Let’s fight for our agenda for a change.
Jim Jepps and Harry Sloan
In mid-August UNISON hailed what it described as a major breakthrough in
the long-running saga of the restructuring of NHS pay, known as Agenda
After more than a year of stalemate on three key contentious issues, the
Department of Health climbed down on one – by agreeing an uplift for the
lowest of the nine pay bands – and agreed to defer the other two.
The controversial changes to
payments for unsocial hours, which threatened tens of thousands of
staff, especially those working regular unsocial hours and weekends,
with a reduction in pay – and thus raised the need for “protection” for
a period of up to five years – have been shelved for a year, and will be
subject to a review in the autumn of 2005.
And new rates of payment for staff working “on-call” have also been
postponed –for at least four years, after it became clear that no agreed
solution is in sight.
Despite the fact that they resolve nothing, and leave the new system in
chaos, these changes, together with additional fudges to avoid some
staff losing out under the new percentage-based London Weighting
payments, seem to have knocked the stuffing out of some of the UNISON
activists who had previously argued that the package was fatally flawed
and should be rejected.
The government still hopes to introduce Agenda for Change (AfC) into the
NHS by 1st December. They have said that it will result in NHS workers
being considerably better off. By this they mean 12.5% over three years
(which in anyone’s money is not that great anyway).
The new concessions on the lowest pay Band 1 creates a new minimum wage
of £11,135 per year in the NHS: taken together with a reduction in the
working week, and an additional week’s holiday this appears to be a
considerable increase for ancillary staff: however few NHS ancillaries
are on the very lowest pay band, and many more currently receive bonus
payments above the basic Whitley rate, which means they stand to gain
little or nothing from AfC.
Many ancillaries also depend for their pay upon unsocial hours payments
– and stand to lose out under the AfC formula.
It would be a mistake to see AfC as a pay deal which you can improve or
tinker with in order to make it palatable. AfC is about restructuring
NHS workers – and at its heart is deeply problematic.
Twelve NHS Trusts were designated as ‘Early Implementers’ for AfC (or
Guinea Pigs perhaps) in order to pilot the scheme and iron out wrinkles.
Despite the fact that the Department of Health has bluffed saying it has
gone very well, the results are disturbing.
UNISON estimated that before the latest concessions around 15 percent of
workers in these areas required pay protection (which would translate to
150,000 workers across the NHS) which is significantly up on the 75,000
that the government was aiming for (they don’t mention that in the press
The latest documents on AfC suggest that even after the changes 7.5 per
cent of the NHS 1-million workforce could require protection, 5 per cent
of them for more than a year.
Private Eye revealed recently that in some trusts between 30 per cent
and 40 per cent of the workforce were downgraded under AfC. These job
re-evaluations have led to significant disruption in trial areas. For
instance 200 staff in Sunderland walked out in protest at being
downgraded. In James Paget Hospital near Lowestoft, 29 per cent of admin
staff required pay protection.
The Dept. of Health admitted that “the numbers of staff requiring pay
protection because of harmonisation of unsocial hours payments was
higher than expected, particularly among the low paid”.
Once you’ve decoded the management speak for cuts in pay and reducing
the night work rate you begin to realise that everything was not rosy in
the garden – but then managers don’t ‘work’ anti-social hours so it’s
not so bad is it?
Bizarrely UNISON’s response was to say that they welcomed changes
because AfC “will go some way to putting more money into the pockets of
our lowest paid members.” Unfortunately this is untrue. Many jobs will
end up with pay below the low pay unit’s ‘decency threshold’ and of
those who require pay protection (which incidently is temporary and does
not apply to those recruited after introduction) the vast majority are
low paid workers.
You may find it difficult to believe that this Labour government is
introducing a scheme that favours managers and top consultants at the
expense of maintenance and admin but there it is.
Even the attempt to introduce this on a national level will hit severe
problems. The trial areas were given £80,000 each for this process,
which was still difficult and time consuming. Once the scheme goes
national there will be no extra funds, meaning that existing resources
will need to be diverted in order to implement this bureaucratic tosh.
AfC is part of the government’s plan to ‘modernise’ public services.
Many thousands of jobs that were once done by NHS workers are now done
through contractors and agencies, at an increased cost and decreased
service. It’s also had an impact in some areas on union organisation.
This process will be further deepened by the introduction of Foundation
We have a deeply flawed deal (and there is no space to detail the
difficulties with on call payments, short term pay protection, increase
in working hours, etc.) and no comprehensive information on the outcome
of the trials for people to base their decisions on. The government
cannot release these statistics because they will reveal that large
numbers of low paid workers will receive significant pay cuts.
You don’t need agenda for change to do simple things like decent pay
increases and reducing hours. Bring the privatised contracted services
back into the NHS. Let’s try to retain staff without burning them out.
Their agenda will inevitably lead to a two tier health system with
‘choice’ for the rich and rubbish pay for the workers – Agenda for
change is an integral part of that and cannot be allowed to go through
UNISON has called a special conference for 7th October followed
immediately by a national ballot of all UNISON health workers.