The Unite Speech and Language Therapy Occupational Advisory Committee met just before Easter. This is the national committee representing speech and language therapists and speech and language therapy assistants in the Union. A bit of history: back in 2000, speech and language therapists won an important equal pay victory – achieving pay parity with clinical psychologists and pharmacists. This had pay implications for many other Allied Health Professionals: physiotherapists, occupational therapists, radiographers and so on. At about the same time, women health workers in Carlisle – domestics, catering staff etc – also won an important ruling that they were underpaid by comparison with male workers doing work of equal value. Estimates of the cost to the Government of implementing fair pay for women NHS workers ran into many millions of pounds.
The Government faced a choice: either pay up, or dream up a new pay system that was ‘equal pay proofed’ by the lawyers but that offered women NHS workers much less than the equal pay cases implied. They came up with ‘Agenda for Change’, a brand new pay scheme designed to reverse the speech therapy and Carlisle cases at the very same time as its ‘equal value’ credentials were proudly proclaimed.
Speech and language therapists in Amicus recognised that this was about reversing our victory, and fought hard against AFC. Many other Amicus members were set to lose out (with a majority of our members having their working hours increased, for example). We came very close to beating what was and is a major attack. Many NHS workers are still paying a high price for the acquiescence of all health unions to the Government’s plans.
The official start date of Agenda for Change was 1st October 2004. Bizarrely, in Scotland and England, AFC is still being implemented. This was a major item for discussion at our Speech and Language Therapy Committee last Thursday. We were told of very variable outcomes in Scotland, with a significant number of speech and language therapists set to lose pay. There are rumours of procedural abuses, with informal quotas being applied to posts at higher senior bands. In Northern Ireland, things are even worse. ‘Second panels’ – completely outside the scope of the national agreement – are slashing pay for speech and language therapists. ‘Pay protection’ is at 1st October 2004 levels, so staff are facing an immediate cut in pay. Worse again, speech and language therapists are being told they have to pay back the money they have been ‘overpaid’ since October 2004! This is an astonishingly brutal approach to implementing AFC, which apparently applies only in Northern Ireland.
Our meeting last week was a practical problem-solving one. Our Health Sector National Committee, also last week, has already agreed the need for more support and information for our members in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have some genuine AFC experts on our speech and language therapy committee. We agreed that they will offer detailed support to therapists in Scotland and Northern Ireland in challenging outcomes through reviews, and through grievances where there is evidence that processes have been abused. We agreed in principle that we would run a training day in each country, with a committee member flying in to run detailed training for reps and activists.
For Northern Ireland in particular, we were clear on the need for a campaigning approach. We will do everything we can to assist speech and language therapists in lobbying and campaigning to get a reversal of their immediate pay cuts and the requirement to pay back ‘overpaid’ money. Union members will be supported in doing everything they can to raise the injustice of their situation, within the Union and more widely across Northern Ireland. As Chair of the Committee, I’ll be writing to MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) calling for ‘overpayments’ to be written off. We have agreement that a speech and language therapist can be co-opted onto the Union’s Northern Ireland Health Sector Committee.
There’s a shocking injustice going on here, and it needs to be over-turned. We talked about speech and language therapists, as these are the cases we knew about – but there will undoubtedly be other health workers in the exact same situation. Unite must support its members.
So was AFC a good idea? Almost certainly, the answer is ‘No’. There will be losers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as AFC is rolled out. Plenty of our members lost out in England and Wales back in 2004 and 2005. Our pathologists across the UK remain at risk of losing out badly when new on-call proposals are finally implemented (on hold now until March 2009, or possibly as late as October 2009).
The priority for our Speech and Language Therapy Committee is a vigorous damage limitation exercise, trying to safeguard the position of particularly vulnerable members. There’s a wider lesson to be learned, though. People join a union because collective strength makes us stronger. Agenda for Change has always been about divide and rule tactics – allowing some members to gain (typically very small) pay increases, while other members lose out. Union organisation for all of us is weaker as a result. The old slogan is ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. With AFC, those important concepts of solidarity and standing together got lost.