Solo pay talks could have serious consequences for the NHS

Attempting a deal with just one solves nothing.

The government’s failure to hold pay talks with every organisation representing striking NHS workers in England is unacceptable, ill-considered, and has potentially perilous consequences, health unions warn today (Monday). 

The chair and secretary of the union side of the NHS staff council have written to Steve Barclay on behalf of health unions, raising concerns about the government’s handling of the pay dispute. 

The group of 13 unions includes four – UNISON, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, GMB and Unite – that are currently involved in industrial action over NHS pay, staffing and patient care. 

In the letter, the unions urge caution over the government’s decision to hold unilateral talks with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and say the approach risks prolonging the strikes.  

Worse still, the unions say, the solo talks move threatens the future of the Agenda for Change pay system covering all NHS staff, aside from doctors and dentists. 

The letter states that the government should have done things properly and held pay negotiations through the NHS staff council, as has happened previously. This is made up of unions representing all health service workers, NHS employers, the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England. 

The unions remind the health secretary that those with live strike mandates have made clear that action could be paused in return for talks with an upfront agreement to improve pay for 2022-23. But only the RCN has received such an offer.

Any deal with the RCN could have implications for Agenda for Change pay bands and other contract issues for which the NHS staff council is responsible. By choosing to hold talks with just one union, the government runs several risks according to the letter: 

  • Ministers might agree a deal with the RCN, but then find it can’t be delivered because the content is unacceptable to other unions.
  • Ministers shouldn’t assume that what was enough to persuade the RCN to pause its action and enter talks would be sufficient to allow other striking unions to do the same. This means the government could commit the cash for a pay deal yet strikes involving other NHS workers continue.
  • Any deal with one union could be seen as a deliberate attempt to rip up the established Agenda for Change system, which would be met with a robust response from unions.

The letter calls on Steve Barclay to explain how he intends to turn any agreement the government hopes to reach with the RCN into an offer it can put to unions representing other NHS staff still on strike. 

Chair of the NHS group of unions and UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “Strikes across the NHS won’t end until ministers hold proper pay talks with all unions involved in action.

“Attempting a deal with just one solves nothing. And it certainly risks prolonging the dispute. 

“Uncompetitive pay is a key factor behind record vacancy rates affecting all areas of the NHS workforce, not just nursing. And nurses belong to other unions too. 

“Most NHS staff are on Agenda for Change contracts. Preferential treatment for nurses in one union risks wrecking a pay system that’s worked well for almost 20 years. 

“If that happens, ministers would be creating a nightmare scenario for the NHS. Instead of negotiating with all NHS workers at the same time, employers would have to speak to multiple groups.  

“This would be yet another headache for an NHS struggling to get back on its feet and deliver for patients.” 

Secretary of the NHS group of unions and Chartered Society of Physiotherapy assistant director of employment relations Elaine Sparkes said“The government is playing a dangerous game. Ministers’ clumsy attempts to stop the strikes so far have done more damage than good.  

“But all’s not lost. There’s still time to call everyone in, share details of the new offer being discussed with the RCN and allow staff, employers and unions to concentrate on getting the NHS back on track.” 

Notes to editors: 
The letter to Steve Barclay is signed by Sara Gorton and Elaine Sparkes, the chair and secretary of the union side of the NHS staff council, on behalf of the British Association of Occupational Therapists, British Dietetic Association, British Orthoptic Society, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Royal College of Podiatry, Federation of Clinical Scientists, GMB, Managers in Partnership, Prison Officers Association, Royal College of Midwives, Society of Radiographers, UNISON and Unite.

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