The government is set to invite health unions to discuss the NHS pay award for 2023-24 and in return has called for upcoming nurse strikes to be called off.
In addition, ministers have unveiled early plans for the introduction of new legislation that they say will ensure “minimum safety levels” during industrial action taken in some public sector settings.
The news comes in a statement published today by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and follows a promise from the prime minister on Wednesday of an update on its position on nurse strikes.
“While these conversations take place, the government calls on the unions to cancel upcoming strikes in a bid to resolve these disputes constructively through dialogue”
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Thousands of nurses took to the picket line last month as part of an ongoing dispute between unions and the government over the current 2022-23 pay award which saw most nurses in England, Northern Ireland and Wales handed a £1,400 rise.
Nurses in England are also set to walk out again for two dates later this month, during strike action organised by the Royal College of Nursing.
The RCN has been calling for a pay increase for 2022-23 of 5% above inflation, which currently translates to a 19% rise, but ministers have said this ask is unaffordable.
In its update today, the government has said public sector unions, including health unions, will be invited to meet for “honest, constructive conversations about what is fair and affordable” for public sector pay settlements for 2023-24.
It said this was part of a “reasonable approach to avoiding prolonged industrial action”.
The statement also claimed unions would be asked to sit down and discuss the evidence that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will submit to the NHS Pay Review Body for the 2023/24 pay round.
If accepted, health unions and the DHSC would meet in the “coming weeks” to discuss issues including pay evidence, workload and conditions.
“These discussions will help ensure the evidence submitted to the pay review bodies is as considered and informed as possible, including reflecting areas of common ground,” the government statement said.
Unions were urged to “play their part in finding an agreement that balances giving workers a fair and reasonable settlement with continuing to take steps to bring down inflation and protect households’ budgets”.
“While these conversations take place, the government calls on the unions to cancel upcoming strikes in a bid to resolve these disputes constructively through dialogue,” the statement added.
“Only negotiations on our dispute can avert the planned action this month and I urge the prime minister to show a renewed sense of urgency”
However, the RCN has hit back and said that while it will meet with ministers to discuss their evidence for the pay review process, only negotiations regarding the pay dispute for 2022-23 will stop planned action this month.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Pat Cullen said: “We will meet with ministers to see their evidence for the pay process.
“However, only negotiations on our dispute can avert the planned action this month and I urge the prime minister to show a renewed sense of urgency, grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses without further delay.”
Also within its statement today, the government has mooted controversial plans for the introduction of new laws “to ensure a basic level of service in some of [the] most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place”.
Worrying reports in The Times newspaper earlier today, suggested the plans could enable employers to “sue unions and sack staff”.
In the coming weeks, a bill would be introduced in parliament to “take the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function and deliver minimum safety levels during industrial action”, said the government.
As part of this proposal, “minimum safety levels” would be set for ambulance, fire and rail services.
For other sectors to be included in this bill, such as health services and education, the government said it “expects to continue to reach voluntary agreements, and would only look to consult on minimum safety levels should these voluntary positions not be agreed”.
According to the government’s statement, trade unions would be “bound to follow this legislation and will risk the employer bringing an injunction to prevent the strike from taking place or seeking damages afterwards if they do not comply with their obligations”.
It added that details on what minimum service levels looks like would be consulted on by relevant government departments.
But RCN chief Ms Cullen responded by claiming that the strike action taken by RCN nurses last month “was safe for patients because of detailed discussions we chose to initiate with the NHS to protect emergency and life-saving care”.
“Curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action is always undemocratic and we will look closely at what the government releases next week,” she added.
Ms Cullen also highlighted how the union had long campaigned for the government to be accountable for safe and effective staffing levels in England, and warned that staffing levels set in law should be seen “year-round, not just in these extreme circumstances”.
The union Unison has also seen members, including ambulance workers and some nurses, take strike action over pay in recent weeks.
Responding to today’s announcement, Unison assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “Ministers should focus their time and energy on rebuilding trust and relationships with workers, not silencing and suppressing them.
“Minimum staffing levels in the NHS would be welcome by the public and health staff every single day of the week.
“That could avoid people being left lying in agony on A&E floors or dying in the backs of ambulances.”
Mr Richards also reiterated that the prime minister must “allow his ministers to begin direct pay negotiations immediately to boost wages, retain experienced staff and improve patient care”.
In making today’s announcements, business secretary Grant Shapps said: “We hugely value the work of our public services and we’re reaching out to unions to have an honest conversation on pay, conditions and reform.
“Industrial action is disruptive for everyone – from people relying on essential services to get to work or care for their family to hard-working business owners whose sales suffer.”
He added: “As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods.
“While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”
The government confirmed to Nursing Times that the announcements made today were relevant to England, Wales and Scotland.