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Health minister clashes with unions over pay dispute

 Health Minister Simon Hamilton has clashed with trade unions over a pay award
SeanĂ­n Graham

HEALTH minister Simon Hamilton has clashed with trade unions over what form negotiations took in relation to a controversial pay award for 50,000 NHS workers in Northern Ireland.

The DUP minister accused union chiefs of "bluff" and "failing to engage in the process" even before he took up post last May - a claim angrily rejected by senior union representatives.

Mr Hamilton said it would cost £40 million to meet their pay demands of a one per cent increase, which he described as "utterly unrealistic".

For the past two years there has been an ongoing dispute over the failure of the Department of Health to grant a pay rise to NHS staff in line with their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.

The issue led to widespread walkouts last year, while the biggest nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), has revealed plans to ballot for unprecedented industrial on the back of its 'fair pay' campaign.

Last Friday, Mr Hamilton announced a non-consolidated one per cent pay rise for workers at the top of their pay scale for the year ahead, which was branded an "insult" by one union that said it "denied staff a cost of living pay rise".

Staff who have not reached the top of their pay bands will get a "spine point rise of 3.7 per cent".

"I feel staff have been let down by their unions," Mr Hamilton told the BBC's Nolan show.

But Unite's Kevin McAdam and RCN director Janice Smyth, director, staunchly defended their actions, with Mr McAdam saying they had entered negotiations "in good faith".

"There was no room and no flexibility offered to us (by Department of Health officials). Our claim was very clear, to align us with the Scottish pay scales. He (Mr Hamilton) rejected that…we have never accepted anything, it was imposed on us," Mr McAdam said.

Ms Smyth added that her 14,000 members were "very disappointed" with the "tone" of Mr Hamilton's statement on Friday.

"The contractual rights of nurses have incrementals…but he sees this as an extravagance. Meanwhile, the same incrementals are offered to teachers and police officers," she said.

Ms Smyth said that nurses felt they were being "taken for granted" which was impacting on their patients - and warned of 1,500 nursing vacancies “as of today”.

"There has been no proper leadership reform in our system," she added.

In a report on Wednesday January 6, we said the DUP MLA Trevor Clarke was among a number who had written to the RCN to say they would not pledge their support for the Fair Pay for Northern Ireland Nurses campaign. In fact, according to the RCN, Mr Clarke responded by email requesting a meeting. The meeting took place in November and according to the RCN, Mr Clarke did not specifically commit at that meeting to support the campaign for a one per cent across the board pay increase for nurses. Mr Clarke has declined to state his position to The Irish News.

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