Under discussion

How is the RCN approaching talks with the Government on NHS pay, terms and conditions? And what happens next?

The NHS staff side is in “exploratory discussions” with the Government about possible reforms to Agenda for Change.

Although these talks are not formal negotiations, they nevertheless present an opportunity for the RCN and 13 other unions representing NHS staff to come together with Government officials and representatives from NHS Employers to scope out how a pay deal might be achieved.

As the RCN’s Associate Director of Employment Relations, and its lead negotiator, Josie Irwin’s job is to get the best possible deal for members. She says that while no two negotiations are ever the same, good relationships with the other stakeholders, developed over years of working together on previous deals, make a difference.

Portrait of Josie Irwin
Josie Irwin

“Having 14 trade unions representing different groups of staff with different priorities around the table could be challenging,” Josie acknowledges. “But strong working relationships have developed between the trade unions, employers and even Government officials since the discussions which grew into the Agenda for Change agreement in 2004. Partnership working in the NHS is more productive and positive than in other areas of the public sector, which is a help in any negotiation.”

Josie says the trust built up among the staff side representatives helps offset the difficulty of having so many stakeholders involved.

“The six organisations which form the staff side executive, of which the RCN is one, do the bulk of the negotiating and the remaining unions trust us to get on with the job. We’re good at reporting back so they know what’s going on and we try to be inclusive.”

A delicate balance

In terms of how much of what’s being discussed in the talks can be shared outside the four walls of the negotiating room, Josie says there’s a delicate balance to strike between transparency and confidentiality.

“On the one hand you want to be as open as possible so members are aware of what’s going on and can share their views, but you also need a degree of confidentiality because you sometimes need to take risks to get what you want.”

She says another challenge of these talks is the current economic climate, particularly with Brexit continuing to cause uncertainty.

“The Chancellor is reluctant to open his coffers for anyone at the moment, and when we’re talking about pay for 1.3 million NHS staff that’s potentially a lot of money that’s involved. We have to build a case for why the NHS is more deserving than other areas, which at the moment it’s doing for itself with all the headlines around winter pressures.

Members have a vital role to play

“But this is also where members have a vital role to play. All the campaigning work done over the summer for Scrap the Cap has really helped, but we need to make sure we keep up the noise. Members need to be putting pressure on the Government to unlock the coffers as that will make it easier for us to state our case.”

In terms of what comes next, Josie adds: “If we get a sense these talks could lead to formal negotiations, the RCN’s Trade Union Committee would be asked to give a steer on how to progress. Any deal outlined as a result of negotiations would be put to members for consultation.”

Words by Tom Metcalf

Find out more

Stay up to date with the RCN's pay campaign at www.rcn.org.uk/closethegap