Department chief urges trade unions back to negotiating table

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The Department of Health has urged trade unions to return to talks ahead of planned strike action this week.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will lead its members out on strike on Wednesday, while members of Northern Ireland’s largest health workers’ union, Unison, will stage walkouts on Friday.

It comes after ongoing work-to-rule and strike action last month over pay and staffing levels.

Talks between the department and trade unions broke down without agreement in December, when a fresh 3.1% pay offer was rejected by unions.

The unions have called for pay parity with their colleagues in the rest of the UK.

The department’s permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly, said it was not too late to call the action off, warning that hospitals are already under severe pressure.

“It’s still not too late for trade unions to defer the industrial action planned for this week and get back round the table,” he said.

“We have repeatedly made clear that our door remained open for discussions – with the specific aim of drawing up a detailed, costed, implementation plan on staffing.

“We see no good reason why such dialogue cannot begin immediately.

“Deferring strike action would be in the best interests of patients and patient safety and would provide the necessary space for fresh dialogue.

“Our hospitals are already under severe pressure at present, even before the planned industrial action takes place this week.”

Unison members across the entire health and social services system are also continuing industrial action short of strike until January 31.

Mr Pengelly said that pay parity is a “matter for consideration by a minister”.

“That is a position that cannot be changed by industrial action,” he said.

“In terms of political resolution, all main political parties have already publicly supported the calls for parity with England, and talks are ongoing about restoration of the devolved institutions.

“It is only that process that can provide the mechanism for a sustainable solution on pay.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has said finding a solution will be among his top priorities during ongoing political talks aimed at restoring devolved government.

 Anne Speed of Unison, Kevin McAdam of Unite and Maria Morgan from Nipsa
(left to right) Anne Speed of Unison, Kevin McAdam of Unite and Maria Morgan from Nipsa (PA)

Karen Murray, the RCM’s director for Northern Ireland, said they have “exhausted every avenue” trying to resolve the dispute with the department.

She said the decision to ballot members was taken after a “great deal of thought and consideration”.

“Despite our best efforts to negotiate a fair pay deal for our members, the department have failed to come to an agreement,” she said.

“Our midwives here are much worse off in their pay packet than their colleagues in other parts of the UK.

“This is simply neither right nor fair. That is why we are recommending our members to vote yes to industrial action.”

The RCM has claimed that midwives in Northern Ireland currently earn up to £2,000 less than their colleagues in England.

Ms Murray added: “Failing to pay our midwives and MSWs a fair wage shows that employers do not value them. A Yes vote in this ballot will show employers that they have exhausted the goodwill of our midwives and MSWs that has kept our maternity services going.

“It is time to take a stand for fair pay.”

The RCM ballot will close on January 29.

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