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Health workers in Northern Ireland to receive delayed pay award

The Department of Health said it will now move to implement the pay awards ‘as a matter of urgency’ (PA)
The Department of Health said it will now move to implement the pay awards ‘as a matter of urgency’ (PA)

Health workers in Northern Ireland are to receive a pay rise recommended by independent salary review bodies, Stormont’s Department of Health has announced.

The delayed move comes after civil servants secured the legislative authority to make decisions on pay amid Stormont’s political impasse.

Decisions on other public sector employees, such as teachers and civil servants, are still awaited.

However, on Thursday the Department of Finance said that the rise for civil servants urged by former finance minister Conor Murphy earlier this year will not be possible due to a lack of funds.

The majority of health workers are to receive at least an additional £1,400 in pay while doctors and dentists will be given a 4.5% salary rise.

The rises will come into effect before the end of the financial year and be backdated to April 1 this year.

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Former health minister Robin Swann had accepted the pay recommendations but had been unable to implement them (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

The separate independent recommendations were made by the NHS Pay Review Body and Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration.

The announcement is unlikely to affect industrial action planned by health workers this winter, as NHS colleagues in Great Britain voted to strike having already received the 2022/23 rises.

The lack of a devolved executive at Stormont had prevented the awards being made in Northern Ireland before the UK Government intervened last month to pass a budget for Stormont and hand civil servants extra powers.

Former health minister Robin Swann had recommended accepting the recommendations of the pay review body but at the time was unable to implement it in the absence of an executive budget.

Earlier on Thursday, the Department of Finance issued guidance to other departments on approving public sector pay remits for the 2022/23 financial year.

The department said pay awards had to be “affordable” in the context of each department’s allocation under the budget set out by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

Departments are now able to make awards, but some are more advanced in the process than others.

With recommendations of the pay review bodies already received, and the previous minister having accepted them, the Department of Health was in a position to act almost immediately after it was given the authority.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “The Department shares the frustration of all our HSC colleagues in the delays in implementing the pay recommendations for 2022/23.

“While the former minister had accepted the recommendations in full, the lack of a public sector pay policy and budgetary uncertainty prevented any further progress.

“These hurdles have now been cleared for this year and the Department will now move to implement these pay awards as a matter of urgency to ensure colleagues see their pay increase as soon as possible.”

The Department of Finance has responsibility for setting the pay of civil servants in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year Mr Murphy said, if an executive was in place, he would have recommended a series of pay increases for various grades of the Civil Service, ranging from £1,932 for the lowest grades to £1,000 for senior staff, above and beyond established pay progression scales.

On Thursday, the department said it had not been allocated sufficient funds in Mr Heaton-Harris’s budget to cover that level of increase.

“Now that pay remit guidance has issued, the Department will consider what pay offer is possible for Northern Ireland Civil Service staff,” said a departmental spokeswoman.

“In line with public sector pay guidance this will have to be within the confines of the affordability of the budget set out by the secretary of state.

“While the former finance minister set out the civil service pay offer he would have liked to have recommended to the Executive, this was predicated on £30m of additional funding being provided to departments.

“This was not provided within the funding set out in the secretary of state’s written ministerial statement.”

Responding to the pay announcement for health workers, the Royal College of Nursing said it was a “step in the right direction” but “not a big enough step”.

Rita Devlin, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: “Staff will be relieved that they are no longer out of pay parity with their colleagues in England and Wales, but this does not resolve the RCN’s current dispute on pay.

“Our campaign is about achieving a pay rise to help address the cost-of-living crisis, encourage people to join and stay in the nursing profession and begin to restore a decade of underpayment.

“Unfortunately, this uplift won’t do anything to recruit or retain the nursing staff our health service desperately needs. It doesn’t recognise the skill and responsibility of the jobs our members do and won’t keep patients safe.”

Unison’s head of bargaining and representation Anne Speed said: “A pay rise has been due since last April. Inflation is running at 11% and our members are now on industrial action to secure protection from rising costs and increased threat of poverty. We know that DOH officials listened carefully during the many times we challenged the breaking of pay parity.

“But they, and we, know now that even with this adjustment our members will continue to feel real financial pressure. Without against-inflation pay, workers essentially suffer a pay cut.”

BMA Northern Ireland Council chair Dr Tom Black said, “While we welcome today’s pay award and hope that it will be paid promptly, it is extremely disappointing that it has taken this long to get it agreed.

“The lack of a functioning government is seriously impeding process and progress in Northern Ireland.

“The issues within the health service are well documented both here and across the UK. We have repeatedly said we cannot go on this way, we need to address the core issues of workforce, workload, pay and pensions in order to transform and develop our health service.”

Peter Crooks, vice chair of the British Dental Association, said: “It’s shameful that frontline healthcare professionals could be waiting until April 2023 for a needed pay rise.

“But this increase will barely scrape the sides given surging prices. Dental practices were already facing a future delivering Health Service dentistry at a loss. Failure to keep pace with inflation will push some to the brink.”