Department calls for affordable pay in 2023/24, but starts talks with nurses

22 February 2023 Alison Moore

In its submission to the Pay Review Body (PRB) – which recommends pay rises for NHS staff on Agenda for Change – the Department said that ‘funding is available for pay awards up to 3.5%. Pay awards above this level would require trade-offs for public service delivery or further government borrowing’.sara_gorton l

It warned that every extra 1% for hospital and community health staff costs around £900m – and that meeting the PRB’s recommendation in 2022/23 meant reductions in other areas, such as spending on IT transformation funding, and cost £1.4bn more than was seen as affordable.

It makes a similar recommendation for staff groups covered by the Doctors’ and Dentists’ Review Body.

The submissions said that inflation is forecast to fall to around 5% in 2023/24 ‘before turning negative in 2024/25’. However, this would still mean staff who were paid a 3.5% increase in 2023/24 would see a real-terms cut in pay.

The Department’s evidence stressed the importance of ‘minimising inflationary pressures’ and argued that higher pay rises in the public sector would ‘contribute to risks of higher and more persistent inflation, by placing pressure on other parts of the economy to demand higher wages’.  

The recommendations have been treated with scorn by several unions. Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said: ‘[The} submission to the PRB shows this government’s true colours.  Ambulance workers – and others across the NHS including cleaners, porters and care workers – who are the backbone of the health service, deserve better. 

‘Ministers have no intention of recognising the true value of the entire workforce. It’s a disgrace and will do nothing to end GMB’s NHS and ambulance strikes.’

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton (pictured) said it looked as though the government was actively trying to worsen the crisis in the NHS. ‘Vacancies are at an all-time high and this pitiful pay suggestion does nothing to solve the growing staffing emergency. The Scottish government has already offered significantly more to its NHS workers,’ she said.

‘Worse still it could prove the final straw for staff already questioning their future in the NHS. If more leave, the outlook for patient care is beyond grim.’

However, in a major development, almost simultaneously, the Department and the Royal College of Nursing said they were entering ‘intensive negotiations’ and the RCN paused strike action intended for next week over the 2022/23 pay deal. The other unions were not invited to the talks.

The 2022/23 recommendations from the PRB – which were accepted by the government – gave agenda for change staff a pay rise of at least £1,400 – which meant those on the lowest bands were offered over 9% but higher bands much less. However, the recommendations were made before the dramatic rise in inflation in the second half of 2022.

Last week, the NHS Confederation warned health and social care secretary Steve Barclay that he should reconsider the government’s stance on the pay dispute or run the risk of his pledge to reduce waiting lists being compromised.

Strikes so far have meant at least 140,000 appointments and procedures in England have been postponed – and that number is set to rise if junior doctors strike for 72-hours next month. This week the BMA got a substantial mandate for strike action with 98% of juniors who voted supporting it.

Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor described the negotiations as ‘a very positive step forward’, which he hoped would lead to similar discussions with other trade unions. ‘There will of course be significant work for all the parties involved to do and NHS leaders, their teams and patients will hope that a way forward can be found which will bring an end to the unprecedented industrial action the NHS has faced in the last few months,’ he said

The current round of strikes have led to different pay offers in Wales and Scotland – with the possibility of a substantial difference in pay between staff there and those in England. In Scotland, agenda for change staff have been offered a 6.5% increase from April plus a one-off payment of between £387 and £939. This has been recommended to members by the RCN and Unison.

The Scottish government has already offered staff a 7.5% average uplift for 2022/23 with a review of whether the working week can be reduced to 36 hours. This has been accepted by Unison and Unite, but not the RCN. Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf said that NHS staff in England would need a pay rise of 12% to 14% for 2023/24 to equal the pay on offer in Scotland.

In Wales, NHS staff have been offered an extra 3% for this year – on top of the offer made in England – of which half would be consolidated. GMB and Unite members have rejected this while the RCN is still balloting.  The Welsh government has also committed in principle of pay restoration for agenda for change staff, but has not yet said what any offer for 2023/24 would be.