Image: Nurses pay protest 2017. Credit: Yui Mok/PA Images, all rights reserved
Furious members of the Royal College of Nursing last night launched a petition calling for the union’s leaders to stand down over their handling of communications about this year’s NHS pay deal in England.
OurNHS understands the petition is well over halfway to the required number of signatures to trigger an emergency general meeting, another of its demands. It was started after the head of the RCN, Janet Davies, last night took the unprecedented step of writing to members to apologise that they were given incorrect information about the pay deal that they voted on in the spring. Ms Davies acknowledged that many have received less than the RCN told them they would.
Her email comes after OurNHS exposed last week that many NHS staff felt disappointed and upset as it emerged that many would not immediately get the full pay rise they were expecting.
The email, seen by OurNHS, shows that their concerns were justified. In it, Ms Davies says:
"I wanted to write to you myself over the recent NHS pay deal. It has come to my attention in the last 24 hours that the deal was not as straightforward as we said and for that I offer you a sincere personal apology.
"I’m as dismayed and angry as you are and will fight the corner of members at every turn. In good faith, we told all members that they would receive a 3 per cent uplift this summer. I now find that this is not the case for everyone.”
Ms Davies went on, "I can assure you that I am demanding answers for you. In the meantime, I can only apologise for this unnecessary confusion and assure you that I am determined to resolve it. Your elected Council and Trade Union Committee will be meeting in the next few days and I will update you on next steps."
Along with the other main unions, apart from the GMB, the RCN had recommended the pay deal to members.
Anger from below
Last night there was renewed fury amongst RCN activists and members. Anthony Johnson, a health visitor, RCN member and former ‘pay champion’ (members who help organise local action around pay) told OurNHS that the RCN “shouldn’t have trusted the government… It seems like they’ve just gone for the deal and been screwed over, but they’ve sold the deal so it’s their fault”.
Asked about the assertion by some unions that the deal was understood, Mr Johnson replied, “No way is that true that staff understood. People were still passing around incorrect information right up till the vote.” Many staff have been making similar comments both to OurNHS and on social media in recent days, as payslips land on NHS staff doorsteps this week.
Mr Johnson’s views are echoed across social media. Many NHS staff are furious with the government. Lauren Gavaghan, a consultant psychiatrist, tweeted that the debacle was “Jeremy Hunt’s parting gift to NHS staff”. The anonymous @GPConsortia account tweeted merely, “Swine.” Retired doctor Mark Cheeseman tweeted, “The NHS worries why it’s losing so many staff. And then double-crosses the ones they have got on a pay deal.”
Another NHS worker commented on OurNHS’s original story, “I'm a band 6 nurse at spine point 27, with incremental date of end of January. I cast my vote based on information given to me from the pay calculator [from unison], which indicates that in year 1 my pay would increase by £1,672. According to these newly released figures from [the nhs employers site] above, my pay will actually increase by £491, and I will have to wait until my next incremental date before I see the pay rise I voted for. Since my pay was always going to increase on my next incremental date, I feel that I was misled.”
Another commented, “I work with highly intelligent, analytically astute people who are used to dealing with numbers and figures on a daily basis... and they were inveigled by the purposely Byzantine structure proposed.”
Gordon Marsden, a Labour MP and shadow education minister, tweeted in response to an openDemocracy update last night, “Looks like Jeremy Hunt got out of [Department of] Health just in time ...another 'con' from a discredited 'Con' Govt They’ll sneak things out to dodge scrutiny … & now misrepresent underpar NHS rises.”
Many were angry with both the government and the unions who recommended the deal. One NHS scientist tweeted, “The gasps of disbelief from NHS staff as they open their pay packets is reverberating around the Trust where I work. Overwhelming feeling is that the Unions have been hoodwinked by the Govt.”
A community health nurse replied to a tweet by the RCN that mentioned a 3% pay rise, saying “That’s just not true though is it. It’s around 1.5 percent until increment date, so not 3% for the full year. The NHS Employer tool also shows that will also happen in year 2 and 3 for me. Not how it was sold to staff before the vote.”
An advanced nurse practitioner tweeted, “Rather than an apology, how about a public denouncement of the deal, an apology and a declaration to fight it and poll members for action?”
Danny Mortimer, head of NHS Employers, told OurNHS today that this was “an issue between the RCN and its membership”. He said, “The letter states that the RCN has in error told members in one of its documents that they would all receive ‘a 3 per cent uplift this summer’… This miscommunication is very unfortunate and clearly the RCN will need to review all of its communications to understand the extent of its error.” In response to a specific question NHS Employers confirmed to OurNHS that a poster showing the apparently higher pay figures (ie, including a full year's increment for those staff not at the top of their bands) was put up on their website 21 March and taken down on 13 June, and told us that “materials explaining are regularly updated in light of feedback and questions".
An RCN spokesperson told OurNHS, “This is not about reopening the deal. Despite some delays to payments, over the three years the deal has to run, members will receive the full amount promised. We are sorry for any confusion caused about what members were due to receive this month.”
Trouble for the Tories
The pay offer came at a point when the government was under considerable political pressure. After one of the hardest winters in NHS history, union leaders were loudly pointing out that eight years of zero or 1% pay rises (a real-terms cut of 14% after inflation) was contributing to serious and worsening staff shortages. For months, nurses had been warning the government that unless pay was addressed properly they would take historically unprecedented strike action.
Four out of five nurses were prepared to strike over pay, according to an initial RCN ballot of its members during the 2017 election campaign. The government’s pay cap was widely seen by commentators to have contributed to the Tories’ poor performance in that election. Asked during the campaign why nurses were having to rely on foodbanks, Theresa May told the BBC that there were “many complex reasons”—a response for which she was widely criticised.
In March 2018 Jeremy Hunt, then health secretary, tweeted that he was “Delighted to confirm pay rise of between 6.5 and 29% for NHS staff who have worked so hard over a tough Winter, in a £4.2bn deal.” Hunt told Parliament, “Rarely has a pay rise been so well deserved for NHS staff, who have never worked harder.”
In further developments, fresh concerns have emerged about the impact of pensions. The leaders of the GMB have expressed disappointment at the actual increase, and both activists in other unions and the GMB leadership have reiterated their previous concerns about the deal, including the impact of inflation and changes to payments for unsocial hours. The GMB tweeted yesterday, “We couldn’t recommend Jeremy Hunt’s dodgy NHS pay offer to our members. And so we didn’t.”
OurNHS has also seen materials that the RCN circulated to its reps and pay champions before the vote on the pay deal, asking them to recommend the deal even if they didn’t fully understand it. One leaflet for reps tells them to “encourage [members] to say yes to the deal”. Another says, “We believe it’s the best deal we can expect in the current climate of austerity and we’re now recommending members accept it. As a pay champion, we expect you to spread the word about the deal.” Inside, the FAQs include: “The pay deal looks complex, do I need to learn it all? The short answer is no. We don’t expect you to advise members on the pay deal. You should signpost them to www.rcn.org.uk/nursing-pay and pay meetings where they can ask questions. What if I don’t agree with the deal? … If you strongly disagree with the deal we hope that you will still give out the leaflets and put up the posters…you can also have your say when voting opens on 23 April.”
Some staff who did ask questions told OurNHS they got short shrift. Mr Johnson says that when he raised questions about aspects of the pay deal, including unsocial hours payments, he was told “you don’t understand maths”.
NHS Employers told the Health Services Journal last night they were “disappointed” at the RCN’s email to its members yesterday, and “surprised as no concerns were raised with us”.
In a separate statement NHS Employers focused on a separate issue, which is that whilst the pay deal will be applied to this month’s pay packets, staff won’t get the backdated pay till August rather than July.
The RCN represents 435,000 members.
This week NHS doctors are also up in arms about their own, separate pay deal, as it emerged on the last day of Parliament that they, like other public-sector workers including police officers, would this year receive a below-inflation rise of 2%. This is less than the independent NHS Pay Review Body recommended, and comes after doctors, like other NHS workers, have endured years of pay austerity.
Calls for the vote to be re-run are widespread, with prominent NHS blogger Roy Lilley saying, “Tonight the RCN have ‘apologised’ for ‘the dismay’ I think a re-ballot is called for. Only @GMB_union opposed the award and they are right.”