Josie Irwin: Government must fund above-inflation pay award, not pass the buck

The scrapping of the 1% pay cap shows that Jeremy Hunt has listened to nurses. But this does not mean the battle for fair pay is over, says RCN lead pay negotiator Josie Irwin.

The scrapping of the 1% pay cap shows that Jeremy Hunt has listened to nurses. But this does not mean the battle for fair pay is over, says RCN lead pay negotiator Josie Irwin

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt speaking at the Conservative Party conference
in Manchester in October. Picture: Getty Images

I would like to be able to say that RCN staff and members gave a huge cheer when the health secretary used our campaign slogan to tell MPs that the pay cap was scrapped, but politicians’ repeated failures to keep promises have made us all cynical.

When our summer of protest was launched in June, nursing staff could not have imagined just how successful the ‘scrap the cap’ campaign would be in winning public support. A government that began the summer saying there was no magic money tree for the NHS and insisting that the pay cap would continue has been forced to accept that the situation is not sustainable.

Passionate and enthusiastic RCN members – supported by their friends, families and the wider public – made sure scrap the cap was a campaign that no one could ignore.

No assurances

However, our work isn’t over yet. Jeremy Hunt quickly followed ‘I can give you good news – the pay cap has been scrapped’, with the comment that negotiations for future pay awards would be 'partly linked to productivity improvements'. He was explicitly asked to rule out cutting NHS services to cover the cost of a pay rise, but failed to give any assurance.

After the health secretary’s announcement, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens and NHS Improvement chief executive Jim Mackey warned a committee of MPs that any pay award above the cap would need to be funded by the government. If employers are forced to find the money they will only be able do so by cutting services.

With deficits stacking up and organisations struggling to keep care safe, the government cannot pass the buck. In the run-up to the autumn budget on 22 November the RCN will continue to lobby and campaign for full funding for a pay award above inflation. There must be genuine new money, not robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Behind the rhetoric

The RCN now estimates that nurses have seen their pay fall by 15%, or £3,000 a year, in real terms over the past seven years. This affects how they see their jobs and gets in the way of delivering safe, effective care. A pay increase above the cap but below inflation would still be a pay cut.

Our campaign now looks to close this gap. All the NHS trade unions joined together last month to call on the government to increase pay by the current level of inflation, which is now at a five-year high, and give each member of staff an extra £800 towards lost pay.

Jeremy Hunt has shown he has listened to nurses. But the November budget must put hard cash behind the rhetoric. There are ministers in the cabinet who will be making the case for other areas to be funded – welfare benefits and social care to name just two. The government is hardly strong and stable, and it would be unwise for us to consider the battle over.

irwinJosie Irwin is RCN head of employment relations
Twitter #NursingCounts

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