Most of us, quite rightly, are focusing our energies on overturning the disgraceful three year pay offer agreed between RCN and Unison negotiators and the Government. It’s a recipe for three years of pay cuts. Despite the hollow claims that the deal is weighted towards low paid NHS workers, the effective pay cut will be even larger for this group. Your ‘personal inflation rate’ depends on what you spend most of your money on. I’m not sure what the price of yachts and swimming pools is these days, but food, fuel and housing costs are going through the roof. For Band 1 and Band 2 health workers, income is going to go almost entirely on meeting these essential needs. I’ve seen estimates of personal inflation for low paid workers being between 12% and 17%. In that context, the proposed 2.75% pay offer (with even worse to come) looks like a bloody big pay cut.
For some health workers, though, there are even sharper concerns. In Northern Ireland, Agenda for Change is still being implemented. There are differences between what’s happening in Northern Ireland and what happened in England and Wales. AFC in Scotland is ongoing and troubled – but can’t begin to compare with Northern Ireland.
Forget ‘pay protection’. In Northern Ireland, pay protection means protection at October 2004 levels – so ‘pay protection’ in 2008 is at whatever people were being paid 3 ½ years ago! Pay cuts are immediate. I know of one person who got their banding outcome on Friday and got a pay cut on Monday. I know of a health worker who is facing serious illness on a sharply reduced salary, and another who has just had a house sale fall through because her pay has been slashed. Remember all the claims about ‘no detriment’? Those look pretty hollow.
It gets even worse. There’s an arrangement in Northern Ireland called ‘GANI’ – which stands for ‘Government Accounting Northern Ireland’. Under GANI, there is an assumption that people have to pay back to the Government anything they have been ‘overpaid’. Completely bizarrely, this is taken to mean that health workers not only face an immediate pay cut, but also ‘owe’ the Government all the money they have supposedly been overpaid since 2004.
This is an insane and Alice in Wonderland interpretation of the Agenda for Change agreement – but the Minister concerned (one Michael McGimpsey) is insisting on this.
Very many of those who are being hit by this double whammy are speech and language therapists – my own professional group. AFC has been bad news for speech therapists generally, and my belief is that a key driver of AFC was Labour’s need to reverse our magnificent equal pay victory dating back to 2000. The danger from the Government’s perspective was that physios and OTs and a whole bunch of other NHS workers might start wanting equal pay too. AFC was a neat way of side stepping equal pay claims, and it’s a shame we let them get away with it.
What’s happening now in Northern Ireland is obviously unacceptable. I’m Chair of the Unite committee representing Speech and Language Therapists at national level. I’ve been instructed by the committee to write to every MLA (the elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly) urging that they intervene on behalf of speech and language therapists.
Is writing to MLAs enough? Almost certainly not. It’s essential that the health workers affected by this nonsense move swiftly to campaign and organise in their own defence. It’s also essential that Unite throws its weight behind this group of members.
Most of us just face pay cuts. The Northern Ireland situation comes dangerously close to making health workers pay the Government for the privilege of being employed. This is presumably partnership working at its very finest!
For ALL health workers, the reality is that we’ll get what we fight for – in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK.