Analysis

The cap is scrapped, but no word yet on what comes next

Uncertainty remains over how much of a rise nurses can expect and what the timing will be.

Uncertainty remains over how much of a rise nurses can expect and what the timing will be

The pay cap has finally been scrapped, but nurses are being urged not to put away their protest banners just yet.


From left, Jean Richards, Kayleigh Peel, Michael Coram, Jane Leighton and Julie Lamberth deliver to Downing Street 67,000 postcards from RCN members urging MPs to back the campaign for better pay. Picture: Steve Baker

After a sustained campaign by unions including the RCN, health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced in parliament on 10 October that the 1% cap on public sector pay rises would end after seven years.

But the announcement raised numerous questions – notably how much of a rise will staff receive and how will it be funded.

The RCN and other unions gave the news a cautious welcome but said the next pay rise must not be below inflation or result in cuts to services.

What exactly was announced?

Mr Hunt told parliament: ‘I have good news – the pay cap has been scrapped. We recognise it wasn’t sustainable to carry on with the 1% going forward, and that’s why next year we’ve been given the leeway to have more flexible negotiations.’

What does ‘flexible negotiations’ mean?

The RCN is trying to find out. RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin says the words echo those of Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss in a letter to all pay review bodies in September.

Ms Truss wrote that while there was still a need for ‘pay discipline’, the government recognised there may need to be more flexibility, particularly in areas where there are skills shortages, but it would partly be in return for ‘improvements to public sector productivity’.

Ms Irwin tells Nursing Standard: ‘Our first priority is to work with colleagues in other trade unions, NHS Employers and the Department of Health to unpick what "flexible negotiations" might mean, what the parameters might be, to ensure from our point of view that whatever claim we might be able to negotiate would be funded and it’s not going to be robbing Peter to pay Paul.’

Will nurses see a pay rise this year?

No. Mr Hunt's announcement relates to the 2018-19 pay round. It is also unlikely that a decision will be made by the start of the new financial year next April, the RCN says.

If there is a delay, consideration will be given to a backdated award for 2018-19.

Does the independent NHS pay review body (RB) still have a role?

The RB makes recommendations to government on pay for different NHS staff groups, after taking evidence from interested parties such as unions, employers and government.

It will still be collecting evidence for next year’s pay round, but against a revised timetable (see timeline below).

In September, the RCN and other unions including the Royal College of Midwives broke with tradition by bypassing the RB and writing directly to chancellor Philip Hammond. They asked him to earmark funds for a rise in line with the retail price index, currently 3.9%, plus £800 to restore some of the pay lost since the cap came into effect in 2010.

The RCN will collect information to support its claim as usual, capturing members' views on morale and pay. This will inform the college’s written evidence to the RB.

Ms Irwin says: ‘Even though the cap has been lifted, because of the economic uncertainty due to Brexit it’s not going to be easy to leverage a huge amount of extra money so we are going to have to work really hard.’

What is the pay timeline?

22 November The autumn budget, in which Mr Hammond may provide further details on pay.

18 December Deadline for the RCN and other unions to submit written evidence to the RB.

6 March The RCN and other unions meet the RB for an oral evidence session.

March onwards The RB will write its report, making pay recommendations which will go to the prime minister and the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

1 April Pay rises would normally come into effect, but are unlikely to do so in this pay round.

What’s happening elsewhere in the UK?

In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to scrap the cap in early September and said future pay rises would be based on living costs.

The Welsh finance secretary Mark Drakeford has said the UK government should pay for any scrapping of the cap in Wales, even though responsibility for health is devolved.

The situation in Northern Ireland is ‘even worse than the rest of the UK’, according to RCN Northern Ireland, because of the absence of a government due to a political impasse. Nurses there still do not know if they will receive a pay award for the current year, so it is unclear what will happen.

How can nurses keep the pressure up?

RCN campaigning on pay continues. On 17 October, members took part in the TUC public sector pay rally, and on 20 October later delivered 67,000 postcards to Downing Street, sent by members to MPs asking that they commit to scrapping the cap.

RCN members are still being urged to arrange meetings with their local MPs to demonstrate the strength of feeling about the pay cap. Targeted RCN meetings with MPs are also taking place.

Ms Irwin says: ‘The strong message to members is do not hang up your marching boots just yet.’

Cap scrapped: reaction

‘Over time it will be necessary for NHS staff to get rates of pay that are consistent with the rest of the economy. But that does need to be funded.’ – NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens to the House of Commons health committee

'Scrapping the pay cap is only meaningful if workers receive proper pay rises. The government’s announcement looks worryingly like a smoke and mirrors move.' – Unison general secretary Dave Prentis

What’s an acceptable pay rise? Ideally with the rate of inflation but I imagine it’ll be about 1.1%.’ – Nurse Ben Thompson on the Nursing Standard Facebook page

‘Where’s the money going to come from? Scrap unsocial pay or make savings by cutting services.’ – Jane White, posting on the Nursing Standard Facebook page


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