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Nursing Union Hints At 15% Pay Rise Compromise But Ministers Refuse To Negotiate


6 min read

A strike by nurses is set to go ahead this week after the government insisted it would not sit down to negotiate NHS pay.

Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), claimed the government had refused on multiple occasions to meet with unions after nurses voted to go on strike for the first time ever.

Speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday morning, she said Health Secretary Steve Barclay “can choose negotiation over picket lines” and that talks could start by Monday.

“My doors open for him to come in through it. If he doesn't want to speak to me one-to-one, what I'm offering him this morning is conciliation through ACAS, and we can start to do that tomorrow morning, at whatever time he wants to be available at.”

Cullen hinted that the RCN could soften its calls for a pay rise of five per cent above inflation.

“I'm not going to negotiate on the airwaves, Laura, definitely not," the union chief said.

"But as soon as the health secretary gets into a room with me, whether that's through conciliation, or on a one to one, I'd certainly not be found wanting in my negotiations.”

The RCN announced on Saturday night it would be willing to “press pause” on the strike action, due to take place on 15 and 20 December, if Barclay agreed to negotiate with unions on pay.

The Department of Health has claimed Barclay’s “door remains open for further talks”, but did not specify whether pay negotiations would play a part in future discussions.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly ruled out a negotiation over nurses pay, however, claiming that it was for the independent review body to determine pay rises, not the government.

He told Sky News that “meetings are different from pay negotiations” and that Barclay’s focus was on finding ways to improve the NHS.

“The Health Secretary has said that he is of course happy to meet. He said his door is open,” Cleverly said.

“I think people need to understand, though, that the negotiation on pay is done by an independent pay review body. So often we see people saying we need to take the politics out of this. These things need to be done by independent professionals.”

The NHS Pay Review Body makes recommendations to ministers about staff pay in the health service but ultimately it is the government which makes the final decision.

The foreign secretary reiterated that the government had “accepted and implemented” the pay review body’s finding, which had given nurses the equivalent of a 4.5 per cent pay rise on average.

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting called these interventions from the RCN an “offer the government can’t refuse”, and said that a Labour government would be willing to negotiate on pay with the unions.

“We have had this 11th-hour intervention from the Royal College of Nursing and Unison saying if the government agrees to talk, to negotiate, there will be no strikes this week,” he told the BBC.

“That’s an offer too good to refuse. I cannot understand why James Cleverly just sat in this chair a moment ago refusing that reasonable offer but perhaps, worst still, pretending that government doesn’t have a role to play.”

Streeting added that a Labour government “would certainly be prepared to talk” to the unions about NHS pay.

But he refused to say how much the party would raise nurse salaries by, or whether they’d raise the salaries at all, saying he would not use his media interviews on Sunday for “making promises we can’t keep” or “plucking things out of thin air”.

The RCN claims that nurses have seen a real term pay cut of 20 per cent since 2010, and are calling for a pay rise at five per cent above inflation, which hit double digits for the first time in decades earlier this year.

Cullen told the BBC that “nurses don’t take the public for granted” when it comes to strike action, and added that she was “concerned for the public” over the current state of the NHS.

“I'm concerned for the public that can't get decent services, the services that they're entitled to. That's where my concern is, and what the nurses strike about. 

“It's not about lining your pockets with gold. It's about standing up for their patients, wanting their patients to get a decent service, and filling the 50,000 vacant posts that we've got in the health service, so that we can tackle those waiting lists, get the 7.2 million people seen in the right time and in the time that they deserve.”

Speaking on the same programme, Professor Stephen Powis, medical director for NHS England, warned that the public should expect disruption to services on strike days.

“We've been preparing for the industrial action that begins this week for some time. We're working hard to make sure that we keep our patients safe on strike days, and that we continue to provide the best possible care we can under the circumstances,” he said.

But Professor Powis did not rule out the possibility that people could die unnecessarily due to the disruption, claiming that “nobody in the NHS wants that”.

“We've been working hard and talking with union representatives at the national level and local level to ensure those emergency services remain open, and also other key services.”

He pointed out that key services such as kidney dialysis and chemotherapy would not be interrupted by the planned strike action this week.

“I'm confident that all our staff in the NHS care deeply about their patients and will want to keep them safe and protected,” he added.

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Read the most recent article written by Eleanor Langford - Who Is Going On Strike And When In February?