WE WILL FIGHT WAGE CUTS IN 2008 say NHS unions – after agreeing not to in 2007

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Protest on July 9th against the threat to close departments at the St Helier and Epsom Hospitals
Protest on July 9th against the threat to close departments at the St Helier and Epsom Hospitals

THE overstretched and undervalued NHS workforce will not accept another below-inflation pay deal next year, trade unions representing over one million health workers have said.

This year the remit of the Pay Review Body has been expanded and for the first time evidence is being presented jointly by 14 unions on behalf of 1.1 million NHS staff.

Doctors and dentists’ pay is reviewed separately.

More than 24,000 NHS workers, including nurses, physiotherapists, midwives, radiographers, occupational therapists, ambulance staff, cooks, cleaners, porters, and clerical staff have been surveyed by Incomes Data Services (IDS) on behalf of the joint staff-side unions.

They found:

• 93 per cent of NHS staff thought that the 2007 pay award of 2.5 per cent was either low or very low;

• 94 per cent of staff thought the decision to stage the award was unfair;

• 84 per cent said their workload had increased over the last 12 months;

• 61 per cent said their morale and motivation had deteriorated since a year ago;

• 60 per cent of NHS workers have considered leaving the NHS in the last 12 months.

In evidence to the Pay Review Body, the unions say: ‘Staff Side asks the NHS Review Body to take into account the surging level of prices that go well beyond the recent NHS pay rises (particularly relative to such fundamental costs as housing, transport energy and food)’.

The evidence submitted said: ‘August witnessed significant increases in housing, in general, of 11% and especially mortgage interest payments with an increase of 30.2% over the previous twelve months – i.e. a 4% increase over the previous month – due to Bank of England base rate rises beginning to feed through to borrowers.

‘Other notable upward cost increases included: council tax and rates (4%), rent (3.2%), water and other charges (6.5%), housing repairs and maintenance charges (5.1%), Do-it-yourself materials (4.3%), motor maintenance (5.5%) and vehicle tax (5%).

‘Fares and travel went up overall by 10.7% with rail fares up 4.3%, bus and coach up 8.9% and other travel costs increasing by 12.9%.

‘While food costs increased by 3.4% bread prices rose by 5.6%, egg prices went up by 14.4% and there were sharp increases in potatoes up 8.1%, vegetables other than potatoes up 13.4% and fresh vegetables up 14.7%. . .

‘The average house price in 99% of towns (510) was unaffordable for the typical nurse in March 2007’.

UNISON Head of Health Karen Jennings told a press conference at UNISON headquarters in London: ‘We’re calling for a substantial, above inflation pay award for 2008-09.’

She said that spiralling living costs and deteriorating morale had been compounded by the blow to NHS staff from the government of ‘staging’ the last pay award, coupled with the low level of the award.

She said workloads had substantially increased as a result of ‘the vacancy freeze’ and redundancies, as well as the pressures of meeting government targets.

‘We feel the government has scored an own goal by picking on the pay of NHS staff,’ said Jennings, adding it was a ‘disgrace’ that, as a result of this year’s below-inflation pay deal and the increasing workloads, 60 per cent of staff were now looking for work outside the NHS.

‘It’s clear NHS staff are angry,’ she said.

She called for an end to government interference with the ‘independence’ of the pay review body and said the government could no longer use the excuse of ‘spiralling debts’ to hold pay down.

‘This year we had a £0.5 billion surplus – that’s a £1 billion turnaround. We believe a substantial pay rise is now due to us.’

Sharon Holder, from the GMB trade union, said ‘last year’s 2.5 per cent pay rise was overwhelmingly condemned’ by the NHS’s poorly-paid staff.

She added that the staging of the award in England ‘was a difficult pill to swallow for all of us. I hope that never takes place again.’

Demanding the same terms and conditions for workers in England, Scotland and Wales, she said real inflation rates were much higher than the government claimed.

She said this year’s pay award ‘is in real terms below the real inflation rate’, giving NHS staff ‘extreme’ difficulties.

Moreover, she said the GMB was ‘very concerned’ that the gap between its members’ pay in the NHS and the National Minimum Wage was getting rapidly smaller, with the lowest paid now on rates just 73p an hour above the legal minimum.

‘We are asking the pay review body to take into account all of the inflationary measures,’ said Holder.

Unless this was recognised, ‘staff in the NHS will get a lower than inflation rate rise next year and beyond.’

John Skewes, from the Royal College of Midwives, said the RCM would be releasing its own evidence on pay.

He added: ‘Last year for the first time in the 125-year history of the Royal College of Midwives, midwives voted to say they were prepared to take some form of industrial action.’

He continued: ‘At the end of the day, the position of all the unions was that industrial action wouldn’t be taken forward.

‘But there’s a warning for the government there.’

Accusing the government of blatant interference in the pay review body’s recommendations, he said that this time: ‘The government needs to accept what the pay review body says, if not I think our members will carry out what they threatened to do last year.’

He added that the government had treated the whole pay process with disdain and reminded the government that midwives had achieved a ‘remarkable’ increase in productivity.

Birth rates were up, he said, but the number of midwives in the NHS was not.

‘Our estimate is there should be 5,000 more, but in fact the numbers of midwives are dropping back, if anything.’

The government could not argue that the ‘efficiency gains’ it demanded from the public sector workforce were not being made in the NHS.

Barry Brown, from UNITE (Amicus section), said this year had seen ‘the first staging of the pay award since the Major government over 10 years ago.’

Warning the government not to stage the pay review again next year, he said: ‘We don’t expect to see the undermining of the motivation and commitment of NHS staff for a second year running.’

Warren Town, from the Society of Radiographers, said morale was low not only amongst staff but also amongst managers – 81 per cent of managers reported a ‘devastating’ effect on morale.

He warned that 4,000 radiographers would leave the NHS in the next 10 years through retirement and that it would lead to a major staffing crisis, because students had become so disaffected by the low levels of pay and worsening conditions.

‘It is clear that our members are not prepared to spend their time being played like fools by the government.’

He added that radiography departments in hospitals were being forced to rely on ‘charitable trusts or handouts to achieve their training obligations’.

He concluded that the ‘deep feeling amongst students and the radiographic community for the NHS and their patients is being undermined by the government’.

And pleading for them not to repeat last year’s real terms pay cut, he said the Society’s vote for industrial action was ‘never overturned – it was held in abeyance’.

Responding to questions from reporters, UNISON’s Karen Jennings would not put a figure on the NHS unions’ pay claim.

She said they were submitting evidence to the pay review body and added: ‘It is very difficult for us to say what per cent we would want.

‘Inflation moves and our evidence goes in quite early on in the calendar cycle.

‘Last year we effectively had a pay cut.’

Jon Skewes of the RCM said the midwives’ union was ‘willing to talk about ways in which the pay structure can be addressed and these can be beneficial for both sides.’

Karen Jennings called on the review body to recognise the ‘quality of care’ delivered by the NHS workforce and ‘not just how many people have been in a bed that day’.

She added: ‘We base our evidence on the Retail Price Index, which includes house rentals and mortgage payments.

‘I wouldn’t want to get drawn into a discussion about industrial action at the moment.’

Sharon Holder of the GMB said: ‘We have signed up to the independence of the pay review body and we have always respected that.’

But she added that the union was still free to take industrial action if it wanted to.

She said the government’s decision to stage this year’s pay award came as ‘something of a shock to NHS staff’.

She warned that low-income families were facing a severe ‘squeeze’ in the coming months.

She added: ‘Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for NHS workers.’

Warren Town warned that staff would not continue to ‘accept the arrogance of the government saying: You’ve just got to take it.’

Karen Jennings concluded that ‘staff are under pressure, the workload has intensified.

‘We’re saying to the government: we don’t accept a repeat of last year. Staff are angry.’

Sharon Holder of the GMB said: ‘NHS staff are working more than their contracted hours.’

She said if those groups who have voted for action short of a strike just refused to do some overtime or extra duties then it would have a ‘dramatic effect’.

Karen Jennings concluded by calling on everyone to join the national march for the NHS in London this Saturday.

‘It is a major event,’ she said.

‘The NHS is still true to its founding principles. We want to defend those founding principles.’

Saturday’s march assembles at 11.00am at Temple Place, Victoria Embankment, and finishes with a rally in Trafalgar Square.