Health unions are on the verge of walking away from national talks on Agenda for Change should employers fail to give a commitment on the South West “pay cartel”, Nursing Times understands.
Since the formation of the South West Pay, Terms and Conditions Consortium in May, unions have warned it was undermining national negotiations on changes to AfC and threatened to end talks with NHS Employers, which is negotiating on behalf of the government.
Nursing Times understands they have now issued a “crunch time” ultimatum to end the controversy surrounding the consortium’s 20 trusts, which are seeking their own changes to the AfC framework.
At a meeting on Friday, unions told NHS Employers that it must give a commitment to the national process and show its ability to deliver on them or the national negotiations could collapse.
Christina McAnea, head of health at Unison and chair of the staffside council, said unions wanted a national agreement, “but not at any cost”.
Following the meeting she told Nursing Times unions would continue talking but that the ultimatum on the South West was not “open ended” and would be discussed again at a meeting with employers in October.
She said: “It really is crunch time for employers and the national negotiations, as far as all the unions are concerned. We have to have some indication they will bring the South West into line and stop it.
“Without such a commitment we would probably have to walk away from the national negotiations.”
She said she had written to the trusts in the South West Consortium, asking each one to formally suspend its involvement and commit to the national process.
She added: “We are looking at contingency plans up to, and including industrial action, that has to be part of our planning.”
NHS Employers has set out a raft of proposed changes to AfC, including an end automatic incremental pay rises, reductions to sick pay, and freedom to move senior staff out of the framework altogether.
Meanwhile, the South West Consortium has outlined 28 changes it wants to make, which go much further than the national proposals and include changes such as reducing annual leave, adding extra working hours, changing on-call payments, and reducing benefits.
Ms McAnea told Nursing Times she believed trusts in the South West had mistakenly thought the region would be “easy pickings” and had been “surprised” by the strength of opposition.
She added: “We appreciate some trusts are facing serious financial difficulties and we have offered to work with them.
“We are happy to talk to individual trusts about issues facing them. What we won’t do is give them carte blanche to negotiate away national terms and conditions, we can’t do that; we won’t do that.”
NHS Employers has previously said the way for unions to secure a national agreement is to negotiate and has stressed the longer there is uncertainty the more likely it is local trusts will consider pursuing their own solutions.
Jon Fisher, spokesman for the South West Consortium, said it was for individual member trusts to decide on any future involvement with the project, adding: “Each member organisation is committed to engaging with staff side groups and local union representatives to promote engagement and understanding of the consortium’s work.”