The public sector fightback: New NHS pay deal

Submitted by AWL on 21 December, 2002 - 10:51

More for some, the same for most
By Kate Ahrens

The new pay deal offered to NHS staff at the end of last month has been used to bolster the government's argument in the firefighters' pay dispute that only through modernisation can better pay be achieved in the public sector.

However, the deal, which has been under negotiation for almost four years, has very little to do with modernisation of working practices or cuts in staffing numbers.

It was envisaged, in the first place, as an attempt to standardise the myriad sets of pay and conditions agreements that NHS staff work under. For the NHS unions, it was an attempt to address in a comprehensive manner, the problems of low pay and unequal pay across the health service.

The proposals appear to slightly rearrange the division of the NHS pay-cake rather than produce a bigger one. That impression is reinforced by the inclusion of a three-year pay deal, which amounts to, rises of just over 3% per year.

Whether this is in any sense a good deal for NHS staff is debatable. It is true that for certain sections of NHS staff - notably ambulance workers and ancillary staff - proposals for a standardised working week of 37.5 hours will be a welcome reduction in hours. On the other hand, there is a sizeable proportion of staff, including many admin and clerical staff, who work fewer hours than this, and the deal will be a retrograde step for them.

Similarly the proposals for payments for unsocial hours will be a bonus for staff, like ambulance workers who in the main, receive nothing for working nights and weekends, but will see other workers like permanent night shift nurses, and some ancillary grades, lose out considerably.

The most significant part of the documentation is not yet available. This will outline the Job Evaluation exercise, a newly developed evaluation scheme for health service jobs.

It is said that the scheme will value skills and clinically based knowledge more highly than they would be under traditional job evaluation schemes and therefore will give a more accurate reflection of the value of a health service job. This, when it comes, will give real guidance to individual workers as to where they will end up on the new pay scales.

NHS staff have been waiting for a long time for this new pay structure and many great things have been promised in its name. It's hard to see from the evidence so far available that it lives up to any of those promises.

UNISON, the biggest union involved in the negotiations has stated that it will not proceed to a formal consultation (and therefore a decision) on the deal until after the firefighter's dispute is over. A good result for the firefighters will obviously affect the outcome of any consultation.

There are twelve NHS Trusts across the country that have been selected to trial this new pay scheme with the idea that any practical problems can be ironed out on a smaller scale. But since even these twelve cannot proceed until the deal has been agreed to in principle on all sides, its clear that the implementation of the new pay structure is going to be a live issue in the health service for several years to come.

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