Lincolnshire County Council has confirmed that a controversial career progression scheme will go ahead in October even as health visitors plan further strike action.
Unite the Union has said 58 of its health visitor members will stage two 48-hour strikes starting on 27 August and 5 September, meaning they will have taken 13 strike days since July.
The dispute concerns health visitors who were transferred to the council from the NHS in October 2017 and remained on Agenda for Change contract terms and conditions
Unlike both council and NHS employees, these health visitors have not received a pay rise since inflationary awards do not apply for what the council referred to as ‘legal reasons’.
According to Unite calculations, they have since lost out on more than £2000 per year.
Health visitors have the option to transition to the council’s employment contract. However, Unite and its members are opposed to a new ‘career progression scheme’ that introduces a two-tier health visitor role.
They are concerned that both grade 9 (junior) and grade 10 (senior) staff would not be paid as much as their NHS counterparts.
To progress to grade 10, staff must have worked as a health visitor for four years among other competencies.
Unite says the grade 10 role equates to band 6 on Agenda for Change, which NHS health visitors start on at the beginning of their career.
Unite lead professional officer for regulation Jane Beach said that it ‘does not take four years to move from a novice to an expert health visitor’ and was concerned that experienced health visitors are being wrongly put at grade 9.
She said: ‘We remain concerned it is not true career progression. If it was how could it consider an experienced Agenda for Change health visitor to have gone from being at the top of their standards and pay scale to now being considered the same level as a newly qualified health visitor? It was after all not their choice to move across!’
Ms Beach added: ‘Whilst we are told there is no cap on the number of senior health visitors, we and our members believe in reality there will be as progression will be dependent on achievement of locally agreed performance measures, outside the individual health visitor’s control. The art of health visiting is about more than ticking boxes.’
Confirming the scheme would go ahead, interim director of education at Lincolnshire County Council, Heather Sandy said the council has written to staff ‘explaining how the scheme works and how it offers salaries beyond those available in the NHS.’
She said that the council were ‘disappointed’ that Unite – who she said represented a third of the health visitor workforce – had so far failed to engage in the council’s formal resolution process but reassured the Lincolnshire public that there are plans in place to cover absences.
She added that while 45 of the 58 Unite health visitor members initially voted for industrial action, an average of only 12 health visitors per day have taken it and the ‘vast majority’ of the health visitor workforce had continued to work as normal.
The latest rounds of talks with Unite broke down last Thursday (15 August) leading to Unite regional secretary for the East Midland, Paresh Patel describing council bosses as ‘turning old-fashioned pig-headedness into an art form’.
Unite has also accused the council of downgrading the professional status of health visitors, which it says has resulted in fewer staff undertaking the role. It says this has created excessive caseloads and more safeguarding issues to deal with for existing staff.
Earlier this month, the council offered 30 grade 10 jobs but Unite said the contracts were ‘shrouded in secrecy’ and not enough to cover all 58 members.
Of 111 full-time equivalent health visitor posts, the strike only involves 58 health visitors transferred from the NHS under Agenda for Change terms.
Other health visitors are either on grade 10 contracts or were employed by the county council since October 2017. There are also some student health visitors.
There were 7,121 health visitors in England in April this year, a fall of 31% since their peak of more than 10,000 in October 2015 when the Health Visitor Implementation Plan came to an end.