SOMETIMES it’s healthy to be faced with ideas that challenge us, even offend us, so I’ve decided to be offensive. I think the SNP’s 11th-hour pay offer to nurses is politically smart, a stroke of genius, even.
First some background, because there is much more history to this than meets the eye.
Except for doctors, who negotiate separately, most NHS Staff are salaried under a points based payscale called Agenda for Change. It was brought in by Labour to allow for consistency across the board in pay deals. Nursing is a difficult job to do well because health care needs and standards are rising all the time. So too is bureaucracy and the complexity of nursing needs. Nurses today are far more technical than in previous decades and many perform roles once reserved to doctors.
Yet in real terms their pay has fallen since 2010, by and large because in the UK our health care is tax-funded and the economy has not grown enough to make for easy pay awards. By TUC estimates nurses are about £2,500 less well off than in 2010 in real terms because of below-inflation pay awards.
While England has gone for a 1 per cent pay increase this has been met with extreme hostility. The NHS Chief Executive recently admitted a 2.1 per cent increase had been planned for 2021/22, while one backbench Tory MP was quoted as saying 3 per cent would be fair. Scotland until this week had also gone for an interim 1 per cent pay award while negotiations were ongoing, delayed in part like so many things because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nurses both sides of the border have been threatening industrial action with a strike fund of up to £35m raised so far. War is looming and has been for many months if we had only noticed. Again, even Tories have suggested the English award could be best seen as intermediate to bring parties closer and increase goodwill while talks continue.
As with so many things devolved, small differences in the timings of measures can be seen as vastly different political directions between England and Scotland but more often than not one country catches up with the other. So why did the SNP-led government act at the 11th hour to increase pay by 4 per cent?
Largely because it had to. An election has been called and purdah rules come into force. This means while talks would have continued there could have been no update in the pay award for another six weeks at least. As pressure from nurses builds that may not be enough time to stave off industrial action during the election itself – but without a possible resolution.
It has not been one month since Labour and the Tories in Scotland both attacked the SNP for devaluing the nursing profession, with Donald Cameron MSP quoted as saying,
“The SNP must make sure our NHS staff feel valued otherwise they risk committed professionals leaving our health service in droves.”
and Jackie Baillie going perhaps a little further,
“The paltry one per cent interim pay offer is an insult. As well as a possible strike, we risk losing thousands of valued nursing staff without a decent pay rise that reflects their hard work and sacrifice over the last year.
Clearly the SNP was listening to them, so what’s their beef? The exodus of staff to work abroad or in other sectors is age old and in many ways more expensive than a pay rise because it wipes out massive amounts of human capital from the nation’s books and means there is more nuance to pay deals than appreciated. Like running an engine flat out is terrible for fuel economy we end up spending far more simply replacing nurses we lose as a result.
It of no surprise and much headache to see unionists tweeting at a late hour about how a 4 per cent pay deal, after years of below inflation pay rises, is a pre-election bribe. My answer to them is – if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.
Frontline public sector workers are worth a pay rise. England will soon follow unless it wants to repeat the scenes of the Junior Doctor dispute a few years back. The answer to private sector pay cuts is to boost the private sector by ending lockdown and making a Brexit Britain the centre of a new big bang in free trade and innovation. There are a few green shoots already, from new factories opening daily, to freeports in places like Dagenham (but not yet Scotland!) and continued investment in the North East by Nissan.
Some unionists are not thinking like unionists but instead reacting quite lazily to any move the SNP makes. Devolution of spending without the responsibility for economic growth and National Insurance means the Scottish Government will always enjoy the moral hazard of paying the public sector more and helping small businesses is less.
We need to be much better at arguing about the local impacts of cheating business and how in a free market a lack of confidence in Scotland will move many businesses, including web-based businesses south.
Let me give you one small personal example. I love brewing beer. I used to buy everything from a shop in Edinburgh. Some things like grain were not as cheap as buying in bulk online but the service was good, the range of materials wide and there was the convenience of popping-in to buy things on impulse if I found a new recipe.
Lockdown has forced me to buy everything online. I had never done it before but now that I can I have found suppliers in England that can provide me with goods, often cheaper and in some cases better quality, while the delivery charge I loathe paying is the same UK-wide. Locking down local business forces Scots to look further afield and buying habits are hard to change without considerable pressure.
We need to perhaps a little less enthusiastic and more sage about Scottish Government announcements. There are strong arguments to be had about spending priorities, about government failure and the damage to Scotland from wrecking the private sector.
Then again, as a unionist, am I going to choose a 4 per cent pay rise for nurses as my hill to die on?
Are we really going to have the next 6 weeks filled with pro-UK activists seething about a public sector pay deal? I can’t think of anything better for SNP public relations. In reality they had to make a move quickly to stave off serious discontent in the coming months with nurses and having been forced to do this last minute have played a brilliant political move. That is why they are in power and we are not.
If people are most angry about the timing of the policy, well as with all things, time passes. It has been a long time coming and for the most part every other party in Holyrood was pushing for it. Like the nurses, they got what they wanted.
Dr Jonathan Stanley has worked in a variety of frontline NHS positions in the UK since qualifying as a surgeon twelve years ago.