Government should commit to NHS pay talks now and avoid possible strikes next year

Pay review body process long past its use-by date.

The government must commit to holding direct pay talks with unions and employers for the wage increase health workers are due next year if it is serious about improving the NHS pay-setting process, says UNISON today (Wednesday).

UNISON says the best 75th birthday present the health secretary could give the NHS would be to agree to start pay negotiations in the autumn, well in advance of next April’s wage boost for NHS staff.

That would be the most sensible approach for ministers to take, says UNISON. It would build on the recent Agenda for Change wage settlement, show NHS employees the government is committed to solving the staffing emergency and potentially avoid more industrial unrest, adds the union.

As part of the NHS pay deal agreed in May, the health secretary promised to look again at the way health worker wages are set.

UNISON says it wouldn’t be right for Steve Barclay to renew the NHS pay review body’s remit for the coming pay year (2024/25) while the process itself is being critiqued.

It makes no sense for the NHS pay review body to spend months producing more observations and recommendations when there’s still much for the government, employers, and unions to do regarding the additional commitments set out in the recent wage deal, says UNISON.

Several health unions have already said they will no longer submit evidence to the NHS pay review body in its current format. Any government attempt to kickstart that same process would immediately increase industrial tension, UNISON warns.

In the union’s submission to the government consultation reviewing the pay-setting process, which closed yesterday, UNISON says the NHS pay review body is an outdated mechanism that no longer works.

Health workers have lost confidence in the current system for setting wages, says UNISON. Under the pay review body, NHS staff have faced waits of many months to get the annual increase they should receive in early spring.

Health workers also blame the current process for failing to challenge the damage to NHS staffing caused by years of pay freezes and below-inflation rises under austerity, says UNISON.

Although ministers claim the NHS pay review body is independent, UNISON’s submission says it is anything but. The government not only appoints all the body’s members, but it also sets the remit in which it can operate and decides how and when its recommendations are published.

Scotland walked away from the NHS pay review body process a few years ago, and the resulting impact on pay north of the border is plain for all to see, says UNISON.

Direct talks with the Holyrood government have reaped dividends for health workers. Nurses, occupational therapists, midwives and other staff at the top of band 5 now earn £3,000 a year

more than their English colleagues, adds the union.

Nor does the process work well for other pay-related issues like high-cost area supplements, addressing pay gaps or picking up on known increases to the national minimum wage, says UNISON.

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “The pay review body process is long past its use-by date. Ministers initially refused to engage in pay negotiations with unions and employers last year, insisting the review body was the only way. That led to months of industrial unrest that benefitted no one.

“Put simply, the pay review body process takes too long, and isn’t nimble enough to keep up with rapidly changing economic circumstances. It leads to health workers in England missing out.

And as pay is so key to solving the NHS staffing emergency, it means patients lose out too.

“The process may have worked for a while, but it doesn’t anymore. It’s time to call a halt to this costly, wasteful, and time-consuming exercise.

“Ministers were happy to take credit for the deal that ended the dispute. They now must be prepared to get back round the table to discuss how well it has held up against inflation, which is not currently showing much sign of falling.

“The review body was meant to take the politics out of pay and avoid strikes. It’s failed on both counts. Direct talks involving unions, ministers and employers are the only way forward.”