Pay talks taking place between health unions and the UK Government “do not mean the dispute is over” but show that there is “a potential route out” of further strike action, the unions’ chief negotiator has said.
In a briefing today attended by Nursing Times, Sara Gorton, chair of the unions from the NHS staff council, laid out some expectations of the formal pay talks, which are set to take place from tomorrow morning (7 March).
The government invited unions from the NHS staff council to the negotiating table at the end of last week following backlash over its decision to hold solo discussions with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
Ms Gorton, who is also Unison’s head of health, explained today that while these solo talks “have been useful and have helped establish priorities” from the staff side, these talks would now be shut down to begin negotiations with health unions collectively.
However, she noted that there had been “no clear lines of sight” about what the RCN and the government had already discussed, and that the NHS staff council would seek clarity on that early on.
Unions represented by the NHS staff council include the RCN, Unison, GMB and Unite, which all currently have strike mandates in England over the government’s 2022-23 NHS pay settlement.
“This does not mean the dispute is over”
Unite, which had previously refused to enter pay talks, announced yesterday that it would be joining the discussions after it received assurance that any deal would include new money rather than relying on already existing NHS budgets.
The discussions tomorrow will focus on pay for both 2022-23 and 2023-24 as well as several other issues relating to terms and conditions of NHS staff, Ms Gorton explained.
Since last year, health unions representing a number of professions, including nursing, have been campaigning for an improvement to the 2022-23 NHS pay award.
Ms Gorton confirmed that any offer put forward by the government for 2022-23 would be a one-off payment for staff rather than a consolidated extra increase that would be permanently added to their salaries.
Meanwhile, unions will also have the opportunity to discuss their expectations for the 2023-24 pay award.
Last month, the UK Government recommended a 3.5% pay award for nurses and other NHS staff in England for 2023-24.
It previously warned, in its submission to the NHS Pay Review Body (NHSPRB), that any award above this level would require trade-offs in public services or further borrowing.
However, Ms Gorton said today that the government had given assurances in its invitation that there was room to negotiate a better offer for next year, and that it would come from new money.
She said: “I think the factor that told us there had been a significant shift was the confirmation that we had from the department on Thursday evening, that there is additional investment in pay for both years above the budget.
“So, although they won’t be drawn on figures and numbers until we’re in the negotiations, it is that assurance that unlocked the goodwill from our elected committee to actually say ‘we know that there is something here in addition to what members have already had’.”
In addition, Ms Gorton noted that terms and conditions of health staff would be up for discussion, including factors that health workers “really care about” such as the pay setting process, staff banding, and expected hours of work.
While strikes across England had been paused to allow for the talks to take place, unions were still currently in dispute with the government, warned Ms Gorton.
“Making sure that members feel they have a voice is really important to getting a successful outcome”
She said: “I think the key takeaway from the events of the last few days is this does not mean the dispute is over.
“But it means we potentially have a negotiated route out of it, which is very definitely a better place to be in than we were this time last week.”
Ms Gorton noted that these negotiations would not stop unions from planning further strike action and added that if the talks “fall apart at any point” unions “will be forced back into action”.
Unison still has strike dates set out for 20 March, and Ms Gorton said she would be regularly checking in to assess “whether the talks are meaningful” rather than a delay tactic. In the case of the latter, Unison would press ahead with strikes this month, she said.
All unions involved in discussions this week were approaching “with extreme caution”, she noted.
Ms Gorton added: “This is a government that have missed all of the opportunities we’ve given them to come to a sensible solution at an early point, so we’re very, very cautious.”
If negotiations are successful and a deal is agreed between unions from the NHS staff council and the UK Government, individual unions will then take the offer back to their members to vote on whether they want to accept it.
Ms Gorton said: “Making sure that members feel they have a voice is really important to getting a successful outcome.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it would not be providing a running commentary on the talks.