Nurses To Vote On First National Strike Action Over Withheld Pay

The Royal College of Nursing was last night heading for the first national industrial action in its 91-year history in protest at the government’s decision to hold back part of the pay increase nurses were due this month.

The union’s annual congress, which opens today in Harrogate, will vote tomorrow on an emergency resolution for action to force ministers to pay the full 2.5% recommended by an independent pay review body. Peter Carter, the recently appointed general secretary, said delegates were “angry, despondent and worried”. They did not want to strike, but they could not accept the injustice of the government’s decision.

The independent review body said the nurses should get a below-inflation increase of 2.5%, which they would have grudgingly accepted. But Gordon Brown, the chancellor, said the amount was unaffordable. He overruled warnings from Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, that holding back part of the award would be bad for morale. The nurses got 1.5% this month and will get a further 1% in November. Mr Carter said the postponement saved the government £60m – a tiny slice of the NHS’s £94bn budget this year.

The RCN has been a moderate union since it was founded in 1916 and its constitution prohibited industrial action until a rule change in 1995. Since then it has taken part in local industrial disputes, mainly over working conditions and quality of patient care, but national action over pay would be unprecedented. Senior officials said they expected to ballot its nearly 400,000 members in the summer.

Josie Irwin, head of employment relations, said nurses were “closer than ever before to industrial action”.

A year ago in Bournemouth, Ms Hewitt was barracked by RCN delegates and not allowed to finish her speech. Mr Carter said the union had not attempted to get her back this year. “It was pointless bringing someone from government in because of how badly they have treated nurses and other health workers,” he said.

Mr Carter stood by the results of an RCN survey showing more than 22,300 NHS jobs have been lost in the last 18 months. Tony Blair said on BBC1’s The Politics Show that the union’s claim was greatly exaggerated.