UNISON Northern Ireland

HEALTH DISPUTE - UNISON issues public challenge to Head of NI Civil Service

Dear Mr Sterling,

We wrote to you on 28th November seeking your intervention to resolve the current dispute in the health service. We have not had a reply despite the fact that it has been confirmed by statute, legal precedent and the five main political parties that you do have the authority to make the resources available to pay health workers in Northern Ireland the money due to them.

We have now had sight of your letter of 17th December to the Party Leaders. We believe this to be a deeply unhelpful intervention. We are shocked by the apparent attempt to mislead the Party Leaders and the overtly political tone of the letter.

Yesterday, the leaders of the five main political parties made a clear collective statement supporting the restoration of pay parity and seeking that this dispute be resolved. The Permanent Secretary in the Department of Health indicated on December 5th that he needed political authority to act. This having now been provided, we seriously question your failure to act.

The reality is that you and the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Finance have been creating pay policy in the absence of Ministers, such as the recent announcement of a review of public sector pay, cutting across all existing agreements and bargaining mechanisms. By what authority was this done and what “public interest” does this serve?

There was no Ministerial decision, nor was there a decision of the Northern Ireland Executive to “break parity with English pay levels”. There was no decision, Ministerial or Executive, to abolish the policy of pay parity. On the contrary, the last Health Minister in situ before the Assembly collapsed restored the 1% consolidated pay uplift, in line with the rest of the UK, but this still left a pay gap. The two previous Health Ministers at no stage cited any intention to end pay parity, but instead argued that their decisions on pay were grounded in affordability. It was never put to the unions, nor has there ever been a decision, to break parity. If you have evidence to the contrary, please make it public.

By what authority do you as Head of the Civil Service, the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Health, or the Permanent Secretary in the Department of Finance now state that a policy decision was taken to break parity? There is a significant difference between a decision taken as a matter of policy to end the principle of pay parity and the decisions that were taken to pay less because of financial constraints which have now resulted in the Northern Ireland health and social services workforce being reduced to the lowest pay levels in the UK and devalued and disrespected as a result.

In relation to the public interest issues you cite, you refer to our unacceptably long waiting lists and how resources that are required for pay could be spent on waiting lists instead. We are extremely disappointed by your continued suggestion that effectively workers are seeking to deprive essential services of resources in order to fund pay. This is, to say the least, disingenuous.

We have repeatedly stated that the UK Treasury should provide whatever additional resources are needed to restore the pay gap. You have a clear role in making that argument to them. Health workers have kept the system running in the face of continued cuts and austerity. Poor workforce planning by the Department of Health has resulted in over 7000 vacancies causing excessive and uncontrolled spending on agencies. It is wrong, insulting and overtly political to suggest that paying health workers what they are entitled to would be against the public interest.

It is further extremely unhelpful and misleading to conflate the pay dispute for health and social services workers with wider industrial relations issues across the public sector and civil service. The pay of various groups of public sector workers and civil servants are subject to separate agreements.

It is also wrong and misleading to suggest that ‘‘addressing the wider and longer term implications of intervening on such issues is particularly difficult with single year budgets and the absence of Ministerial authority”. As you will know, in the education sector senior civil servants have properly honoured 2 year NJC agreements in the absence of Ministers. Your current position ignores this and is contradictory.

We stand in solidarity with all workers engaged in industrial relations disputes, but pay for health and social services workers is governed by the UK wide Agenda for Change framework. It is not for you as a civil servant to decide to ignore such agreements.

We have been clear over the last several weeks that we will not accept any attempts to use this dispute as political leverage in an effort to restore the devolved institutions at Stormont. We have asked you and your colleagues to use your best efforts to resolve the dispute. That is where your focus should be. This means both securing the resources needed, if necessary via direct representations to the Secretary of State and UK Treasury and accepting that civil servants have the authority to act now.

We still await a response.

Patricia McKeown

Regional Secretary