Health unions representing nurses and other health professionals in Northern Ireland are set to hold a second round of pay talks with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland within weeks, Nursing in Practice has been told.
Unison’s head of bargaining and representation, Anne Speed, confirmed that secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris ‘offered’ to return to a meeting with the unions in the next two to three weeks to continue discussions over the ongoing pay dispute.
A first meeting between Mr Heaton-Harris and representatives of the Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives, Unison, and Unite held last Wednesday yielded little progress towards a new pay offer in Northern Ireland.
However, Ms Speed told Nursing in Practice the union remained ‘hopeful’ that this next meeting will provide clarity over the issues of the pay deal for Health and Social Care (HSC) staff.
Nurses in Northern Ireland were only offered a pay rise in line with what had previously been given to NHS staff in England, in December, receiving a pay rise of at least £1,400.
However, more recently, the UK Government has put forward an improved deal for nurses on Agenda for Change contracts in England, consisting of a one-off payment for 2022-23 worth between £1,655 and £3,789 and a permanent 5% uplift for 2023/24. This is currently being consulted on by unions.
At the meeting last week, health unions had previously sought to receive confirmation on whether a new pay offer would be made for HSC employees in Northern Ireland, following the improved pay offer for NHS staff in England.
The Scottish and Welsh devolved assemblies had offered assurances that any improvement to a pay deal in England would lead to an improved offer for nurses in Scotland and Wales via a funding mechanism called the Barnett consequentials.
However, Mr Heaton-Harris was unable to commit to any new offer for Northern Ireland and would not confirm whether an improved offer would be funded by new money.
And according to Ms Speed, he had insisted that he would first need to seek confirmation from the chancellor about any funding for Northern Irish HSC pay.
The current situation is complicated by the fact that Northern Ireland does not currently have a fully functioning government executive.
The Northern Ireland Office has previously stated that Mr Heaton-Harris is unable to make any new pay offer in the absence of the executive, but Ms Speed contests this and claims that a new offer can be made through the creation of a new budget.
Ms Speed said that during the initial meeting the union had reminded the secretary of state that ‘he has governance responsibilities in the absence of the executive’.
Going forwards, she added: ‘We are hoping he will clarify the use of the Barnett consequentials.’
A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson confirmed the Secretary of State has agreed to meet with health unions again ‘in the coming weeks’.