An effective pay freeze for social workers and other health and social care staff in Northern Ireland is “unsustainable and unfair”, sector leaders have warned.
Health and social care (HSC) trust chief executives made the claim in a letter to Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris urging him to intervene to give trust staff a pay rise.
The Northern Ireland Office has responded to say that it has no authority to negotiate pay in the region and this was a matter for its Department of Health (DoH).
However, in a statement last month, the DoH said replicating the pay settlement for NHS staff in England would “require large scale cuts to services on an unprecedented scale, with severe and lasting implications for health and social care provision”.
With no devolved government in place in the region, the department it “does not have the authority to make such cutbacks in the absence of a minister”.
It added: “The department fully understands the deep-seated frustrations over the absence of pay offers. We recognise that this is not a sustainable position and remain committed to pursuing all avenues to help achieve a resolution.”
Pay freeze ‘unsustainable and unfair’
In their letter to Heaton-Harris, the chief executives of the five trusts and of the region’s ambulance service said they were “conscious of the toll being taken on them by the continuing severe pressures on services”.
“It is unsustainable and unfair that they should be left with a de facto pay freeze during a cost of living crisis,” they added. “This sends out entirely the wrong signal on how health and social care staff are valued by society.
“It should also be stressed that staff retention is becoming an increasingly acute problem for services across HSC.”
HSC staff took strike action or action short of a strike over two days last month, with more walkouts planned.
“This will inevitably impact heavily on an already fragile health and care system, in what is invariably the most challenging time of year,” said the chief executives. “We have very deep concerns about impacts on patients and other service users.”
Social work pay in Northern Ireland lagging
The biggest social work union in the region, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, has warned that practitioners on NHS Agenda for Change contracts are earning significantly less than counterparts in the rest of the UK.
For example, a social worker on point 1 of band 6 would be on £35, 392 in England, compared with £33, 306 in Northern Ireland.
What are NHS social workers in England getting in 2023-24
- An additional one-off 2% rise for 2022-23. For a social worker in the middle of band 6, previously earning £35,572, this meant a payment of £711.
- A further one-off payment, worth at least £1,250.
- A 5% pay rise. For a social worker in the middle of band 6, this took their pay from £35,572 to £37,351.
In a statement last month, NIPSA said: “Fair pay at time of record cost of living pressures and political stalemate at a time when HSC workers have and continue to work through the biggest crisis our health and social care system has ever faced, cannot be seen as a begging bowl wanting more. It is a basic and honourable demand that must be met.
However, in response, a Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: “The UK government does not have any authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland, it will be for the Northern Ireland Department of Health to make final decisions on pay policies.”
They added: “It remains the government’s top priority to restore the [Northern Ireland] Executive and for locally accountable political leaders to take fundamental decisions on Northern Ireland’s public services and deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Domiciliary care charges mooted
However, at the same time, Heaton-Harris has written to Northern Ireland civil service leads to address the “parlous state of public finances” in the region, in particular, by generating more revenue.
As part of this, he has proposed that the DoH consider introducing charges for domiciliary care, which is generally free in Northern Ireland.