The current government has been attempting to find a way to undermine the Agenda for Change national pay agreement for the NHS for some time.
Agenda for Change is a broad agreement that covers practically all terms and conditions for NHS workers, including basic rates of pay, extra pay for working “unsociable” hours, annual increments on pay scales, annual leave etc.
Originally the top of the pay scales were agreed to be the rate for the job, but initially new starters would be paid less because there was an element of learning in the post.
The unsociable hours payments are significant for shift workers, in recognition of the toll it takes to do such work. Studies show that night duties for instance can reduce life expectancy. The NHS needs many workers to put up with the social consequences of working odd days and hours of the week.
The government would like to scrap both of these benefits. The drive to make the NHS a “seven day a week service” is deemed to only be affordable by scrapping or seriously reducing the unsociable hours payments. Hunt has often tried to blur the boundaries between increments and pay rises, claiming that many NHS staff have automatic pay rises every year with the increment system.
In theory Foundation Trusts have the power to set their own terms and conditions for staff, but in practice to attract staff they stick to Agenda for Change terms and conditions. If the national agreement is dismantled then workers will most likely to be in an even weaker position.
Every year unions negotiate with the government about how much pay should be increased by. This is a national negotiation. Without a national agreement, the unions would be able to negotiate different settlements locally dependent on their local influence. While this may benefit particularly “militant” pockets of the country, in most places, without the backing of the national union, local negotiators would have to accept worse deals. As in everything else, the sheer weight of numbers results in a better deal for the workers.
In the current round of talks culminating in a dire pay offer that unions misguidedly called of strikes to consider, the unions would have to commit to talks on the “reform of Agenda for Change”. For “reform” read “dismantling”.
Ultimately the drive to weaken our terms and conditions is part of an overall strategy to make the NHS easier to privatise. Many contractors that provide services for the “non clinical” services in the NHS already give no unsociable hours or incremental payments. Private companies don’t want to inherit “TUPE” staff who need to be paid extra for working in the middle of the night. They want to be able to pay the lowest wage possible to maximise their profits.
By fighting to keep their terms and conditions, NHS staff are not only defending their standard of living, but also fighting against privatisation and the dismantling of the NHS.