Northern Ireland

Executive releases £688m for public sector pay increases

The decision was made at first substantive meeting of Executive

Public sector workers are staging strike action
Public sector workers during major strike action last month (Liam McBurney/PA)

Trade unions and employers are set to begin pay negotiations after the Executive announced £688 million will be release for awards to public sector workers.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill vowed that all ministers “will work to ensure it gets into the pockets of workers and families as quickly as possible”.

The announcement of the agreement follows the first official meeting of the Executive following the restoration of the devolved government.

On Thursday, Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald said she hoped money would be released as soon as possible, adding it will be up to the unions and various government employers to finalise negotiations. Any deals will only cover one year.

Many public sector workers were on strike on recent months calling for the money to be released by the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. Approximately 150,000 public sector workers went on strike on January 18.

The five teaching unions have agreed to postpone any further strike action while negotiations are ongoing.

Justin McCamphill, NASUWT national official, said: “Teachers and FE lecturers will want to see how much is going to be offered to them to settle their pay disputes before deciding if there is enough to prevent further industrial action.

“Teachers have not had a pay increase at all for three years while FE lecturer’s pay has fallen significantly behind that of their colleagues in schools. This is our number one concern going into any pay negotiations.”

Unite has issued a warning funds must be made available for school support staff to avert further strike action.

Unions representing health care workers met with Minister Robin Swann last week. No further strike action, including by nurses, is scheduled.

Strike action by transport workers, members of GMB, SIPTU and Unite, is still scheduled to take place on a staggered basis over a 72-hour period beginning midnight on February 27. The three unions must jointly decide whether to call off or postpone the action.

Under the deal restoring government, a near £600m was allocated to resolve the pay disputes, part of the overall £3.3bn package.

ICTU assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy welcomed the announcement but that it will become clear from negotiations “whether this funding allocation will be sufficient to settle all industrial disputes”.

“We would strongly urge government departments to begin these negotiations immediately in order to avoid any further unnecessary disruption,” Mr Murphy said.

THE Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) assistant general secretary Gerry Murphy PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

“While we welcome the prospect of settling disputes for this year, we are clear that public sector pay is not a one-off issue.

“Public services do not exist without the necessary funding for public sector pay. Paying staff must never again be seen as an optional extra.”

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole called on ministers to act with speed “to reach an agreement that recognises the pressures facing staff and averts further industrial action”.

He added: “I would urge the Executive to do everything within their power to ensure that every single worker gets the uplift they deserve.

“There is an urgent need for the Executive to get to grips with the financial picture facing them, the past week has already seen too much confusion and contradiction.”

Ministers also discussed Stormont’s finances for 2024-25, with Ms O’Neill stating parties were going to “continue the fight” with Treasury for additional tax and spending powers.

“We frequently hear we aren’t preparing to make the hard calls, but for the public at large what we’re trying to do is get the fundamentals right, this is not an unreasonable ask,” she said.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said the government was being inflexible about its timetable of asking the Executive to have a sustainability plan and other measures agreed by May.

The report made a number of recommendations, including follow-up checks for mental health patients discharged from emergency departments
The Department of Health to receive close to £600m in pay and general pressures funding (Peter Byrne/PA)

The allocation for pay is part of £1.045 billion available under the government restoration package for general pressures and pay in 2023-24.

Under the agreed plan:

• Department of Health will receive £550.6m

• Education – £296.8 m

• Justice - £75.3 m

• Infrastructure – £87.8m

• Communities – £19.4 m

• Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - £14.7m

• Economy – £12.1m

• Department of Finance – £6.7m

• The Executive Office – £3.4m

• Public Prosecution Service – £2m

Ms Archibald said: “Ministers are united in their determination to provide the best possible public services. It is important we ensure all our public sector workers receive a fair pay award.

“The Executive secured agreement from Treasury to increase the amount available for public sector pay. Working together we are delivering for public sector workers and their families by allocating over £685m for public sector pay awards.

“This will enable pay negotiations to open and hopefully conclude as quickly as possible so public sector workers can receive the pay awards, they are long overdue.”

Police Federation chair Liam Kelly welcomed the £75.3m allocation to Justice, adding it is not unreasonable to expect a seven percent increase backdated in officers’ pay packets in March.

“I have written to the Justice Minister to request a meeting and bring the outstanding pay recommendations to a speedy conclusion,” Mr Kelly said.

“There are no negotiation elements in our pay process so this ratification should not be delayed any further. I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to expect that our colleagues should see the increase, and their backdated pay, in their March payslips.”

Separate capital funding of £83.5m will also be released, £40.9m to the various departments for future spending and £42.6m to the education for overspends.