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Do you really want to hurt me?

July 10, 2015

The Chancellor’s announcement in this week’s budget that ‘pay rises for NHS nurses will be capped at 1% for the next four year’s should not really have come as a surprise. The Tories spent the whole of the last Parliament trying to starve nurses into submission over pay; a U-turn now was never going to be an option.

It’s no secret that the real goal in this protracted war of attrition is total re-negotiation of pay and conditions. Automatic pay progression and unsocial hours premia are the two objectives most directly in the firing line. The battle plan is simple: turn the thumbscrews of pay restraint so tight, that nurses will be forced to capitulate and accept the government’s alternative vision.

The government’s confidence that it will have achieved its aims by 2020 (and the next general election) were betrayed by another of the Chancellor’s budget-day pledges, the compulsory National Living Wage (NLW). Under the terms of this initiative, from next April all British workers over the age of twenty five will by law have to be paid at a minimum hourly rate of £7.20.

It’s not exactly a new idea: the National Minimum Wage has been around since 1999. From October this year, it will rise to £6.70 an hour for people over twenty one. Critics of the new ‘Living Wage’ claim that even though it represents a ‘hefty increase‘ on the Minimum Wage, it still won’t be anywhere near enough for the average Londoner to live on. On this reading, calling it a Living Wage is mere sleight of hand, or ‘a misnomer for political purposes’.

But from the nursing point of view, what are really interesting are the planned rises in the NLW over the course of this Parliament. By 2020, government estimates suggest it will be worth around £9 an hour. The pay band most directly affected by this is likely to be Band 2 – the standard pay band for health care support workers (HCSWs).

Current rates on Band 2 in England are hardly princely. A starting salary of £15,100 works out at an hourly basic rate of £7.72. This is a shade below the £7.85 outside-London minimum living wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation pressure group. Plug away at it for six years, and you’ll arrive at the giddy heights of top increment, where you’ll be clearing about £9.10 an hour. If the government sticks to the plans it announced in the budget, by 2020 this basic rate will have risen to roughly £9.47 an hour. There goes the luxury break in the Caribbean then.

But the real point is that the compulsory National Living Wage will by then be £9 an hour. (Some estimates put it at a slightly higher £9.15). Either way, the top increment of Band 2 will only just comply with it. Lower increment bands will be way behind, putting the government in breach of its own rules.

The only possible inference to be drawn from all this is that change is coming. It would be untrue to say that the advent of the National Living Wage is all about forcing through changes to NHS pay; there are many other agendas in play here, not least of which is the Tory party pulling the rug out from under Labour in order to portray itself as the friend of ‘ordinary’ workers. But it does represent a further turn of the screw.

I know that as a group, we have been shafted again and again and again – over pay, over seven day services and over safe staffing. I also know it will be very hard to trust the very people who have done this to us not to do it again. But this change is going to come whether we like it or not; and rather than painting ourselves as the eternal victims, it would do us more credit to be proactive, to examine the alternatives – not all of which will be as bad as we think – and to come up with a negotiating position that is more nuanced than just a blanket ‘no’. With pay rises capped at 1% for the next four years, the longer we leave it, the more we will end up hurting in the end.

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