Why is the NHS pay review process not working?

Strikes in Scotland have been averted by direct negotiations between the government and the health unions enabling agreement on an improved pay offer. In England ministers are digging in their heels insisting that negotiation is unnecessary as the independent Pay Review Body has made recommendations which the government will honour in full. Trade unions claim PRB recommendations are too low, out of date and far from independent.

Is the Pay Review Body independent?

In a stream of media interviews about the strike ministers have claimed that the PRB is independent and free of government influence. They do not explain that at the start of the review process the Health Secretary defines the remit of their work in a letter sent to the PRB, making it very clear that its recommendations need to fit within the government’s overall spending plans and inflation targets. The health leaders of Wales and N Ireland do the same.

Effectively this sets parameters for the PRB and a ceiling on the pay rises they can suggest. Of course the PRB could rebel, but it never has, and is unlikely to ignore the remit from the government as it would likely lead to the government rejecting their recommendations.

The government website explains that the PRB is funded and appointed by the Department of Health and Social security, and works within cabinet office rules. It also publishes a report to explain its recommendations, but its critics point to the fact that this year’s recommendation of a 4.5% pay rise (on average) amounts to a real terms pay cut for NHS staff and that the pay review process has helped to hold down public sector pay over the last decade.

Full article in The Lowdown, 16 December 2022