‘We’ve been stabbed in the back by Boris Johnson’

Health conference debates what is to happen on pay for all health members both now and in the future

Pay dominated the second day of UNISON’s virtual health conference, with delegates discussing the crisis now facing members’ finances.

Conference heard of the huge number of health workers earning below the living wage, of hardworking colleagues forced to use food banks, of the student nurses who fell behind in their training as they were enlisted to help fight COVID and now without the investment and support to get back on track.

Thousands of exhausted NHS staff – including healthcare assistants, ambulance workers and hospital porters – are facing what is predicted to be the worst winter in history for the NHS, a mounting patient backlog and staffing shortages.

At the same time, the value of the 3% pay rise imposed by the government has already been wiped out by soaring inflation.

The general feeling was summed up by Roz Norman, chair of the health service group executive (HSGE), when she said that NHS staff had “stepped up to the plate time and time and time again” during the pandemic, only to be “stabbed in the back by Boris Johnson”.

Today’s debates followed the result yesterday of the union’s consultation of health members in England regarding the 3% award – with 80% of those who voted willing to oppose it through industrial action.

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton opened the conference’s morning session outlining the next steps in this immediate dispute for English members.

She noted that “65,000 members are ready and willing to strike”, but added that this course of action required 50% of members to cast a vote, as opposed to the 28% that did, which is why the union was now embarking on further consultations before a formal industrial action ballot could be held.

She added that those who did not vote this time, “may feel differently when they see the value of that 3% eroded by rising costs”.

Ms Gorton also suggested the possibility of moving away from the  Pay Review Body (PRB) system and towards collective bargaining, a view later echoed by a number of speakers.

“With the PRB system we are forever going to be on the back foot,” she said, “because we cannot consult members and because the government doesn’t wait to find the views of members before proceeding to implement the outcome of the pay round.

“That’s previously been tolerated by members because they’ve found the outcomes of the Review Body settlement acceptable. But that could all be about to change.”

Ms Norman then proposed a composite motion – a pay strategy for the whole NHS team.

“For the NHS to continue to deliver the fantastic services that it does, we need to ensure there’s a motivated and supported workforce,” she said. “A workforce that feels valued, not just by patients, who truly do value our staff, but by a pay mechanism and terms and conditions of employment.”

“We need to hold this government to account for all the damage they have inflicted on the NHS. The damage their cuts have had on patient care, the damage to staff through pay austerity, and the damage to the NHS as it is no longer a real living wage employer.”

To that end, the motion proposes a comprehensive strategy to address future pay in the NHS, she said. “We need a strategy that all health members can unite in, that can deliver a decent pay award for all, that ensures the whole NHS team are fully covered by Agenda for Change terms and conditions.”

The HSGE is now charged to work on a number of issues, including

  • Bring the outsourced workforce under the umbrella of AfC terms and conditions;
  • Complete work on the 2021/22 pay round as determined by the outcomes of full member consultation ballots in each administration – including being ready for industrial action if that is what members want;
  • Use pay outcomes for the directly employed workforce to update and continue the One Team Us 2 strategy for members working for contractors (including subcos) engaged by NHS organisations to deliver services.

And on conclusion of the 2021/22 pay round, it must begin immediately building for 2022/23, by:

  • Developing and implementing a member and branch consultation programme on the content, level and process for lodging a pay claim, which seeks to restore lost income and keep ahead of inflation;
  • Consult members on the detail of what claim we take into any future pay negotiations, including options for lump sums and flat rates;
  • Engaging in discussions with other AfC unions around scope for a joint staff side approach.
  • Ensure that any agreed claim goes directly to the government and does not become compliant with the timescales and deliberations of the Pay Review Body
  • Promote the issue of pay in branches and workplaces, to raise this issue nationally and campaign for better wages for all NHS staff.

Through other motions, delegates voted to campaign on a number of other pay-related issues – to make the NHS a real living wage employer; for the introduction of a working from home expense allowance; for a major overhaul of the band 2 to 4 job profiles, and for a range of support for newly qualified nurses and midwives.