-day service” in the NHS one of their flagship election policies.
In his ministerial statement last week, Mr Hunt said: “The NHS Pay Review Body observed that premium pay rates may not be out of line with comparator industries, but that there is a case for some adjustment to unsocial hours pay, for example, extending plain time working further into the evenings – from 7/8pm currently to 10pm – and noted the move, in some sectors, to plain time working on Saturdays.”
However, the review body’s core recommendation was that reform of unsocial hours pay should only occur alongside a wider review of the Agenda for Change contract – a suggestion welcomed by union representatives hoping to strengthen their hand when trying to gain improvements in other areas, such as increased rates for being on-call, in return for giving ground on unsocial hours.
If out-of-hours remuneration were altered in isolation, it could “risk morale and motivation, damage employee relations, exacerbate existing [staff] shortages, and, in particular, risk the good will of staff already working across seven days”, said the review body.
Negotiations around Agenda for Change are already taking place, but a formal proposal on unsocial hours pay is yet to be put forward by the government and employers.
“We are pleased the review body has recognised the difficulties of cutting unsocial hours and nailed the fact that unsocial hours pay itself is not a barrier to seven-day services”
The NHS Employers organisation has estimated savings of £290m – or 0.8% of the of the Agenda for Change pay bill – could be achieved if unsocial hours payments were no longer applied to early evenings and Saturdays.
In its report, the review body noted that NHS Employers and the DH had claimed the cost of unsocial hours payments was a barrier to seven-day services. But it concluded extra investment in resources such as staff would cause more affordability problems.
Unison head of heath Christina McAnea said that, despite the review body warning of the risks of major reforms to unsocial hours pay, there was no reason for nurses to be “complacent”.
“We are pleased the review body has recognised the difficulties of cutting unsocial hours and nailed the fact that unsocial hours pay itself is not a barrier to seven-day services. But that won’t stop the government or employers,” she said.
Jon Skewes, Royal College of Midwives director for policy and employment, agreed there was a danger the government would not accept the review body’s recommendations in full.
“We have experience of precisely the opposite that led to the first industrial action by midwives in the union’s history,” he said, referring to last year’s strikes over the government’s refusal to accept pay recommendations.
But, in what could be a warning for nursing unions of tough negotiations ahead, Mr Hunt last week issued an ultimatum to the British Medical Association to negotiate over changes to hospital working hours.
By the end of the parliament, he said he expected the “majority of hospital doctors to be on seven-day contracts”. “Be in no doubt: if we can’t negotiate, we are ready to impose a new contract,” he said in a keynote speech.
A motion was overwhelmingly passed last month at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual conference to challenge any proposal by the government to “scrap or undermine” unsocial hours payments.
In May, a row developed between Mr Hunt and RCN leaders after a perceived threat of industrial action was seized on by the national media.
- Hunt accuses RCN of ‘jumping the gun’ with strike talk
- Strike warning as Cameron re-states NHS ‘seven day’ plan
The college’s chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter suggested that attacks on unsocial hours and weekend working payments “would be strongly resisted” and that it represented a “red line” for considering industrial action.
It was preceded in April by similar warning from Unison. At its annual healthcare conference in Liverpool, members called for a “vigorous” campaign to be launched against plans to cut unsocial hours pay.
Meanwhile, at the start of January, a petition against changes to unsocial hours payment for nurses and other NHS workers attracted almost 100,000 signatures in only a few days after it was started by a Suffolk nursing assistant.