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Negotiating pay

Pat Cullen on what really went on during NHS pay negotiations, and responds to misinformation that has circulated since

Pat Cullen 20 Mar 2023 Chief Executive and General Secretary

What happened in the five weeks between England’s last day of strike action and the announcement of the government pay offer last Thursday?

Join me tomorrow night to hear about this and more.

I want to share with you my experience of the negotiations; how this pay offer was arrived at; and why – despite it not being what we all know nursing really deserves – we would lose too much by rejecting it in full. Let’s have a respectful debate tomorrow based on the facts.  

As your leader, I felt a great weight of responsibility in the talks with ministers and officials. I heard your anger and share it too. I have had the privilege of many months speaking to thousands of nursing staff throughout the country and I carried your voices into those official rooms.  

The bottom line is that members have the choice, not me. I will support what you want to do but I owe it to you to arm you with the full information. Learn how the pay offer affects you individually and vote accordingly when the online ballot opens.  

As ever with such a complex announcement that concerns multiple years and affects people differently, there is detail to wade through and understand. And myths get circulated faster than facts in these times. I’ll lay out a few points that I’ll build on again tomorrow evening if you can make it: 

  1. MYTH: This is the first offer and we should always reject it.  

    This is not the first offer, it’s the final offer. The RCN said no to a dozen earlier versions of this to get the government to this point. The talks did not stop until we had got every penny the government was going to give. If I believed the government was going to give more, the talks would still be ongoing. 

  2. MYTH: The government is taking away the money we’ve already had this year.  

    The cash amounts are additional. For example, a top of band 5 nurse got £1,400 extra already but is now getting a further £2,000 before tax for the financial year that ends this month (2022-23). The extra amount is not consolidated – it is unfortunately a one-off – when we would always want pay awards to be consolidated and added to in future. Government would not move from that but we got them to make these lump sum figures many times higher than they started out. 

  3. MYTH: 5% next year isn’t the 19% we asked for. 

    It was government scare-mongering to say the RCN wanted 19%. It was never the case and that’s why that figure has never been said by me, my colleagues, on the RCN website or any campaign leaflets. Looking at the consolidated and non-consolidated amounts above, taken together, many members will get a pay uplift for 2022/23 that is higher than or around the current level of inflation. That is the year we have a strike mandate for.  

    For the new year (2023/24), we pushed hard for the government to go higher than 5% but it would not. Our strike mandate does not relate to 2023/24, only to 2022/23. Industrial action concerning the 2023/24 pay award would require another statutory ballot.  

  4. MYTH: The government forced the RCN to recommend the offer. 

    From day one of the talks, we told government in writing that it would be our decision whether to make a recommendation or not. Ministers were keen to have all unions recommending it – the vast majority have – but we held out on that to get extra concessions from them. The only people who decided the recommendation were elected RCN Council members when they met on Thursday morning last week. This is based on an assessment of the total package. The government has indicated it will not pay these cash increases if union members vote against them and that’s why it is an ‘offer in principle’.

  5. MYTH: Say ‘no’ and we’ll get more next time.

    Negotiations work by compromise and agreement. We did not get everything and nor did the government. Ministers made improvements every day of those three weeks because we were able to say that returning to striking was the clear alternative. No union could enter negotiations and flatly say ‘no’ until you get everything you want. These talks will not be reopened if members reject this pay offer. 

There are several other important items that I want members to have in mind when they vote and I’ll say more tomorrow. The government is actively looking at a new pay spine for nursing staff to support better career progression opportunities for you. And for the first time, the NHS in England will have a national framework on safe staffing levels to end the current postcode lottery.

I hope to see as many of you tomorrow night as possible – I know some will be working and many have care commitments – but my simple message is that accepting this does not mean giving up. Your voice and actions have pushed the government to put billions more into NHS pay packets. The campaign for fair recognition of nursing and fair pay is not over - governments of all colours and everywhere in the UK now know what to expect when RCN members speak up. We will keep pushing for what’s fair for nursing.

Pat Cullen

Pat Cullen

General Secretary and Chief Executive

Pat has worked at the RCN since 2016. Before being appointed General Secretary and Chief Executive, Pat was Director of RCN Northern Ireland from May 2019 to April 2021.

Page last updated - 18/08/2023