Union leaders in Northern Ireland have had “constructive” early pay talks with the UK government, however no improved pay offer has been put forward yet.
The secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, met last week with health unions and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to discuss pay for Health and Social Care (HSC) staff in the country.
“My immediate priority is to restore the executive and for the Northern Ireland parties to get back to work”
Health unions, including Unison and the Royal College of Midwives, have paused their upcoming strike action to allow the talks to take place.
The Royal College of Nursing Northern Ireland director, Rita Devlin, noted that trade unions had “an open and honest discussion” with Mr Heaton-Harris during the meeting on 5 April.
Ms Devlin said unions raised “a variety of issues which require urgent clarification”, including a pay award for nursing staff in Northern Ireland.
“The secretary of state set out a series of actions he is undertaking in relation to the establishment of a budget and advised us that he would seek clarification on our concerns,” she said.
She added: “Following what we view as a constructive meeting, we will await the outcome of these requests and a further face to face meeting with trade unions and the secretary of state will then take place.
“Taking into consideration the complex political situation we are facing, we will make further decisions, and have full discussions with our members, when we receive the detailed information we have requested.”
Unison had called on the government to ensure that the meeting would result in a meaningful offer which the union could take back to its members.
However, Mr Heaton-Harris explained that he had no authority to negotiate health worker pay in the country, and that one of his priorities going forward was to restore the Northern Ireland executive.
In December, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland finally confirmed that it would implement the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendations for 2022-23.
This deal was an average 4.75% pay award for Agenda for Change staff – an uplift of at least £1,400.
While progress has been made in other UK countries to negotiate better NHS pay for both 2022-23 and 2023-24, the current lack of a functioning executive in Northern Ireland means unions in the country have been unable to negotiate with their government on pay in the same way.
As a result, health unions in Northern Ireland had been collectively calling for talks to take place, to ensure that health workers in the country do not fall out of pay parity with their England counterparts once again.
A statement released last week by Unison Northern Ireland noted that Mr Heaton-Harris was told during the talks that health workers “will not accept the removal of pay parity by default”.
The union confirmed that while strike action remained paused as talks are ongoing, action short of strike would continue.
“Following what we view as a constructive meeting, we will await the outcome of these requests”
It said it would plan its next steps once it received the results of Unison’s NHS pay ballot in England.
The Department of Health in Northern Ireland had previously said that it was not able to make nurses and other health staff a formal pay offer because its budget for 2023-24 was still yet to be confirmed.
However, Mr Heaton-Harris was reminded by unions during the meeting that he had authority to set the budget for Northern Ireland, and that it must include funding to deliver a decent pay offer for health workers.
While the secretary of state did not confirm a date for when the budget can be expected, he did agree to meet with health unions in the country again.
After the meeting, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I listened to [trade unions’] concerns, and I share their frustrations that the ongoing absence of an executive is increasingly challenging for the people of Northern Ireland.
“I have no authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland, and that is why it is my immediate priority to restore the executive and for the Northern Ireland parties to get back to work.”